the justice of paying to play

There’s a popular conception of ‘justice’ as meaning ‘people getting what they deserve’.

Political philosophers like to call this idea ‘Justice as desert‘, though I’ve often thought this might be because they like making bad puns about getting the after-dinner sweet you deserve (it’s a badly kept secret that philosophers love puns; the fact that Jacques Derrida based most of his philosophy on puns didn’t make him rare, it was just rare that he didn’t mind admitting it).

Anyway, the thing about justice being the idea that people get what they deserve means a few things: firstly, it means that anyone who argues that income tax should be low on the grounds that people deserve to keep the earnings they worked hard for, while also arguing against high rates of inheritance tax, is an idiot: either the condition of deserving wealth is a person’s own hard work (ie not that of their parents) or it isn’t.

Secondly, and of more relevance to this weblog, it means that there is a remarkable amount of justice in stand-up comedy. You can call it instant karma, you can call it survival of the whatever, but it really does seem that those people who work hard at their act while making the effort to be polite and nice to people are very often rewarded, and those who don’t are, in a sense, punished (for example, I know of one act who has offended so many other acts that his gig request emails now contain a list of people he’d rather not be on a bill with. I don’t personally dislike him but he’s upset so many people that perhaps it’s not entirely by chance that he struggles to get gigs, and then struggles for laughs when he does get booked).

Anyway, I’ve noticed this phenomenon even more recently.

The day of my gig in Eastbourne on Sunday, for example, I really wanted to have a good gig, so I worked really hard on planning my act, I got to the gig early, I did my absolute best to be polite to everybody, and then in the evening I had a really lovely gig (and a pretty good night out afterwards, largely thanks to the excellent company of Bobby Carroll). On the other hand, at last week’s Scurvy Wednesday, I was fucking dire. I mean, really reeeeally bad. I wasn’t prepared properly and then I stupidly picked on a lovely and well-meaning guy in the front row; his girlfriend was offended, I got a garbled apology all wrong, headbutted the microphone and that came up in a massive infected lump which took six days to clear up.

Anyway, you get out what you put in; you get what you deserve.

But then there is the question of where that leaves pay-to-play gigs like the Lion’s Den ‘Comedy Car Crash’. Does paying to go on earn you a better gig? Of course not. But I had a stormer there on Tuesday. Obviously the concept of the night is pure evil, and Andrew O’Neill, (another act who I really admire and whose hard work and professionalism and general loveliness seem to be reaping rewards for him) rightly pointed out to me through facebook that I shouldn’t be doing any gigs like that because promoters should never under any circumstances be charging acts to put on a show for them.

But as I mentioned in my last blog, the Lion’s Den is an anomaly; it’s a great club despite its relentlessly evil business model; its a great place to try out new or risky material because they almost always have a great audience in (often bigger and smarter and more receptive than most of the clubs I’ve done for free/flyered for next to nothing). I can only guess that it’s because Tim and co. are so hardworking and so nice and so respectful of the audience and the acts (with the exception of charging them four quid, obviously) that they get what they deserve.

I think if they genuinely were just being dicks and taking the money off acts because they couldn’t be bothered to promote the night properly then I hope nobody would go and the night would fail. I certainly wouldn’t go. That would be justice.

But Tuesday’s gig was – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – it was worth paying the £4 to do, given that the other options I had for that night would have cost me more than that to get to and would usually (at this time of year) have audiences in single figures, because they can’t afford to properly publicise; and the reason I’m paying £4 at the Lion’s Den (which cost me nothing to get to) is to make sure the night is well publicised…

The question I’m wrestling with is, is it just to do a gig which is unjust in principle, if it’s for people who (with the exception of that one awful principle) deserve to be putting on good nights? Does doing the gig mean I don’t deserve to have a good gig? Agh…

I don’t think paying to play makes you deserve a good gig; that would be nonsense. But maybe having to deal with the problem of justice every time you do it…Ah, I don’t know.

I’ve confused myself altogether, now.

Perhaps that’s what I deserve.

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pushing the boundaries of not funny

The great thing about stuff that isn’t funny is that it can be made funny.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

What this means is that there is never a guarantee that anything a really interesting comedian does is actually going to work. Oh, you can do the kind of dull pullback and reveals that are very likely to get a laugh, the kind of stuff that gets you gigs at Jongleurs or wherever. But that likeliness, that predictability, means they aren’t really very interesting. And anyway, why would you want to do that kind of thing when what’s really happening is that the order of words in a sentence is doing all the funniness for you? Firstly, it means that with the exception of its grammatical structures, your act itself is of no value – a great comedian should be able to say anything and make it funny; and secondly, it’s no fun.

