the music of stand-up

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how closely related stand-up is to music.

I know I’m not the first person to think this, but recently I’ve seen some really good comedians performing routines where it’s essentially the rhythm, structure and tone of voice they are using that gets the laugh, rather than the content of the material. It’s why they say (whoever ‘they’ are) that great comedians can make the phone book funny.

I’ve even seen some really great stand-ups reference that fact at the same time as they’re doing it, in a way that makes the whole text of the act fold in on itself in a surprising way. (And of course, it’s the surprise – both in the form and the content of the joke – that gets the really big laugh).

Anyway, while browsing philosophy blogs I saw this study, which is interesting…

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an anarchic manifesto

I hosted the Comedy Manifesto last night.

It’s a panel-style topical show, like Mock The Week or Have I Got News For You, only live. And funnier. I’ve been a panelist on the show lots of times; I really love doing it and usually do fairly well. So when neither Kate nor Dave (who usually host the show) were available, they asked me to step in.

Now, those of you who have read this blog since the summer will know that the history of shows I’ve compered is very short (in 300 gigs I’ve only been MC for ten) but also very eventful – I’ve never hosted a show when nothing memorable has happened.

So I was a bit nervous.

I was especially nervous last night, firstly because the panel was such a mixed bag (Luke Toulson and Steven Harvey, a perrier-nominated double act who were performing seperately; Andrew J Lederer, who is very smart but is a genuine loose cannon and can sometimes be abrasive with audiences; and Eric, who is brilliant at the Manifesto and always wins); and secondly because, once it gets going, the show is one in which all the acts and the audience are encouraged to shout stuff out at pretty much any point during the show.

So I turned up genuinely not knowing what was going to happen.

The first section of the show, which is a straight stand-up section, went pretty well for me. The room generally felt a little cold and needed warming up, but I got a few laughs from my material and a few from talking to the audience. I don’t think it would get me a chortle award nomination for best compere, but once I got going I felt far more comfortable bantering with the room than I do at Scurvy – I didn’t feel hurried or judged like I often do there (perhaps because nobody knew me, perhaps just because I felt like nobody there doubted that I was the right person to be doing it…who knows?)

The other acts didn’t do so well in that section; Luke was the only really stand-uppy stand-up so he did okay, but the others had it a bit tough. I hoped it wasn’t anything I’d done or not done that gave them a hard time – like I’d taken their laughs perhaps – but perhaps it was just that the room was cold. Still, I was fairly solid and someone came up to after the show and said I’d make a really good TV presenter. That’s not a career goal of mine, but it means I can’t have been that bad for a tenth go.

In the second and third sections of the show, things got hard: it’s a panel-show format but the audience are invited to get involved, awarding points for funny jokes, contributing their own, etc. I don’t think I realised until last night just how good Kate really is at managing it; pretty much all my crowd-control skills from teaching rowdy year 9 classes got called for as the audience started getting a bit drunk and shouty, and the panel were frequently shouting over each other. Luke, for example, was very funny, was getting good responses and was particularly dominant; but the audience had taken a dislike to Andrew from the beginning and as the night wore on his frustration started to show, so it needed more and more of the teacher-y ‘sh!’ and the firm ‘let’s move on, shall we?’ to stop the whole thing descending into abuse. At one point Andrew took a sip of Luke’s pint and spat it out over the front row* which I could only really deal with by making a very quick jokey comment and asking the next question before it became a bigger issue.

But the thing I really noticed was – and this is where I’m going to get philosophical again in a sec – that even though the audience were rowdy, they really held us to account. Luke pointed out to them at one stage that they were giving big laughs to stuff that was genuinely funny and showed real distain for anything that wasn’t. They allowed me to lead proceedings as long as I was leading them with confidence and with jokes, but there was always a feeling that if I started letting them down they wouldn’t let me stand for it.

In philosophical terms, they were, at every moment, both individually and collectively making value judgments about all our performances and making those judgments known to us; the power we had was entirely based on charisma and persuasion and we had no coercive power to keep them following. Andrew didn’t do well out of this on the night and the crowd made him suffer. One or two audience members left; most stayed. But the challenge was never let up, and it made it incredibly hard but also exhilirating to be part of.

In short, the show was a model for what a successful anarchy ought to be like: leadership was permitted, on condition that it performed well, but authority was constantly challenged.

It meant the show was really hard to keep control of, but was also exciting and funny right till the end.

I just wish other comedy nights, countries, classrooms, businesses etc. could be run the same…

*addendum: it turns out, after talking to Andrew, that the spitting out of the beer was not at the audience but in reference to a joke about ‘sperm beer’ that had been missed in the hurly-burly of the night. It did go on someone’s shoes, but that was an accident and not out of frustration…

thoughts on max turner

I woke up this morning to find out that Max Turner is dead. This news is shit.

I first saw Max perform – at the Lion’s Den I think – just under a year ago, but didn’t really get to know him until we both signed up for a writing group that Logan Murray ran in the summer. He was brilliant: wry, warm, charming, with a wonderfully distasteful, biting kind of humour that ran through his voice even when he wasn’t actually telling a joke.

