Lounge debrief #3: In Tents Comedy

Stand-up comedy tends to work best when people have paid to watch it. If you run a comedy night in a pub and let people come in for free, people don’t come especially to see it, they just wander in randomly. Rather than entertainment, the stand-up becomes little more than an unwelcome interruption to a quiet night out. If people don’t want to laugh they won’t laugh, even if the comedians are really good.

This makes stand-up at festivals a potential problem. The people who wander into the tent where it’s taking place are just generalised fun-seekers rather than punters who are actively seeking a good laugh. The comedy I programmed at the Playhouse at Lounge on the Farm last Friday night was exactly like that. People wandered in and out throughout the three hours of the show, and they were as likely to lie flat out on the rugs strewn over the grass as sit on the bales of hay provided for seating.

In this atmosphere, it’s near-impossible to establish the essential call-and-response rhythm of joke-laughter which stand-up relies on. The comedians are all ex-students from the stand-up course I teach as part of the drama degree at the University of Kent, and although they’ve all got at least twenty shows under their belts, I’m worried that they might not be able to adapt to this strangely spaced-out audience.

In fact, the show is fine. The audience response is ragged but respectable – a few solid but diffuse laughs followed by a quite patch, an isolated laugh from a punter at the back followed by a big laugh with spontaneous applause. Outrageous gags go down well, an obvious example being Carys Williams’ ukulele song about kinky sex. Jokes about the immediate circumstances are also enjoyed, but ask them too many questions and they get tired.

Perhaps my favourite moment is when Liz Page is about to launch into a routine about fellatio, and suddenly notices an angelic child with a mop of blond hair, hugging a red balloon, and staring earnestly up at her. Playing the dilemma brilliantly, Liz points the child out, wonders whether she’ll leave it with permanent emotional scars, then performs the routine by conjuring up appropriate euphemisms. Because we can see the fix she’s got herself into, we share her comic agony, and enjoy the way she wheedles her way out of the situation.

To be fair, the audience’s reaction comes and goes throughout the evening, but that’s no reflection on the comedians’ talent. The very good professional comedians who play the Playhouse the following night and Sunday afternoon get much the same kind of reaction.

The only exception is the excellent impro comedy show hosted by Phill Jupitus on the Sunday. The tent is simply packed, and there’s a big crowd watching from outside. The difference is that these people have definitely chosen to be here, drawn by Jupitus’s TV fame. Having said that, reputation might have brought them here, but it’s sheer talent that keeps them. Onstage, Jupitus is cheerfully aggressive, ridiculing someone’s hat here and telling someone to fuck off there, yet somehow still coming over as a big softie.

The improvisation is standard fare, but expertly performed – not just by Jupitus, but also by the excellent comics who join him onstage. Richard Vranch proves as able off the keyboard as on, Andy Smart exudes blokey charm even when taking on female roles, and Steve Steen has a rare comic delicacy which defies his short, round frame. While this show is on, the tent is longer holding a weird festival audience – it’s transformed into a genuine comedy gig.

Lounge debrief #2: Television Personalities in the Cowshed

One of the more intriguing acts to appear at this year’s Lounge on the Farm was the Television Personalities. Led by sole surviving original member Dan Treacy, the nearest the Television Personalities got to fame was the 1978 song ‘Part Time Punks’, which gently poked fun at the suburban and provincial punks who walked down the King’s Road where they ‘try and look trendy’ but ‘all look the same’. The part time punks are funny because they get being cool wrong.

They go to Rough Trade because ‘They wanna buy the O-Level single/ or “Read About Seymour”’, but end up buying a Lurkers record instead because it’s pressed in red vinyl. To translate, the O-Level were an obscure independent label punk band (which, amusingly enough, also featured Dan Treacy) and ‘Read About Seymour’ was a single by the then super-cool art-punk heroes Swell Maps – both of which were far cooler and more exclusive than the gumbie-punk band The Lurkers, who were kind of what The Ramones might have been like had they come from, er, Uxbridge.

