sneaking into their world

I’ve found myself in a few situations in the last week or two that I’ve somehow felt that a teacher’s kid from Northampton shouldn’t really be.

I suppose it started last Wednesday, when I went to Parliament. Yes, Parliament. It’s an odd place, the palace of Westminster: normally so closed off to the likes of me, despite its ostensible purpose to represent and include me in politics. Every time I’ve been there I can’t help but feel I’m intruding somehow, like I’ve scammed my way in.

I’d been invited by the Teacher Support Network, who were having a reception there which had been sponsored by Barry Sheerman MP (the Ofsted-baiting chair of the Children, Schools and Families select committee). I’m not entirely sure what capacity I was there in – there were hardly any other teachers around, and my official school responsibility for Student Voice was rescinded this year – but once I was through security it didn’t really seem to matter. They just kept topping up my wine glass, and I got on pretty well with the staff of TSN who were lovely and brilliant and invited me to the pub afterwards and everything.

There were only two disheartening things about it: the first was the painfully cheesy responses that people had put up on a board in response to the question, ‘What Makes Teachers Great?’ 

It was all ‘because they shape the future’ and ‘they enlighten the next generation’ etc. – basically the kinds of things that are said by people who don’t really know what it is teachers actually do. (If they’d had some comments from real teachers on the board, they’d say things like ‘we keep turning up every day and somehow don’t kill anyone’; or ‘we’ve lucked our way into a job that lets us actually see our friends/kids sometimes…’)

The second disheartening thing was meeting Sheerman himself – he’s been a bit of a hero of mine, especially with his recent positions on Ofsted’s role in various things, and he gave a very passionate speech about how wonderful teachers are. But then he didn’t seem at all interested in talking to me – an actual teacher – when I tried to chat to him afterwards. The only glimmer of interest he showed was trying to get me to sort him out and invite to the school, which seemed blatantly to be so that he could get some photo taken with some kids. Politicians are dicks

It’s his loss; he had, in his speech, opened with a joke about a news story about himself that hardly anybody there would have seen. It bombed. If he’d asked me first, I could have given him a few tips on how to pick your topical gags for the right audiences. As it is, perhaps he’ll never quite know why the rest of his speech didn’t get the response he wanted…

After that, I had to go and do my own jokes at Scurvy Wednesdays. Well…I did two jokes and some drunken rambling, because after the wine reception and the pub afterwards, I was a bit drunk.

The oddest thing about it is that my Dad was there, with my stepmum and my sister and her husband, and that was about half the audience. And I think I may have done some stuff about Oedepus, but for obvious reasons I don’t remember it so well.

I shouldn’t be allowed to drink wine. 

And then, of course, a few days later I was drinking wine again, except at Oxford University. My friend Steve had invited me up for a Friday evening college dinner. He’s a lecturer there now, which meant we were sat at the top table of a great old hall with lots of esteemed academics all wearing gowns and being incredibly formal and old-fashioned and, well, Hogwarts-y. We ate something which was delicious and may have been duck, but it was kind of dark so it was hard to tell. But they did keep bringing me wine.

But then I found myself talking to other people around the table, including some Professor of Maths or other, who was very polite and pleasant and asked what I do, so I said, “In the daytime I work part-time as a sixth-form Philosophy teacher…”

But then I paused. It all seemed too formal for me to say I was a comedian in the evenings: comedy seemed frivolous in comparison with their very serious academic vocations. So I just said, “…and at night I do – other stuff.”

At which point Steve pointed out that I should just be honest because what I’d said sounded more sordid than what I really do, at which point the comedy bit of my brain just snapped into gear like a reflex and I said, quite loudly, “how sordid could it really be though? It’s not like I’m going to say, ‘Hello! I’m Charlie and in the evenings I let wealthy men fuck me in the ass!'”

And then there was a pause and Steve was glaring at me as if to say, sssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! And I suddenly snapped back into remembering where I was. And we both sat there for a few minutes wondering how many people had heard me. And not long after that, the provost at the head of the table stood, which meant that everyone else stood, and we filed out of the great hall, gowns billowing, and me with a very red face.

Honestly, sometimes I think I shouldn’t be allowed out, let alone into respectable society.


off the telly

Catherine Tate sat next to me on the Victoria Line last night.

I didn’t realise it was her at first; I was just on my way to a gig, looking through my material, and I noticed that the person who had just sat next to me was also reading through a script-like document – except hers was called ‘CATHERINE TATE SHOW CHRISTMAS SPECIAL 2009’. I wondered how she had got hold of that, looked up at the face very briefly (as you do on the underground) and realised it was her.

For about three stops I sat there wondering if I should say hello. Then I didn’t. It was partly because I was too shy, and partly because even in a best-case scenario I would have had to admit sooner or later that I have only seen her show once or twice and it never actually made me laugh.

Either way she made me nervous, even though as a comic I probably had more in common with her than with about 99.9% of the other people on the underground.

So I put my own script away – in case she saw it – and read her script over her shoulder instead. (So if anyone who reads this knows her, please tell her the ‘Nan’ sketch in that script needs a LOT more swearing, Christmas Special or no Christmas Special.)

