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.

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.

Respect!


[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.

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.