32 years later, the Television Personalities are playing the Cowshed, the biggest stage at Lounge on the Farm, in an unpopular afternoon slot. The name of the stage is quite literal – it’s called ‘the Cowshed’ because it’s in a cavernous cowshed, which could comfortably fit two or three thousand people in to the see the band. Sadly, no more than about thirty have turned up to see Dan Treacy’s crew, including me, my wife, and my two sons. There’s a thin crust of us lining up along the barrier at the front of the stage, most of us with fond memories of ‘Part Time Punks’, and a few random punters who hang back from the stage, watching the band out of idle curiosity.

My wife Jacqui leaves after a few numbers, later describing it as ‘a bit of a car crash’, and takes our younger son, Tom, with her to find more suitable entertainment elsewhere. I stay to watch with our older one, Joe, who’s 13. I suspect he’s held more by loyalty to me than by the music.

At least one of the two guitars has at least one string out of tune, but that’s the least of the problems. Treacy looks simply bewildered on stage, confused but amused at being there. Wearing a faded shirt and a beanie hat, he gives the impression that he’s been living rough for the last decade or so, although the current bands he references in his between-songs banter suggests he’s at least been in a homeless shelter with internet access. It’s not so much that his voice is out of tune, it’s more that it’s not aware that there was a tune there in the first place. In their one almost-famous song, ‘Part Time Punks’, he forgets the words in the third verse and repeats some lines from an earlier one.

But there’s something curiously moving about hearing him sing a song based on an idea of cool that dates from a period of maybe two weeks in 1978. And there’s something curiously entertaining about Treacy’s bewilderment. He just seems to say whatever comes into his head. He notices one of the mechanised moving spotlights on the stage. ‘What’s that?’ he asks, grinning. ‘It looks like a monkey!’ Later, he goes up to it and holds the microphone up to it, as if expecting it to sing.

On closer inspection, the other three musicians in the band are extremely good, constantly watching him and timing what they do to accommodate his spontaneity and eccentricity. Treacy’s definitely singing to the desultory crowd semi-gathered in front of him. It’s unnerving when he catches your eye, because you can see he’s really looking at you with his hooded eyes, taking you in, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s real contempt that he’s radiating with his stare. Like Billy Childish, he seems entirely unselfconscious about the experience of being on stage under the gaze of a bunch of strangers.

Jacqui’s right about it being a car crash, but I’d modify her assessment and say it’s an entertaining car crash. At one point, Treacy breaks his plectrum, and throws it out for a lucky punter to keep as a memento. Fittingly, it falls short of the, for want of a better word, crowd, and lands behind the barrier. I wonder whether it’s just my prior knowledge of the band that’s making this entertaining, but at the end, Joe asks me to get the one bouncer assigned to the gig to retrieve the plectrum for his collection of special things, and when we get back from the festival he gets me to load ‘Part Time Punks’ onto his iPod.

Lounge debrief #1: Normal Service Will Be Resumed

I spent last weekend at Lounge on the Farm, a local festival that’s got bigger in each of the four years I’ve been to it. What I like about going to a festival is that it’s like a kind of alternative reality where everything is done for pure pleasure. Cynics might say that profit plays a role, but although some people undoubtedly make a tidy sum out of it – or given that it’s a festival maybe that should be ‘an extremely untidy, unshaven, smelly sum’ – they’ll only make profit if what they provide is enjoyable.

Thus, you walk about surrounded by happy people, some of them off their faces, while music drifts at you from here, there and everywhere – ska, blues, hillbilly, indie, jazz, prog rock, Motown, dance, reggae, folk, punk, whatever. At Lounge, they make a thing of the food on sale being locally sourced (although this year the presence of Pizza Express was a symptom of just how big this festival is getting). So the hungry festival-goer could enjoy anything from two different brands of locally-made ice cream to an organic falafel wrap, or for the meatily-inclined, a burger made from a cow that lived on the farm where the festival takes place.