It’s a funny thing, contact with “famous” people. When I got to the gig (The Clinic in Hammersmith, which is a truly beautiful new material night) the other acts on the bill included Eric Lampaert, Rufus Hound and Henry Paker. Rufus and Eric have both done relatively prominent things on television (Eric has been in a commercial I think and Rufus is a panel show regular), but Henry was headlining. This seemed entirely proper to me because I don’t have a television license but I do think Henry is brilliant.

But I couldn’t help noticing that there was a different atmosphere around the night’s ‘TV personalities’; Eric and Rufus themselves, of course, were both lovely (and more importantly were both very, very funny); but when Eric came onstage someone shouted something like ‘he’s off the telly’, and during the interval some Australians who’d recognised him were came and talked to him. It was slightly odd because I don’t have a television licence and have never seen the advert that he’s in, so for me he’s just a really nice chap with some ace new material. Who members of the public seemed inexplicably keen to get their pictures taken with.

But I’ve seen Argumental (admittedly only once when I was at Loz’s house, but hey) and I couldn’t help but feel just a little TV-star-struck around Rufus. Every time I meet someone I’ve seen on television I always hate myself for feeling like that, and pretend that it’s not a thing. I told myself was because I’d like to book him for Scurvy Wednesdays but which, deep down, I know is probably just because talking to famous people is cool. Even Henry was keen to talk to Rufus and he was the fucking headline act.

All this is, of course, because of jealousy. I want people to want their pictures taken with me. I mean, I wouldn’t do an advert but I want the attention. The money would be nice, too.

And what I completely forgot is that Joel Dommett, who was compering (and who managed the night beautifully), is also on TV quite regularly but I never feel uncomfortable around him, partly because he’s just so charming but also because I’ve never actually seen him on there.

My welsh friends tell me that in Wales, the combination of S4C and the incredibly tiny population means that pretty much everybody you meet has been on television at some point. You’d have thought that doing stand-up, and the frequency with which it brings you into contact with TV folk, would be a bit like being Welsh: you’d be immunised against the weird psychological issues that come with meeting people off the TV and it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s cetainly true that we all pretend not to be star-struck and a lot of us like to namedrop and generally behave as if we’re best buddies with all the comedy celebs. Perhaps some of us genuinely have become immune to the weirdness.

I still haven’t.


comedy is art 3: stand-up is art

Simon Munnery used to have a brilliant bit – I’m not sure if he still does it – where he’d quote a review of his act which said he was ‘as close as comedy gets to art’. He would then point out (using something close to a venn diagram but not quite) that this sentence implied that not only could there not be an overlap between the two, but that he didn’t really fall properly into either category – so it was saying that not only was his act not actually art, but it wasn’t really very funny either.

This bit was funny, because it wasn’t true – he is funny (and besides, the review wasn’t actually denying that). Or to put it better, it’s funny because it had an element of truth in it, but was ultimately a fiction; without wanting to get all poststructural* at this early point in the blog, what Munnery creates in that bit of stand-up is a fiction, a lie (it is false that he is neither artistic nor funny) which transcends itself to creatively reveal a deeper truth (that in fact, he aspires to be both, and is quite neurotic about reviews that might imply he isn’t). Which is, I think, what art is.

So by suggesting that what he’s doing is neither funny nor artistic, he’s being both. But if it wasn’t funny, it would be neither.

Confused yet?

Okay then, let’s go back a few steps. I’m trying, as I was yesterday and the day before, to construct an argument that if Arts Council England are going to provide support through funding for the arts then they shouldn’t exclude stand-up or sketch comedy.

Now at this point, I’m going to do two things that some readers might not like. The first is that I’m going to point out that we shouldn’t be arguing for the eligibility of ‘comedy’, but for ‘stand-up’ ‘sketches’ and (if we must) ‘musical comedy’ to be eligible; because ‘comedy’ is not itself an artistic medium but a style or mood. As Michael Fabbri quite accurately pointed out at our initial meeting, it makes no more sense for the Arts Council to have a section in their application form for ‘comedy’, that it would for them to have one for ‘tragedy’. You could get funding for a comic play by Aristophanes (and everybody should), or a tragedy by Aeschylus, if you applied through the ‘theatre’ section.

The second thing I’m going to do is focus my argument entirely on stand-up. This is partly because it’s my art – I’m not really a sketch performer and I’m certainly not a musical act. But it’s also because it’s probably the hardest of our artforms to argue for – not because the argument is weak but because there is so painfully little understanding of the aesthetics of stand-up that to most people it does simply look like a guy telling jokes into a microphone. So I reckon if I can make the argument good for stand-up, then all you sketch troupes out there will have an easy time of it.

I suppose I’m also going to need a proper definition of ‘art’. Annoyingly, I haven’t got space for a full and challenging discussion of this here, but having talked to a lot of people and read a lot about this in the last few days (well, years really) all the standard/popular definitions seem to agree that for something to qualify as art, it must meet certain criteria:

1) It must have a ‘creative’ element to it;

2) It must involve some way of presenting or re-presenting some physical phenomena in a way which is qualitively different from the ‘everyday’ presentation of that phenomena (ie grass in a field isn’t art, but if you paint a picture of it, sing about it, write a story about it, etc then that picture/song/story might be. Nietzsche points out that because eg the grass presented in the art is not the original or ‘real’ grass, that art is an ‘untruth’ – but a good and useful kind of untruth which helps us cope with the world we experience).