His act, too, was awesome. For those of you who saw him, I apologise if I have misremembered any of this (I didn’t gig with him anywhere near as many times as I’d have liked to); but for those reading this who never knew or saw Max, this is him:

So you’ll notice he has something of a physical deformity.

But as Nietzsche says somewhere (I forget where), the great periods of our lives come to us when we take our weaknesses and turn them into our strengths.

And Max did this with aplomb in his act.

He’d come on stage, fully and deeply aware of what everyone in the audience was thinking, and go into what could perhaps best be described as a ‘playground’ cripple impression – once I saw him play it up so much you could hardly make out what he was supposed to saying. The audience didn’t know what to do, whether it was real or whether it wasn’t, whether they were supposed to be laughing to humour him, like he was only there because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation had put him there, or whether to be shocked that anyone was laughing at all. Appalled audience members would look round at the back of the room to see the other comedians pissing themselves.

And then, just when it seemed that the tension in the room was reaching breaking point, he’d stop and say with cut-glass RP precision, something like “but I don’t really talk like that, obviously.” Cue huge laugh, often applause, a slightly distasteful relief all round, and Max would go on with the rest of his act.

It was fucking genius. In one move, Max was saying, ‘I know what you think, I know how I look, I know you think you’re not prejudiced but you are, and I am going to create a situation which forces us all to be honest about this and laugh at ourselves. And then I will do some of my very well-written jokes.’

(And it should be said that his jokes were well-written, which was helped by the fact that he was so charming that he could almost get away with saying pretty much anything).

I’ve seen a few people describe him – even today on his facebook page – as ‘brave’ for doing stand-up. I haven’t decided yet whether that’s insulting or just wrong, but I think it is wrong – I don’t think it was bravery as much as necessity that drove Max into stand-up. He had to be a comic because – as it is with all of us – laughing at himself and the world every day and every night was the best and most authentic way to cope.

For my part, I know that what makes me a stand-up is the sublimation of perfectionist anger – my weakness is that I grew up priveleged, thinking the world would be perfect, and now I’m grown up I’m angry that it isn’t. So I make jokes about little stupid things people do or say because I have had so few real challenges in my life, apart from the tragedy that life isn’t quite as wonderful and utopian as I was brought up believing it could be. Things are only a little bit less than perfect for me, so I get angry at tiny idiocies and I transform that anger and frustration into jokes.

That attitude would have made no sense for Max. For him, his disability meant that life could never have been normal or perfect – but his attitude to it was genuinely sublime (which I mean in both the aesthetic-philosophical sense and the everyday sense); for him, it just meant he had so much more to joke about; more to laugh about; and as a result had, I think, so much more to say. I’m ashamed to admit I was slightly – I hate to say it – jealous, even, that he had so much to be joked about while I had so little. (Perhaps that makes me the sick one.)

I don’t think even this made things exactly easy for him – I remember talking to him after a writing group session about how he was worried about being seen as a ‘novelty’. Should he maybe just come on, he wondered, not reference the way he looked, and just go straight into jokes? I told him no, he should be who he is and reference it.

And who Max is – was – was a funny, deformed, lovely, gifted, black-humoured, big-hearted, brilliant comedian. He was a man who genuinely turned his weaknesses into strengths, and in that he found so much more to laugh at than my pathetic whinging.

And as a result, he was a greater kind of comedian I will ever be.

le stand-up

I went to Paris at the weekend and met a French stand-up comedian.

It wasn’t intentional. Even going to Paris wasn’t planned, it was just that Nan got offered some eurostar tickets that were too cheap to refuse; so we got up at 4.45am on Saturday and went.

We arrived in Paris, still tired, to find it pissing with rain but not as cold as Paris is capable of being in January. It was, at least, warm enough to sit outside a cafe. And regular readers of this blog will know how much I like cafes. So we went up to Les Abbesses, sat outside a cafe, and ordered cafe cremes and a croque monsieur.

And then a man came and sat down at the table next to me and took out two things. The first was a little computer translating device. The second was Logan Murray‘s book about Stand-up.

I know Logan’s book well, because as well as being a super comic, Logan is also something of a comedy sensei. I’ve been on three of his courses and every time have come out of them as a better, more inventive, more confident comedian. His book is also quite good. So I thought I’d better say hello to the man sitting next to me.

It turned out that his name is Francois Winz – you can see from his website, which I just found, that he is essentially an observational-style stand-up who has achieved some impressive acclaim in France by dissecting the minutiae of life – fragments of his dreams, how women speak, the details of topical issues – in a humourous way.

What is wonderful about this is that it seems stand-up is still so new and exciting in France, that this kind of thing doesn’t seem hackneyed or cliched there. This is partly because I get the impression from talking to him that Francois is quite good at it (he’s been doing it seven years), but also because stand-up is still developing there – it never had a big boom in the late 80’s the way it did in London. I think Jamel Debbouze is working pretty hard to break it in, but there’s still work to be done. So while monologues and sketch comedy are enormously popular, the idea of a guy talking, as himself, in what appears to be a genuine dialogue with le public is much rarer.