Because everybody’s having fun, there’s no violence. There’s certainly some of the idiocy that comes with drunkenness – some sozzled fools broke our plastic picnic table by jumping on it while staggering back to their tent – but I’ve never seen anybody actually get hit. In spite of the fact that some of the punters are staggering drunk by early afternoon, with pickled eyes and bare torsos so sunburnt that they’ll have lost several layers of skin by nightfall, I’ve never even heard anybody issue so much as a threat.

Being a festival, the freaks dominate. Sights which would make you turn your head in the everyday world get no more than a passing glance. Hey, there’s someone dressed as a cow! Hey, there’s a guy with devil-eye contact lenses! Hey, there are eight 20-year-old girls with sombreros and Mexican bandit moustaches carrying inflatable flamingos! Meh.

In fact, as I have no piercings or tattoos, I felt like a bit of an outsider. Like Judge Dredd’s informer, Max Normal, being the one ordinary one in a world of freaks makes you the biggest freak of them all.

Not like that!

I’ve just read a very good book called On Humour by Simon Critchley. It came out in 2002, and it’s been reprinted numerous times, so it doesn’t need any help from me. It’s an erudite account of the philosophical questions raised by humour, and if that sounds a bit dull, it isn’t. It’s engagingly written and even witty in places.

But the book does have a problem which lurks under the facade of erudition and wit – it has much more to say about theories of humour than about humour itself. Perhaps that’s forgivable given that it’s a philosophy book, but as Critchley himself argues, ‘Any study of humour…requires fieldwork and detailed contextualization. Finally, it is only as good as its examples.’[i]

So what examples does Critchley draw on?

The truth is they’re all rather highbrow. The comic literature of the past gets a fair amount of attention, with Sterne and Swift getting a fair few mentions. As for more recent examples, he seems to be a big fan of that well-known contemporary comic novelist, er, Will Self. To be fair, I’ve only read one of Self’s novels, but although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I don’t remember laughing much. I reckon if you asked pretty much anyone for their top ten examples of contemporary laughtermakers, they’d be pretty unlikely to mention Will Self, except at a stretch possibly in the context of his former role as a panellist on Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars.

I might also add that the examples – which the study is only as good as after all – seem to be outnumbered by the references to theory. Hobbes, Freud, and Mary Douglas are much bigger characters than Sterne, Swift or, er, Will Self.

What slightly annoys me is that the theory and the highbrow sources get treated with respect, whereas the few examples of popular comedy are treated fairly shoddily. On p.21, for example, Critchley cites seven gags. Whereas Freud’s and Sterne’s work are worthy of a proper citation, with full publication details being given in an endnote, here the only information we’re given is that the gags are ‘From various Marx Brothers’ scripts, Peter Chelsom’s wonderful 1994 film Funny Bones, and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (Faber, London, 1958).’

So apparently, Beckett’s worthy of full publication details (although oddly, not a page reference), Chelsom’s film at least gets named, but the poor old Marx Brothers aren’t worth bothering with – in spite of being some of the few professional comedians mentioned in the book. Tommy Cooper fares worse than this later in the book, where a gag of his described as ‘great’ is quoted without so much as an endnote.

I don’t want to single Simon Critchley out for particular criticism here, because it seems to me that these choices are fairly typical in an academic context. Theory and accepted canonical works are treated with respect, but popular culture is treated casually or often simply ignored. I have found that criticism of my own work is often along the lines of, ‘This is all very well, but how can you possibly write about this without mentioning Barthes/ Schechner/ semiotics/ whoever/ whatever?’

It’s as if the theory – which only exists to help us understand things – is more important than the subject it’s applied to. Of course, the opposite will almost always be true. Shakespeare will always be more significant and brilliant than Shakespearean scholars. By the same token, I’m quite proud of the books and papers I’ve written about comic performance, but I won’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re more important than the performers whose work I analyse. I’ll never be more significant and brilliant than Richard Pryor, Ross Noble, or Gracie Fields.