3) the presentation must be so well-crafted that it somehow ‘transcends’ the craft of its materials to reveal some deeper or higher truth or experience. As Aristotle says, “the aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Some folks say this is likely to be the expression of some kind of emotional or ‘metaphysical’ truth.

In short, art is a created artifice, or fiction, which reveals some ‘deeper’ truth or emotion. (I’m not entirely happy with these criteria, but they are pretty popular and at the moment I’m not out to change anyone’s view of what ‘art’ is.)

So, does stand-up fit these categories?

Well, it’s pretty easy to see that it fits the first two. Just coming up with a sentence is creative, and stand-ups do this all the time. But that doesn’t make it art, any more than a man ordering a pizza is art; it needs to meet the other two criteria as well.

The second is not much tougher. While it might appear that stand-up is just a person talking to a group of other people, a comedy club is in no way an ‘everyday’ communicative context, and the words and sentences stand-ups create are not ‘natural’. As Stewart Lee likes to point out, comedy clubs are bizarre and articficial places where even though the comedian might pretend to be speaking ‘normally’ as themselves, they quite frequently do or say things that sane people just wouldn’t do when addressing a group (like announcing, apropos of nothing, what their favourite high street coffee chain is).

The reason for this is that the words, gestures, and actions used in stand-up are crafted to have a different performative function (ie to get consistent laughs from a large group) and there is therefore a different expectation from the observer than there would be in ‘normal’ conversation – so some artificial work must be crafted. (In fact, it’s not just the words and sentences that are crafted: a decent stand-up craftsman will take the audiences’ responses and make them an intrinsic part of the work, smashing the theatrical ‘fourth wall’ in a way that would have made Brecht proud; and a master craftsman can often  ‘play’ the audience like a musical instrument, measuring subtle phrases and gestures that illicit different sizes and types of laugh in varying structural arrangements to give a really satisfying performance. This is not a ‘normal’ way to communicate.) So the very form of stand-up involves the presentation of a physical phenomena (a person saying words to a group) in a way that is exceptional from its normal or ‘everyday’ presentation.

And of course, it’s not just the form that meets the second criterion; more often than not, the content does too. We often don’t really believe that ‘a funny thing happened on the way to the gig’ any more than we believe that Eddie Izzard likes putting babies on spikes, or that Simon Munnery really thinks his review was a negative one. These are fictions. Some people get annoyed when comics pretend things are true when they’re not, or come up to us after gigs and say, “did that really happen to you?” This shows that they’ve missed the point – it doesn’t matter whether what has been said is true or not as long as it was funny. (To be fair, the format of stand-up doesn’t really help this misunderstanding; we do quite frequently appear to be speaking as ourselves and say things like ‘this really happened’; but it doesn’t really matter whether the thing happened or not, because ultimately this is just a rhetorical device to make the story more believable and thus get a bigger laugh. Even still, it’s a confusion that comes from widespread misunderstanding of the artform: I bet nobody ever went up to Michael Jackson after his gigs and asked whether Billie Jean really was or wasn’t his lover, and if they did they were idiots who missed the point that it was a song, duh – and it didn’t matter whether it was literally true or not.)

My point is, the craft of stand-up, despite it’s ‘natural’ appearance, is packed with artifice and falsehood. Or, as Nietzsche (almost) put it, good healthy lies. So, second box ticked.

Again, though, this doesn’t make it art; just an incredibly difficult craft (and most aesthetics theorists do think there’s a difference between craft and art). We still need to meet this third criterion, that it has to somehow transcend the craft and reveal something ‘else’, something which is somehow higher. A lot of people seem to think this ‘deeper truth’ (or ‘inward significance’, as Aristotle puts it) has to be emotional, and while a lot of artists, including very funny stand-ups, certainly do reveal their genuine emotions about given situations by joking about them, there’s enough dispute around emotivism in art to not take emotion as being the only thing or even the most important thing that might be revealed.

Before pointing out exactly how stand-up does this, there’s another important point I’d like to make. If this whole campaign ever really struggles, it will be because of a quite dodgy idea that the point where stand-up becomes art is when the comic stops going for laughs and says something profound or emotional instead.

On Saturday night, for example, I saw Daniel Kitson’s current show, which has a wonderful minute or two near the end where (without wanting to ruin this bit of the show for anyone) he stops worrying about the laughs and instead outlines how a fairly Heideggerian existentialist philosophy helped him through what sounds like an awful period of thinking about death. Now, this was genuinely heartfelt and beautiful to watch. The problem is that there seem to be a lot of people, particularly in the stand-up community, who think that this is what made his show into art. But – and I say this as someone who thinks that Kitson is just the most brilliant stand-up I’ve seen – the point where he stops going for laughs is actually when his stand-up stops being art, because it stops meeting the second criteria: it stops being the craft, or artifice, of stand-up and becomes something more like live philosophy or confession.

Stand-up is about laughs. If stand-up is like painting at all, then the jokes are the paint. It doesn’t matter for artistic purposes, how much paint is on the canvas, how thick or sparse the brushstrokes are (Stewart Lee’s laughs, for example, can be pretty minimalist, as can Reg D Hunter’s sometimes); but if a stand-up isn’t working towards a laugh, then they aren’t painting. When a painter decides that part of their canvas is not eligible to have paint on it (as Kitson decided with that part of his show) then that doesn’t by definition make the rest of the canvas somehow more artistic. A lot of stand-ups seem to think this, though, and it is this unfortunate view that led Andrew Watts to be absolutely rightly concerned that state-funded ‘art’ comedy will be less funny.