Admittedly my understanding of comedy in France comes almost entirely from Eddie Izzard (who Francois is also a fan of) and from reading Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (which everyone should read, but especially men, women, and stand-up comedians); but Francois pretty much confirmed what I’d heard.

From what I understood (he didn’t really speak much English and my French is woefully stilted so our conversation was a little fumbled), he was telling me that his training in theatre comedy means that it’s hard for him to go off-script, to engage with the audience, and that anyway it was quite rare for there to be what he wonderfully referred to as ‘ecklerrs because French audiences don’t expect to be part of the show. I told him there are plenty of comics in London, too, who are terrified of going off-script and that I’ve known really great acts be stumped by a simple comment from a punter.

But it seems a shame that gigs like my ‘monkey dance’ gig from the other night – which felt so spontaneous and natural and…alive! – could be rarer there.

I told Francois he should come to London – after all, everyone else seems to – or better still, go to Edinburgh.

He seemed keen.

dance, monkey, dance

If weird gigs are the norm, then last night’s was more normal than most.

It was the first night of a new club being run by Sophie Sweatman in Kentish Town, and the room is absolutely great – a cosy little basement with lights and PA all in there already and a slightly kooky atmosphere with a big gold Buddha sat behind the ‘stage’ area.

There was even, for a first night, a nice little audience: a little group from RBS and a few randoms. (The rest were acts of course, but it made the small room feel almost full.)

So the night was running fairly straightforwardly until the interval, when I found myself chatting to some of the RBS group. One of them, a little cockney-sounding girl called Ingrid (I wouldn’t have guessed her name in a million years) asked if I was here to watch the show. Perhaps foolishly, I said I was in the show. She said, “really? I’m going to heckle you!”

Finding out I was headlining just seemed to stiffen her resolve: “Oh, I’m definitely going to heckle you! I am SO going to heckle you!”

I didn’t quite know what to say to that, except to say that with that kind of determination, she should go heckling at more gigs and perhaps one day she’d be able to go professional. She didn’t really get it, so in a hamfisted attempt at reverse psychology I just made her promise that she would actually heckle me and went back to sit through the second half wondering if that would actually happen.

The two acts on before me were called, respectively, Jackson and Bink. They’re both fairly new to the London circuit and were both funny and charming to watch, but were both a little bit odd: Jackson spends a lot of time lying on the floor and Bink is, well, what you’d expect from someone called Bink Strange. By the time I was introduced there was a definite surreal air in the room.

And then I walked onstage and before I had even got a sentence out, a little cockney voice from the front yelled, “Oh, it’s my friend!…OI, GET OFF!”

Which I then felt I had to explain to the audience, otherwise they would all think either that she was barking, or that I was going to be so bad that even my friends didn’t actually want me to perform.

Fortunately my explaination got a few laughs, which gave me the chance to get a bit of material out. That was going fine until, at one point, a joke that normally get a big laugh got nothing. I pointed out that they were right not to laugh because it was a really bad, hacky joke (it’s a pull-back and reveal that I’m actually a little bit ashamed of). And then one of the girls with Ingrid shouted, “I like bad jokes! Do more!”

“Really?” I asked, (thinking of my ‘big butts’ routine), “because I’ve got a LOT of bad jokes I can do…are you sure you don’t want some genuinely funny material though?”

“NO!” cried the audience as one, “BAD JOKES!”

“YEAH, DO BAD JOKES!” yelled Ingrid.

“Right,” I said, “I’ll do what you want, like I’m some kind of dancing monkey…”

And then a voice came from the back, “YES! Do a monkey dance!”

“Yes, dance like a monkey!” shouted Ingrid.

At which point I began to feel like I might be losing control of the gig.

But the voice from the back got more insistent. “Monkey dance! Monkey dance!” and I realised it was coming from one specific man, a stocky little chap with a big orange beard,who wasn’t an act but was clearly mad. So I took a risk.

“Okay,” I said, “if YOU come up here and do a monkey dance, I’ll do it with you.”

At which point the normal response, I would have thought, would be for him to refuse, look coy, and shut up so I could do some jokes. But this was underestimating the bearded man’s madness. In a flash, he was onstage, dancing like a monkey. The audience were loving it, and I could only stand and watch with a comically stunned Bill Cosby-style expression as he finished his monkey dance by licking his finger and sticking it in my ear, explaining that you have to finish the Monkey Dance by giving someone a ‘wet willie’.

Then he returned to his seat, leaving me with a damp ear, a gobsmacked look and an audience gigglingly anticipating what I would do.

There was only one thing I could do. I had to top that madness with even greater madness. I announced that yes, I could do all that AND do a bad joke, and launched into the most elaborate monkey dance I think I have ever done or will ever do, which I finished by giving a ‘wet willie’ to Ingrid (which I think must be my best heckle put-down EVER) while delivering one of my all-time best bad jokes; and when I hit the punchline (‘that’s PC gone Mad!’) I pulled my moist finger from Ingrid’s ear, punched the air and declared myself ‘the winner’ to a huge laugh and applause…

Before the gig, I’d wondered if I should video myself. No, I thought, nothing unusual or special is going to happen here.

I won’t make that mistake again.