If you pay close attention to the examples you’re looking at, you’d be surprised what comes out. For example, one of the jokes cited on p.19 goes like this:

‘Have you lived in Blackpool all your life?’, ‘Not yet.’

It’s a great gag, and my guess is that it’s the one he took from Funny Bones. However, it’s actually a much older gag than that. It often cropped up in the variety theatres of the early 20th Century, in sketches and routines by the likes of Albert Burdon, Collinson and Dean, and Sandy Powell.[ii]

You’ll notice that these three comedy acts are given a proper endnote, giving full publication details.


[i] Simon Critchley, On Humour, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002, p.66

[ii] See sketches and routines cited in Roger Wilmut, Kindly Leave the Stage! The Story of Variety 1919-1960, London: Methuen, 1985, p.41 (Albert Burdon), p.56 (Collinson and Dean), and p.103 (Sandy Powell)

Laughing at Lembit

So who’d have guessed that an ex Lib Dem MP who writes a column for the Daily Sport and once dated a Cheeky Girl would decide to become a comedian?

Having lost his seat in the recent general election, Lembit Opik, the former Member for Montgomeryshire, made his stand-up debut earlier this week at London’s Backstage Comedy Club. According to reports, his performance was underwhelming, which is perhaps unsurprising. It’s rare for a first open spot to hit the comedy stratosphere, and it’s mildly unfair to have to lose your comic virginity in the glare of the media spotlight. On the other hand, only someone with a pre-existing media rep could secure an open spot at such an established club at such short notice if they had no previous experience – so it swings both ways.

Lembit’s not the first to try and carve a career as a comedian having acquired fame – or infamy – through some other reason. In the early 1990s, for example, John Wayne Bobbit famously had the end of his penis cut off by his wife, and was well known enough to secure a few bookings as a stand-up (as well as pursuing an equally unlikely career in porn).

But the tradition is much older than that. In the late 19th century, Arthur Orton became infamous as ‘the Tichbourne Claimant’, after he had fraudulently claimed to be the long lost heir to a fortune – in spite of bearing no real physical resemblance to the actual heir, Sir Roger Tichbourne, who had been lost a sea some years earlier. Having been released on bail, Orton started making personal appearances in music halls, apparently without much success. In spite of that, he was so well known that he indirectly provided one of the great music hall comedians with his stage name. Kent’s own Harry Relph was only 4’6” tall, and early in his career he thought it would be funny to name himself after the physically huge Arthur Orton. He started calling himself Little Tich, and became internationally famous. So much so, that he gave the world the word ‘titch’, meaning a small person – ironic given Orton’s legendary girth.

So if Lembit sticks with the stand-up, how far is he likely to get? In his favour, he’s always come across rather well on Have I Got News For You, with a nice line in self-deprecating gags. He’s an eccentric, which is normally a good quality for a comedian. Also, political oratory has much in common with stand-up. In both, a single performer directly addresses an audience in the first person (without the mask of character), potentially has to deal with heckles, and seeks to provoke a particular effect. As Max Atkinson pointed out in his magnificent book Our Masters’ Voices, political speeches have little devices (known as ‘claptraps’) built in to elicit applause, the most obvious being a three-part list. Think  ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ or ‘Education, education, education’.  Many jokes work on a similar principle, being structured into a list of three, which Tony Allen has defined as ‘Establish, reinforce, surprise’. Here, the third item of the list cues laughter instead of applause – if you do it right.

Successful comedians project an aspect of their personality when they perform, and it’s the interrelationship of stage persona, audience and material which makes the act work. It can take years to create a stage persona – or to ‘find your voice’ as most comedians would put it – but Lembit’s got a readymade persona. He’s the nutty, Cheeky-Girl-dating ex-MP with the crazy name.

On the tiny snippet of his act that I heard on the Today programme, he didn’t sound nearly as assured as he does on Newsnight or Have I Got News For You. He lacked the quality of ease – or ‘stage repose’, to use the old-fashioned term – which is so charming to watch. What this reveals is how bloody difficult stand-up comedy is. It all looks natural and spontaneous, but there’s a huge amount of skill, artifice and experience that goes into making it look so effortless.