Besides, it does a disservice to our artform to say that in order to be art, comedy has to have unfunny, ‘honest or emotional’ bits which don’t in any way have a laugh in their sights. A great comedian can say something so emotional, so honest with a good joke; but that honest truth is rarely revealed on the surface of the joke. Take, for example, Frank Skinner’s bit about being convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him; or Kitson’s old routines about his childhood, or his speech impediment, or in the current show about going to see people he loves in hospital; David Trent’s story about the aftermath of an argument with his wife; Andrew’s bit about kiss inflation; pretty much all of Woody Allen’s old act… All of these disclose a deeper emotional ‘truth’ – an insecurity or anger or despair – which rests just below the surface of the joke, but which is revealed in a laugh which is deeper and more heartfelt than a laugh for a knob gag, however well it’s crafted.

It doesn’t have to be simply an emotional truth either – jokes frequently disclose a political or philosophical point. Stewart Lee’s phenomenal story about his encounter with Jesus, or in his current show the completely made-up stories about Richard Hammond and the Magners advert, (which for a careful listener, subtly reveal his rage at the tendency of apparently credible media people to whore out themselves and whatever else they can find of value); Tony Dunn’s bit about having a theological conversation with his grandmother when he was a small boy; most of Doug Stanhope’s set…

When I wrote on Tuesday that comedy could become art if it made us not just want to laugh but also to cry or think or scream, a friend pointed out to me that if we stop laughing and start crying or thinking, then it isn’t stand-up anymore. She’s very clever and she was absolutely right, but she’d missed my point – great, artistic stand-up makes us want to cry or think at the same time as we’re laughing – and makes us laugh more deeply and more fruitfully – because it reveals something that isn’t just a play on words or a silly story or a funny facial gesture, but something else, something higher and richer and more necessary to us in the challenges we face when trying to cope with life. As Robert Schumann said, “to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts; such is the duty of the artist.”

Or, as Peter Ustinov put it, “comedy is just a funny way of being serious.” And that is where we find its artistic value.

Anyway, I think that meets all three of the criteria I established before. It should also, hopefully go some way to reassuring anyone who’s worried that if the ‘comedy is art’ campaign succeeds it will lead to less funny, more pretentious comedy. We just want the Arts Council to recognise that great comedians are artists; and while it’s true that some of the artists I’ve mentioned here are doing just fine without funding, some of them aren’t: I want audiences all over the country to see David Trent’s act, for example – it would make their lives better! – but he’s only just establishing himself and (I assume) isn’t making enough out of comedy to fund and publicise a proper tour. The situation is the same for a great many brilliant, creative acts who are trying to establish themselves. A lot of potentially great artists give up, especially when they see less artistic comedians (who may be excellent craftspeople but often take few risks and have nothing really to say) getting picked up by Jongleurs and making money; and the losers are the audiences around the country who never see the art that could be produced. We have an Arts Council whose role it is to prevent this loss; it’s time they start getting on with it.


*If I was doing that, I’d point out how Munnery’s text folds in on itself so that the underlying reading undermines the surface of the text, thus destabilising its meaning and blurring the boundaries between truth and falsity etc. – but a) comedy writing does this so much as a matter of course anyway that it seems pointless to write about it, and b) quite a few people I’d like to convince with this blog think that Derrida is all wanky bollocks, even though they quite like it when comedians (often inadvertantly) demonstrate his arguments with the kind of jokes I’m talking about. But that’s the English for you…

comedy is art 2: whatever freedom means

If I think back hard enough, the first two major news events I really remember were the 1988 Education Act and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about both of them in the last few days, partly because they’ve popped up in other things I’ve been doing and partly because of what they have to do with the whole ‘comedy is art’ campaign – which, as I wrote yesterday, is already facing a counter-revolution in UK comedy’s little blogosphere. I discussed some of the economic objections to it in yesterday’s blog, and Andrew Watts has already responded with a typically stylish rejoinder which made me wonder if there’s much we really disagree on at all; but I’ll have to save my response to that for a few days, because today I wanted to write about the second objection that’s been made to the campaign: that accepting money from the state would lead to comedians having to compromise their artistic freedom in live comedy, the way they do on the publicly-funded BBC. So I’ll come to that later.

Anyway, these memories:

My recall of Ken Baker’s Education Act being passed is very vague, and I didn’t really understand it at the time – I was only 8, after all. But very, very gradually it’s become clear that it changed my life: initially there were the months of endless confusion brought on by teachers having to re-work everything to fit the new central-government-dictated ‘National Curriculum’; then I was in the first cohort to do SATS, and subsequently spend the next 15 years considering myself to be a ‘failure’ at mathematics (not a new problem of course, but in retrospect that first batch of SAT results, before schools learned how to hothouse their students through them, certainly didn’t do much for my generation’s academic confidence). Later, as the 1988 act’s introduction of league tables, school entrance exams and so on gradually made state-funded schools realize how important it was to get those exam results, they became little more than exam factories, and from there into less exciting, less intelligent, less creative and overall less educational places to be.

