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The Art of Laughter with Jos Houben

On October 31st 2007 Jos Houben, acclaimed actor and founder member of theatre company Complicite, presented his one-man masterclass on "The Art of Laughter" for the CAPITAL Centre. Having already been performed in Edinburgh to rave reviews, this proved to be one of CAPITAL's biggest ever events, with the Studio so full that many unfortunates had to be turned away.

Adam Alston, a student present at the Masterclass, describes it thus.

It’s difficult to put your finger on precisely what format this wonderful event adopted. I’d venture to propose it was a lecture on the art of slapstick comedy with live performance to inform the content. ‘Inform’ perhaps conjures the wrong essence of the piece: it sounds too constricting or bland. This was anything but. Entertaining, amusing, enlightening and great fun would be terms far more apt.

Houben began by analysing, in detail, the human body and its idiosyncrasies. Something common to every performer, spectator and human being is the body: it’s a universal trait. Houben studies how minor adjustments to its structure can produce comic results. An example is the way that the body automatically adjusts to a movement by providing a counter movement to maintain balance. But what happens if the counter movement is eliminated? We fall. And the spectator falls with you. The result: comedy.

Houben trained at the renowned Jacques Le Coq in Paris and now teaches there. He’s emerged from a tradition of clowning and his comedy is very much the result of that training. For me, the most entertaining and rewarding part of the piece was his study of the comic trip and the effect that timing alterations can have on the humour. There are three possibilities: 1) Immediate. Very much a slapstick reaction reminiscent of the silent film clowns. 2) Normal speed: Still an effective tool as the audience can relate to the reaction. We laugh at him because we’ve all been there. 3) Delayed: After the trip a long pause ensues before slowly turning back to look at where the trip occurred. The laughter builds because we know what’s coming. Tension is founded and the laughter is free to build until its finally satisfied.

The audience emerged from the studio with the feeling of having learnt something. But unlike a lecture this learning curve was not forced. We were entertained, we laughed and we learnt.

Houben seeks to unveil precisely what it is that makes us laugh and why. He searches for the mechanics of laughter. And unlike the magician, Jos is willing to share his results.