Still, if Lembit sticks with it, he could get to the point where he comes across as his usual affable self whilst in the high pressure situation of a comedy gig. The problem is, what’s he going to talk about when people have got fed up of hearing about being a Lib Dem MP and dating a Cheeky Girl? Do we really want to hear Lembit Opik’s opinion on cats and dogs or the differences between men and women? Perhaps more importantly, will audiences ever let him talk about anything other than being a Lib Dem MP and dating a Cheeky Girl? I can’t imagine audiences would have wanted to hear John Wayne Bobbit talk about anything other than having the tip of his manhood severed by his wife and thrown out of the window of her car (although the are questions they could have asked him, like, ‘Did you really abuse your wife to the point where she would do something like that?’).

There’s a comedy album by Robin Williams, released in the late 1970s, in which somebody heckles him: ‘Do Mork!’ The rest of the audience join in, and he’s left saying something along the lines of, ‘No, I don’t want to do that here’ in a horribly plaintive voice. The fame built by starring in Mork and Mindy must have boosted his stand-up career, but the price he paid was to have idiots shouting that at him.

To his credit, Lembit went beyond the funny name/ ex-MP/ Cheeky Girl dating angles in his first gig. He also did a cod ventriloquism act with someone’s shoe. Maybe that’s the stuff to build a comedy career on and maybe not, but there can’t be too many ex-politicians who have made it to the top as a stand-up.

I certainly can’t imagine him touring thousand-seater venues, putting out a best-selling DVD every Christmas, or even appearing on Live at the Apollo.

The Food Machine

Since April, the Matt Smith incarnation of the Doctor has been enjoying the benefits of a new Tardis. It’s not a new vehicle as such, more of a reconditioned one. His ride has been pimped.

However, since the very beginning it’s always been a rather pimptastic craft. When Xzibit and his streetwise crew of funky mechanics get down to a serious bit of ride-pimping in their MTV show, they often fit a fridge into the clapped out old banger that they’re doing up, in which the owner can put cans of beer or tubs of ice cream or, er, whole sides of beef.

Back in the William Hartnell days, the Tardis went one better than this – it contained a food machine. In one of the first episodes, dating right back to 1963, the Tardis crew are hungry, and one of them says they fancy bacon and eggs. We see the Doctor fiddling with some slightly improbable dials on a big metal thing, and out comes what looks like a chocolate Club biscuit. His earthly companions, Barbara and Ian, have a taste and – would you believe it? – it tastes just like bacon and eggs. In fact, one of them says that it’s as if one mouthful is bacon and the next is egg. The obvious comparison is the chewing gum meal in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but luckily in this case nobody ends up turning into a giant blueberry.

What’s interesting to me is that this relates to a popular idea in twentieth century science fiction – the idea that one day we’ll be able to dispense with all that food nonsense, and instead take our meals in the form of a convenient pill. In some cases, the idea of synthetic food is shown as being something scary. In the dystopian future of Soylent Green, for example, only the super rich can afford to eat actual food, whereas the rest of us have to eat weird little nutrient biscuit things made out of something unpleasant (which I won’t reveal here in case I spoil the ending). In many cases though, synthetic food is shown as something to look forward to. Ian and Barbara certainly seem to find their egg-and-bacon Club biscuit pretty yummy.