The act’s still working to make people stupider today; it’s one of the most perniciously authoritarian and nasty legacies of the Tories’ last spell in government. It might also appear incongruent with the Thatcher government’s apparent belief in themselves as ‘economic libertarians’ – they told the public, after all, that they were encouraging ‘competition’ and consumer choice – but in practice, what schools were really being told is that they had to do things the way central government wanted them done, or they would be made to appear (through the league tables), ‘inadequate’ to the consumer and face closure as a result. So despite all the talk of ‘giving more freedom to schools’, schools and teachers must conform to the government’s diktats more than ever – or suffer the consequences.

(The other effect of the act has been, as anyone who has tried finding a school for a child will know, that it is in practice not the consumer – i.e. parents – that choose, but the schools who initially found it most easy to implement the new policies, and these are often the ones in wealthier areas whose intake have come from already more educated backgrounds. Thus their ‘reputation’ ensures that they can now select the most able students to ensure their results stay high; showing that in practical terms, a free market ideology certainly has its merits if applied to the right things, like cafes – but when applied to a non-level playing field (as, arguably, the performing arts also have), it leads not to more freedom for all, but instead increases the power of the unjustifiably lucky. But that was yesterday’s argument, and besides, we knew that already).

The more important conclusion for our purposes here is this: that even an ‘economic liberal’ government, as the Conservatives claimed to be, can still be frighteningly authoritarian when it comes to controlling the means through which the population think, i.e. education.*

What if – an opponent of Arts Council funding for comedy on anti-authoritarian grounds might argue – comics got lazy, became reliant on state funding like schools did, and then an authoritarian government like Thatcher’s decided to dictate what we could do jokes about, examined us on our laughs-per-minute and threatened to put us all out of work if we didn’t meet their ‘standards’? It’s a scary thought…(don’t worry, though – I don’t agree and there’s a rebuttal of this on the way).

The other event – the fall of the Berlin Wall – affected me differently. I didn’t quite understand what was happening at the time because I was nine; I just knew there were people whose government were keeping them behind some kind of big grey wall, away from some kind of ‘freedom’, whatever that meant, and that now the wall was coming down and people were laughing and dancing on it and smashing it up and I just remember the emotion of seeing that on the screen – all the joy and the pent-up anger and frustration – and it felt like something amazing was happening. I didn’t realise just how amazing until much later; I don’t think the full depth of it even hit me until I saw Das Leben Der Anderen (which, if you haven’t seen, you have to drop everything and go to the video shop/itunes/whatever and get it right away, you really do have absolutely nothing better to do). This too, in even more extreme ways, was a government determined to control the way its population think…

And so it’s now 20 years since the wall came down, and the old footage has been shown again, and this time round I could only sit and fight back the tears of relief and anger that I would have felt if I could only have understood what it really meant back then. What must it have been like to be a German 20 years ago? In truth, 1989 was the year when World War 2 really ended – and with what consequences…

But the fall of the Berlin Wall is often presented to us in terms of the victory of free-market capitalism over communism; but I’m pretty sure that’s an ideological lie. Social and artistic totalitarianism are neither a necessary or sufficient condition of curbing the excesses of capitalism, and it was the former rather than the latter that was being taking down: I mean, obviously I wasn’t there, but in a state where people were spied on, shot at, abducted, tortured etc by their government – I just don’t buy the idea that the reason they actually smashed the wall was for the right to buy a Mickey Mouse watch and a Frankie Says Relax t-shirt. I have a hunch that they didn’t rebel against communitariarianism, they rebelled because they couldn’t stand living in fear any more (and those two things are not the same, nor are they even always found together).

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, back in the city where that disgusting war began and ended, it was never really a struggle over ‘left’ and ‘right’, or ‘communism’/’fascism’/’free-marketism’, but over the unjustifiable, intolerable addiction of authoritarian governments to dictate who people should be, what they should think about, learn about, write about, laugh about…in Germany it just happened to be fascist and then communist governments, rather than a ‘free-market conservative’ government, that showed the kind of over-centralised control over thought and creativity that Ken Baker was working on with the ’88 Education Act. I’m not saying they were the same thing, but the goal of government control over people’s thoughts and lives was the same.

My point is this: it doesn’t matter what ideological box you put yourself in: you can call yourself a conservative or a communist or an ‘economic libertarian’ or a ‘statist’ or whatever, and it’s irrelevant because all of those ideologies, if followed through dogmatically by authoritarian governments, are capable of wanting to stifle critique, to destroy intellectuals, to control artistic expression. Conservatives frequently claim that socialists are all secretly stalinist authoritarians; socialists claim that free-marketeers only want to give more authority to their bourgeois friends, take away the freedom of the proletariat and stifle dissent against that. Both are a bit right and a bit wrong.

But more importantly, it doesn’t matter politically whether art, and comedy, are funded publicly or privately; what matters is that, whatever economic system we’re working with, artists stand for artistic freedom and the opportunity to express that.

Now in Britain, as I established yesterday, the economic system we’re working with is a kind of post-Keynesian semi-free-market mixed economy, where a lot of things are, for perfectly good reasons, funded by the state.

In this mixed economy, the state provides some funding for the arts. So we’re operating in a system where the government funds arts, but for the most part it doesn’t challenge artistic freedom the way the Stasi did or the way the ’88 act prescribed what could and couldn’t be studied. Artistic freedom is, to a large extent, respected and championed, while opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist are provided through public funding. The Arts Council in Britain do fund plenty of art which breaks taboos, which criticizes the government, etc etc.

