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…

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