This made me start to think about what food was like when I was growing up in the 1970s. Current ideas about food being fresh, organic and natural were nowhere to be seen. The more unnatural the better. This was an age where powdered fruit juice, called Rise and Shine, was made out to be a convenient luxury, and where metallic aliens laughed at any sucker who bothered to peel and cut up actual potatoes when they wanted to make mash. Why bother, when you can pour a kettleful of boiling water on some beige granules and get a dish of vaguely potato-tasting crap in around ten seconds? Real ale was the preserve of bearded, folk-singing nutcases. Adverts showed us what modern, futuristic beer looked like: sterile lager, in a gleaming steel can, encased in a block of ice. Vimto, Tizer and Irn Bru – a soft drink that actually purported to be made out of metal – were far preferable to anything that actually tasted like fruit. Instant soup came in little cubes that you added to water and brought to the boil. It was advertised as ‘square shaped soup’ because, supposedly, it made a square meal. Then there was Angel Delight, a strange pudding made of milk and coloured powder, which wasn’t truly delightful and didn’t actually contain angels. The ads showed it served up in a kind of fat wine glass, which had to be moored with a piece of string to stop it floating away, so light and fluffy was the pudding it contained. I always used the think to myself that if Angel Delight really was lighter than air, surely it would squelch out of the chubby wine glass and float away in an unappetising gobbet, possibly ending up on the windscreen of a passenger jet and causing a terrible crash.

The excesses of the 1970s have largely disappeared, but some fake food still survives, and there’s a popular markets for things like Jammy Dodgers, Golden Nuggets and Pot Noodle. The hard truth is that the food industry will always want to make products like this, because they’ll always be more profitable than, say, an apple. The more ‘added value’ there is in a foodstuff (i.e. the more that’s been done to it), the more profit there is in it. There’s practically no added value in an apple, whereas there’s an absolute ton in, say, Dairylea Lunchables. Of course, the supermarkets try to get added value into apples by slicing them up and putting them in a plastic bag to go in our kids’ lunch boxes, but there’s not a lot more added value potential than that. That’s why there’ll always be more adverts on TV for processed crap than for fruit.

The problem is that the food industry’s interests are pretty much the exact opposite of ours. Generally speaking, the less that’s been done to a foodstuff, the greater its nutritional value. The healthiest way to eat an apple is straight from the tree. Even cutting it up and putting it in a plastic bag will deplete the vitamins and minerals it contains. Besides which, simple fresh food is usually delicious. A really fresh, tangy Cox’s Orange Pippin will always be nicer to eat than an apple-flavoured chew.

All of this means that the idea of aspiring to replace food with pills is appalling. It’s anti-life and it’s anti-pleasure. The Doctor should get rid of his food machine and replace it with a highly skilled robot chef that can makes actual meals from fresh ingredients.

Nostalgia for an age yet to come

While enjoying the whizzy new Matt Smith led series of Dr Who with the kids, I’ve also been watching some very old William Hartnell episodes that I got in a box set for my birthday.  The footage, dating back to 1963, looks as alien to me in 2010 as the Daleks must have looked to the Doctor’s earthly companions.  It’s black and white of course (colour not being adopted until the Jon Pertwee era), and with the kind of graininess that makes you think they must have carved every frame out of wood.

I’ve heard it said that early Dr Who footage looks as old as a Chaplin film. With magnificent pretentiousness, I’m going to admit that it reminds me of footage of the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, films of which I saw as an undergraduate. Scoff if you will – I would, if someone else said the same – but they’re both grainy, black and white, and teetering between being spooky and plain ridiculous. And if that isn’t enough, Carole Ann Ford (who plays the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan) bears a striking resemblance to Grotowski’s lead actress, Rena Mirecka. Check out the photos below.


The pace of Harnell-era Who is positively leisurely. Episodes dawdle along like a tortoise laden down with heavy luggage. The Matt Smith Who would fit the events of a William Hartnell episode into the pre-title sequence. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to like.

For one thing, Hartnell’s Doctor is a really interesting character. The modern Doc strives with every fibre of his being to protect not just the whole of humanity but also all those who are inhuman. Hartnell’s Doc gambles (for the Tardis in a game of backgammon) and smokes a pipe (thus being enlisted by cavemen to show them the secret of fire). He’s even a tiny bit evil. At one point, he contemplates sticking a sharp flint into a caveman’s skull. On another occasion, he endangers his companions’ lives by pretending he needs some mercury for a broken fluid link, and later plans on leaving them behind to die of radiation sickness. What an excellent role model for the kids of the early 1960s!