That’s the economic system we’ve got, and it is good for artistic freedom as long as artists and art-fans alike continue to fight for that freedom.

In fact, of all the publicly-funded institutions in Britain that could be called ‘cultural,’ there are only two that I can think of where there are any serious restrictions on creativity. One is Education – as I’ve discussed – and the other is the BBC. (The difference is that the restrictions on the BBC – and there is no doubt that the BBC is in serious, serious danger because of this – are not coming from the government but from the moronically reactionary privately-owned sections of the media which feel threatened by it. We’ll need to fight for artistic freedom in the BBC too – but that is an issue for another time.)

Anyway. My point is, as usual, that it’s details and the facts which should count, not economic ideologies which try to explain everything according to a predicted set of incentives and tendencies; and the facts are that in Britain, the Arts Council mostly do a pretty good job of supporting art without requiring that it give up its artistic freedom. What the ‘comedy is art’ campaign wants is for them to recognise that if stand-up and sketch comedy are even potentially artistic (and there will be more on this bit of the debate tomorrow), then they should have the same opportunities that other artforms have. Hence the campaign.


*they still are: see that heinous fucktard Michael Gove’s recent emphasis on stricter uniform and discipline in schools. Which is not to say that Labour have been much better, but then as Andrew quite rightly pointed out in his response to my blog yesterday, they haven’t really done very much of any social-structural significance at all. Ironic perhaps, that it seems to be the Conservatives who have created the most radical changes in society in the last 30 years (albeit horribly destructive ones), and Labour who have acted to preserve and entrench the status quo…but that is a thought for another blog.

comedy is art 1: the problems of ideology

I think it’s time to put a proper argument together.

I’ve seen a few blogs in the last week or so that have taken positions against the ‘comedy is art’ campaign. The most notable have been from Andrew Watts and Harry Deansway; but there are a few other general anti-campaign comments flying around which probably need dealing with.

So I’m going to spend next few blogs discussing these points, first by addressing them and then expanding that into an argument for the campaign. (Strap in folks, it’s going to get debate-y…)

As far as I can tell, three arguments have been made from within the comedy world in opposition to the campaign:

1) that Arts Council funding would make comedians stop being funny because they would be looking for money not from audiences, but from the state – as claimed by Andrew and Harry;

2) that taking money from the state would mean compromising our freedom as comedic artists to say and joke about whatever we like (I’ll take this one on tomorrow);

3) that stand-up and sketch comedy aren’t really art at all, just entertainment; and we should proud to call ourselves entertainers without wanting to be artists as well (I’m saving that for Thursday).

So, let’s start today with Andrew and Harry. I’m glad Andrew weighed in on this, partly because both his blog and his act (which you can see at the next Scurvy Wednesdays on 18th November…) are genuinely brilliant; and partly because even though I know he puts himself on the ‘conservative’ side of that spurious nonsensical divide we call ‘political ideology’, when I read his blog I often think he’s on the good side of a far more important divide: namely the divide between good thinking/lazy-minded idiocy. (I don’t know Harry well enough to know what side of that divide he’s on, but I did once share a taxi with him and he seemed nice at the time; plus, Nick Helm seems to like him which is a good enough endorsement for me.)

Both Andrew and Harry acknowledge that comedy is, or can be, an ‘art’, but oppose the campaign on based on the economic/political consequences of comedy being given state funding. (Though it should be said that Andrew does make a beautifully incisive psychoanalytic point that wanting ‘official’ state validation of your art smacks of insecurity, which he may be right about. But then, nobody ever said comedians were emotionally secure people; and ultimately this is an ad hominem point which I’m sure he’d accept adds little to the practical side of the debate.)

Anyway, the claim they both make is essentially that state funding of stand-up and sketch comedy would be bad for the ‘comedy industry’ as a whole. Harry points out that the good comedy nights don’t need it but that state funding would lead to rubbish comedy, which I can only assume comes from a rather dogmatic belief that everything which receives public funds is inevitably worse than things which are privately funded. He doesn’t use the phrases ‘free-market’, ‘competition’, or ‘survival of the fittest’ but that’s what he’s basically referring to: in short, he argues that Arts Council funding would lead to a lazy, bloated comedy industry where enterprise isn’t rewarded. Andrew argues this too, but goes further and deeper, arguing also that the need for experts to decide who gets the funds means that the judgments of critics will end up being taken as a better measure of ‘value’ than whether something actually gets laughs; and that this will, in turn, lead to a widening of the gap between ‘art’ comedy (which would need to be funded based on criteria other than how funny it is) and ‘popular’ comedy (which might not be clever but does at least get laughs, and that, he quite rightly says, is the main thing).

In short, they’re both making a ‘free-markets good, state funding bad’ kind of argument which is based more, I think, on ideology than it is on practice.

To demonstrate, I’ve written two sentences below.

1: Governments ought to fund artistic projects that enrich people’s lives by making them feel and think better;

2: Governments ought to provide so much funding for a given field that a bloated and lazy industry emerges around it, thus destroying the value of projects that people would actually be prepared to pay for.