I’ve always thought this, but recently it’s made real practical sense. I’ve been deliberately starting my act with the new ‘sir mix-a-lot’ bit which is basically just some really bad jokes. Not predictable jokes and certainly not reveals; but the kind of silly puns which ought to get no laughs at all. But it’s meant I’ve needed to really sell them, and that has meant that I’ve had to really develop my style in a way that I wouldn’t have had to with more obvious jokes.

I’ll get to the point. Last night I did a gig at the Lion’s Den in King’s Cross. It’s a club for which I have a really profound mixture of love, affection and distain: of course the business model of gong shows and pay-to-play shows is anathema to interesting comedy, but Tim Rendle and the other guys imvolved in it are such wonderfully cool and nice people and have so much enthusiasm for giving really well-promoted stagetime to new acts that it almost doesn’t matter. I really think they are doing more for new comedy there than almost any other club in the country, certainly more than the big clubs.

But last night was weird. It was a typical friday-night-open-spot-show-in-May kind of audience (ie very small and mostly made up of the comics plus the odd friend, and a group of four or five well-meaning but fully-inebriated young women). Nobody was getting gonged off because the audience was so small and intimate that nobody wanted to hold up their cards. But it didn’t really feel like anyone was really killing.

I was due to be on in the second half, and I’d planned to do (I even had written on my hand) the same stuff I’d done at the lovely Northampton gig the night before. But in the second half, some audience members had left and the whole thing took on a feeling of pointlessness. Anyone who wasn’t a comedian was now holding a red card, and they seemed to be getting bored.

I could, I thought, go up and do those jokes I’ve got on my hand. I probably would have beaten the gong quite easily if I did. But what would have been the point? Most of the people still in the room were other comics who are not exactly short of opportunities to see my act anyway…

During the interval Katerina Vrana had joked that instead of doing the show, we just sing a duet. I had laughed. It was a funny joke.

But like I said before, the thing about funny jokes is that it’s possible to take them seriously. So when it was my time to go up, I took her up on her suggestion. I announced to the audience that I wasn’t going to do the stuff I’d planned and was throwing away the script, and the room cheered. They cheered again when I got Katerina up on stage, got her to sing the first few lines of ‘I Got You, Babe’ with me and then left her onstage trying to spontaneously make up blues lyrics while ran over to a piano that was next to the stage and hamfistedly fucked out some blues chords. Katerina (to her infinite credit) ran with my madness. It felt anarchic and exciting, and like nothing else that would be on last night.

As soon as I stopped playing, the gong sounded.

I hadn’t realized it, but at some point the few people who still had cards had got fed up and carded us. Then Rachel Stubbings came on, did a straight set of gags and won the night.

Afterwards, I tried to figure out exactly what happened and why I/we got gonged. Tim Rendle said he loved it but called it “failure by proxy” because I’d left Katerina onstage with no plan.

I asked Tania Edwards, who is really great act, if perhaps it just wasn’t what the remaining audience expected.

“Well,” said Tania, “it wasn’t comedy.”

Still, the point is that it could have been. There really is no way of knowing. To make original comedy, you have to take something that isn’t already funny and make it funny… But you can’t do that without taking a few risks…

homecoming

I just did my first ever gig in Northampton, and it was lovely.

That wouldn’t be at all interesting, of course, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m from there; I was born and grew up in Northampton. And it’s special. Not just special for me – just…special.

Alan Moore, who is also from Northampton (and famously still is), lives round the corner from the venue. He isn’t wrong when he goes on ad nauseum about what a remarkable place it is. It is remarkable, largely because of its unremarkability (it’s an average sized settlement of averagely mixed social class, slap-bang in the middle of an average bit of England; it really has almost nothing special about it apart from its resolute refusal to have anything special about it). But…also because there’s something about the air there. It smells sweet and frustrating and parochial and kind and arrogant and foolish, and that kind of air is creative rocket-fuel for me.

The gig itself, as one of the other acts pointed out, seemed to have everything possible wrong with it; free entry, in the main room of a pub, in a fairly insalubrious part of a provincial town, with the ‘stage’ right by the main entrance, an inexperienced compere (who, while potentially a great act, just didn’t have the stagetime behind him to do the almost impossible job of warming up a room), no name acts and a generally non-comedy-literate crowd. But it was genuinely great.

Unlike a lot of London gigs I’ve done recently, loads of people turned up (including some of my best ever friends who still live in town), the room was packed, and there was so much goodwill in the room that by the time I got onstage, the audience had figured out exactly when and how they were meant to respond to show their approval. And they did. The act on before me had just done straight gags and they’d loved it, so I did a fairly gag-heavy set based around my new ‘sir mix-a-lot’ bit, which plays with the conventions of joke form (albeit in a fairly tame way) and they seemed to really enjoy it.

In the gents afterwards, a man with classically bad Northamptonian hair said to me, ‘I liked your stuff – it was really…alternative’. When I explained that that term was often used as a veiled way of saying ‘not funny or good in any way’, he assured me that he really had meant it in a good way.

And for once, I actually believed him.