Something else I like about Harnell-era Who is that it’s beautifully composed. The stark contrasts in the black and white tones are bold and exciting – far less bland than the dull washes of the early colour years. The designs of the costumes and sets feel utterly classic. I challenge you to look at shots of the original Tardis interior and not to want to go in and have a nose around. There’s a stylishness about British television set design in the black and white era that’s rarely achieved today.

In the early 1960s, British TV drama was produced more like theatre than film, but the composition of shots and edits is simple and elegant. The episode title is often overlaid on a still image, perhaps a character staring at something, but it’s not a still as such – the actor is actively staring, and you can see them breathing. There’s something oddly enjoyable about that.

Then there’s the music. The sounds produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are extraordinary, and really manage to put the appropriate eeriness in there. It’s extraordinary to think that people like Delia Derbyshire were making sounds which two decades later would send bands like the Human League into the charts, given that she was doing this before the synthesizer was commercially available – and certainly unavailable to her. The original version of the Dr Who theme was made with improbably-named gadgets like wave modulators and far from being played on a keyboard, it was assembled, note by note, on reel-to-reel tape.

To sum it up, there’s something tremendously appealing about seeing what the future looked like to those who lived in the past.

Bad, bad science

I half heard a report on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, in which some goofy scientist claimed to have demonstrated that there’s no such thing as altruism in human beings. What we interpret as altruism, this erudite chap argued, is actually mistaken selfishness. Unfortunately I didn’t hear how he’d proved this in his lab test, as I had to unselfishly go and do something for my younger son, who’s currently suffering from a stomach bug. Oh, the irony!

After the report, I was left hoping that this so-called experiment will be debunked by Ben Goldacre in his excellent ‘Bad Science’ column in The Guardian.

Why did it annoy me so much? Well, for starters, the basic premise of the research is about on the level of that perennial favourite of 6th form philosophy debates. You know the sort of thing – ‘There’s no such thing as an unselfish act’ ‘What about charity donations?’ ‘That’s still selfish, because you give in order to make yourself feel better’ etc., etc.

Secondly, true altruism demonstrably exists in the real world. People dedicate their lives to finding cures for diseases, freeing political prisoners or eliminating Third World poverty. Before anyone tries to wheel out the you-give-in-order-to-make-yourself-feel-better argument, the real acid test of altruism is a situation in which somebody gives up their life for what they perceive to be the greater good.  How can you selfishly die for a cause?

It seems to me that the problem of trying to test altruism in a laboratory setting is: how can you reproduce the circumstances in which people behave altruistically? You can’t exactly create a mini Chernobyl to melt down in your lab, to see whether firemen will tunnel underneath to stop the contamination getting into the water table even though they know that the radiation will certainly give them cancer. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d say that accusing the real life Russian firemen who did that of mistaken selfishness is bloody insulting.

The fact is that while science is brilliant for certain kinds of enquiries, it’s a bit inadequate for others. I learned this when I was doing my PhD on stand-up comedy, and I read a ton of experimental psychology papers, in which they’d tried to examine the phenomenon of joking by doing lab tests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tended to find that if you take people into a cold, sterile lab, inject them with substances, wire them up to electrodes to test their galvanic skin responses, and show them bits of old Laurel & Hardy movies that you’ve hamfistedly edited together yourself, they don’t laugh much. You don’t say?

The problem is that scientific testing means eliminating extraneous variables. The problem is that in something as complex as humour, who’s to say what’s extraneous and what’s not? When I worked as a stand-up comedian, I found that anything from the time the show started to the layout of the room to the amount of alcohol the audience had consumed all made a fundamental difference to how easy it was to get a laugh. And strangely enough, I never thought of a psychology lab as being a particularly conducive place for setting up a comedy club.

The point of the arts is to go into the areas that science struggles with. If you’re wanting to understand the soul of humanity, you’re better off asking an artist than a scientist. Or you could even try a comedian.