Only one of which (the first one, obviously) is being made by our campaign. The problem is that Andrew and Harry both seem to be saying, with varying degrees of sophistication, that making the first claim inevitably implies the second, and that the first therefore shouldn’t be made. This kind of assumed jump from one claim to another often happens when an ideology (in this case, the ideology of free-market capitalism) isn’t applied critically or pragmatically enough.

Now firstly, this ideological point is slightly irrelevant: even friendly ‘anarchists’ (and I use the term loosely) like me are on board with the campaign because we accept that in practical terms, we are currently living in a mixed economy where the state funds some things (In an anarchist utopia that wouldn’t happen of course, but we’re a long way from that yet; so I’m happy for the time being that we as a society we do fund certain things collectively, and when public funds are cut back it should be from the authoritarian, rather than the educational and artistic, side of the state first). Anyway, sometimes this state funding thing works out well and sometimes it doesn’t – but it has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the specifics of who’s running the thing and how well they do it. (Radio 4, for example, is a national treasure; the railways shouldn’t have been privatised as clumsily and hamfistedly as they were; but I’d rather sit in a cafe that was an independent business and thrives by being great rather than because it gets money from the government). Anyway, the point is that in such a mixed economy, state funding is not necessarily good or bad and applying free-market ideologies to it misses the point because we’re not concerned with economic ideology of state funding for the time being; we’re more concerned that if art is to be publicly funded at all, then we should be consistent about how we do it – if it’s going to fund art then it shouldn’t unreasonably discriminate against any particular artforms.

But even if we take the ideology as being relevant, it’s wrong: the fact is that it’s not inevitable that public funding for things of value ruins the industry around it. Andrew points out quite reasonably that Arts Council funding ruined poetry, but ignores that it makes a lot of artforms much more accessible to many people: on my salary, for example, I could never afford go to the opera unless it got some funding, or drop in at the National Gallery like I did last week. Public Libraries, too, could be called a successful result of a social consensus on the first claim, but you rarely hear people going, ‘oh, the Public Library industry is so lazy and bloated – if people really wanted books they’d be prepared to pay for them’ or say that their quality or value is diminished because of state funding. (Which is not to say that libraries are without their problems, as anyone who has read the good library blog will know. But you get the point.)

Equally, it would be hard to claim that the availability of free, communally-funded books for the last 100 years has damaged the bookselling trade; if anything it’s helped it – if books are more accessible then people read more books, and then they buy more books.

Nobody is saying all comedy should get government money any more than anybody is saying that just because libraries are good, we should turn all the bookshops into public libraries. We’re also not saying we’d want stand-up to get so much funding that, like libraries, people can just get it for free. That would be ridiculous.

But we are saying that good comedy is currently not as accessible and available to all as it could be. It’s hard to set up quality, affordable, sustainable comedy nights outside London (or even in London) without a huge initial outlay – both in money and in time – on marketing, booking quality acts, transporting them to the show, etc. Scurvy Wednesdays has been a moderate success because Tony, Loz and myself pumped in loads of our own money at the start to buy a PA, posters, book quality headline acts, going to gigs every other night looking for the absolute best new acts to basically exploit, asking a lot of them to work for nothing at our show so that we could break even. Not all promoters can do that, certainly not outside London, and the losers in the end are the public.

Andrew has one very good point: that there is a problem of who will make the choice of what to fund. But it’s not true that ‘critics’ would do it: firstly because that’s not how the Arts Council work any more (they’re in the middle of a drive at the moment to recruit a much broader range of ‘assessors’), and secondly because comedy simply couldn’t work like that. We would need, admittedly, a proper discussion about what is artistic about comedy, and on Thursday I’ll hopefully be going some way towards doing that. But nobody, either comedy acts or audiences, would accept that it should be allowed to become less funny.

However: there is, I think, a consensus that some comedy gets laughs but is not artistic at all. Comedy needs to get laughs but it’s not as simple a formula as big laughs=good comedy. Horrible, thoughtless, moronic comedy often gets big laughs too. (Little Britain, which was often the TV equivalent of a schoolboy pointing at a person with Downs Syndrome and calling them ‘spazz’ while all their friends roll around in fits) is a case in point. So I think our campaign would have to accept that both we and the Arts Council should think carefully to find criteria that ensured tired old pub gags with no sense of irony or creativity would qualify. (We wouldn’t want to find ourselves facing the same problem of public libraries which are full of Sophie Kinsella and Dan Brown novels because people want to read them. I don’t like to see my taxes going to Sophie Kinsella any more than you do).

But the fact that stand-up does have to be judged, at least in part, on whether it’s actually making people laugh, means that that would have to be part of the criteria (as well as the other things that the masters of the artform can accomplish, like making us cry or think or want to scream).

It may even be – and I’ll say it quietly – that incorporating comedy into its remit might be part of the kind of re-evaluation that the Arts Council is going to have to do in order to avoid the general widening of the gulf between ‘arty’ art and ‘popular’ art that Andrew analyses so well.

It’s easy to be pessimistic, but I think this is possible; moreover, I think it’s desirable. We’re not asking for comedy to become bloated or crippled or unfunny and the objections that claim this are based on a fairly cynical anti-statist ideology rather than hope and the promise of hard work. I think it’s possible, though – if we’re careful – for the state to provide positive support for projects of real value without such unintended consequences, and to provide, instead, the same help in being more accessible that is afforded to other artforms.

I’ll take on the next point, about whether Arts Council funding would mean giving up our freedom, tomorrow. Well done for getting this far…

how i embarrass myself

I did a gig in Brighton last night, which is my third there in three weeks. I’m getting to like it – I like the journey down, I like getting to look at the sea, I like the gigs, I like getting out of London, I like seeing friends who are living there (well, mostly former students but I think it’s okay to call them friends now)…basically, I like it.

The gig itself was actually right out on the outskirts of Hove; I walked for about an hour to find it, and when I did it was just a microphone-in-a-local-pub setup with no separate room and no audience to speak of; it was Guy Fawkes night, it didn’t look like anyone was going to come to a comedy night; I have to admit, I wondered when I arrived if it had been worth the trip.

But then I remembered that Jim Grant was the promoter, and I have never yet done one of his gigs that hasn’t gone ahead and been loads of fun (I’m not saying that it never happens, just that I have no bad experiences of gigs that Jim has promoted). And when Jim turned up, suddenly an audience did too, seemingly from out of nowhere. And they were lovely. I’d been talking to one of the pub regulars, a friendly and slightly pissed woman in a big red rugby top, just before the show started; and just as Jim was announcing me on to the stage, she shouted “He’s from Crouch End!” Which, as far as heckles go, was undeniably true. So I got on stage, said hello and asked her if she always heckled comedians by just shouting out their address – which got a big friendly laugh and the rest of the set (all the old banker routines) went beautifully.

I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the biggest laughs came from my stories about my own embarrassments. The bit that I open with, about getting a review that completely misdescribes my act in pretty crude sexual terms, got a huge laugh when I said how embarrassing it was that I’d found out about the review from my mum. And a bit that I’ve started doing about having a really embarrassing pornstar name (which I first did in my fourth ever gig, then dropped it for about four years) went really well too.

I wonder, sometimes, how much comedy relies on the comedian revealing their embarrassments and their shames to be publicly laughed at – to laugh and to be completely unashamed not only in front of themselves (as Nietzsche says), but in front of everyone, and in that they rise above the rest of the tribal shame-control which usually keeps us all in check. It would certainly go some way towards supporting a little thesis I have about how similar stand-up can be to stripping (in the sense that a lone individual must produce a show in which the source of their shame is willingly and stylishly revealed for public entertainment – and in doing so it transcends shame, and produces something which has the potential to be genuinely honest and artistic – a point that Barthes missed in his otherwise brilliant Mythologies. Unless of course the whole thing is necessarily just another example of repressive desublimation, but that would make stand-up an aspect of repressive tolerance and I’m not prepared to think about that just at the moment…)

Anyway, stand-up and stripping aren’t, it seems, the only ways to embarrass yourself. You can do it on facebook now, too. I’ve got facebook on my iphone, now – cool, huh? – which is usually a good way to fill the kind of distracted time you get while waiting to go onstage/get on a bus/get on a train. Not so good, though, when you regularly get mixed up between the ‘search’ box and the ‘status update box’, and keep putting the names of your friends as status updates – especially when you’ve been searching for the profiles of friends who are kind of embarrassing as an answer to the question ‘what’s on your mind?…’ Hmm.

Still – as my boy Friedrich says – anyone who is still ashamed before themselves does not yet belong with us…

storytelling, with cheese

Last night’s Scurvy Wednesdays show was interesting and strange. We had a big crowd in (in part courtesy of our friend Carrie, who did a great little open spot) and everybody performed well, but for some reason there were very few big laughs and the whole thing never quite went off the way it often does.

This makes it very difficult to tell whether what I did was actually any good or not; it only got a few really good laughs, but then so did all the other acts and they were all doing good stuff. 

But it’s particularly annoying because I was trying something totally different:  I’d had quite an interesting few days last week that led to a genuinely surreal and funny conclusion where I ended up in a strange part of Coventry with a santa outfit and a reblochon cheese. So I thought it might be fun to just tell the story – with a few made-up details, obviously – in a very rough, unwritten (but not un-thought-about) kind of way. But I was conscious that for the story to work, I’d have to put in a few narrative bits that weren’t funny, or at least that I hadn’t yet had the writing time to make funny. So the narrative was fine but the punchlines were deliberately a little more sparse than they usually would be.

The trouble is, the usual way of judging whether a piece of stand-up has worked is the number and size of the laughs it gets. And what I did got some laughs, but it felt like they weren’t quite as loud or as frequent as they ought to have been, and there’s no way of knowing whether that was because of the act or because of the room. Basically, there were too many variables for it to be a fair test…

(I possibly didn’t help matters by starting out saying that what I was about to say was true, which explains why some of it wouldn’t be funny. That was intended to be a kind of ironic self-deprecating joke in itself, but I didn’t quite pull off the delivery and the audience, many of whom were friends of Carrie and had never been to a comedy night before, took it at face value, expected not to laugh, and then often didn’t. Even at some of the things I’d thought were pretty funny.)

Still, when I watched the video back this morning I realised that I didn’t bore the audience at any point – they were intently following the story all the way through; and there were even a few big-ish laughs for some bits which I may try and appropriate for my normal stand-up set, if I can get them to work out of context.

So it wasn’t a complete waste of time. But whether it was worth bringing the cheese along to demonstrate how smelly it was – and thus going round carrying a bag which smelled of cheese all night – I’m not sure I’d do that again…