the tories

So I intended to write a blog post last night, but I didn’t. What I did instead was painstakingly research the movement in the 1790s and 1800s to abolish slavery, so that I could appear to be a smartarse on Andrew Watts’ blog. You can see what he (and I) wrote here.

The thing is, Andrew’s right about the anti-Tory orthodoxy amongst comedians. I mean, I hate the Conservative party as much as the next stand-up, but not just for the sake of it. I was talking to another comic last night who was telling me he thinks that being anti-Tory is a good ‘default position’. Which to a large extent I agree with, but only as long as you have good reasons, based on what they’ve actually said they’re going to do. The trouble is, a lot of us lefty comics don’t; we still think of the Conservatives as the nasty party and that’s that. 

But if you don’t know why you’re arguing what you’re arguing, any joke you might make comes from nowhere and means nothing. It would give the illusion of satire but have no more meaning than a pun. I’ve heard comedians doing terrible jokes about how much they hate David Cameron for being vacuous. I used to do an awful bit about Boris Johnson in which the punchline was based on nothing more than calling him a twat. It gave the appearance of having something to say but really it didn’t; it was just abusive.

Contrast this with, say, Andy Zaltzman’s wonderful bit about the proposed tax break for married couples. If you haven’t heard it, basically it takes the idea of encouraging marriage ‘because it is the bedrock of British society’ to its logical conclusion, and it is very very funny. Because of course it’s not marriage that keeps society functioning peacefully; it’s a sense of common interest with your neighbours and your community, and legally-binding monogamy isn’t a necessary condition of this. Marriage isn’t the bedrock of our society; social identity and a feeling of shared goals and interests is the bedrock of society. One of the reasons I hate the Tory party now is that they did so much in the 1980’s to destroy communities and communitarian feeling by trying to crush the NUM and in doing so, cack-handedly and unsubtly crushing the economies that gave those communities a sense of common value. And you can’t put that back by bribing people twenty quid a week to get married.

Zaltzman realises this, and it’s why his joke works.

The reason most people, including comics, don’t write stuff, or even think stuff, as good as this is because it’s hard. I would really love to write a bit about Michael Gove’s plan to encourage all schools to bring back old-fasioned blazers on the grounds that that will make them better-disciplined (it’s like suggesting that all comedians wear rennaissance jester outfits because it will make our comic verse funnier). But I can’t be bothered to write it properly, so I haven’t.

Anyway. The point is that if you’re going to have a political opinion you should be prepared to do the work of backing it up properly by knowing what you’re talking about. 

There are good reasons to be annoyed/scared/upset at the idea of a Tory government, but the simple fact that ‘they’re Tories’ isn’t one of them.


breaking the jinx

Last night I was in a heat of the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year competition.

It seems irrational, in a way, to be doing new act competitions when you’ve been doing comedy for longer than two years. Competitions are horrible, stressful, and are absolutely the antithesis of what stand-up comedy ought to be; but I felt like I had to enter the Laughing Horse one last time.

Partly this is because getting to the final of any national competition – which I’ve never done – can open doors to better gigs. The Laughing Horse competition in particular is worth doing well in because it’s so big; this year they’ve had something like a thousand entrants from all over the country. It’s like the FA cup of new act competitions.

But in particular, the Laughing Horse competition has taken on a bizarre kind of jinxed significance for me because my previous record in it is just so bad. I got knocked out of it in the first round in my first year of performing despite having a pretty good gig; the next year I got my friends to come along (which I hardly ever do), got lots of laughs and still got knocked out because others on the bill brought even more friends who laughed even louder than mine did. Last year I finally got to a quarter final, but let myself down by doing basically all-new material. Getting knocked out of that was what made me start this blog (I cringe when I look back at that first entry now so I’m not going to link to it).

Anyway. Last night was just an initial heat with the only prize being a place in the quarter-finals. Since there are 27 quarter-finals, each with at least ten people in them, it only really means progressing from the 1000-odd wannabes into the final 300 or so.

But then I saw the lineup for last night, and I was petrified. It was a frighteningly strong bill for an initial heat, and included Mark Simmons (who was in three competition finals last year); Luke Graves (who’s in this year’s Hackney Empire Final); plus three or four others who, with a bit of luck, could easily be at least semi-finalists; and a bunch of others I didn’t know (of which there is always at least one who brings loads of friends who laugh uproariously for them and stay silent for everyone else).

And me.

All it would take, I was thinking on my way there, was for the others to do as well as they normally would, and then one dumb mistake from me would put me out in the first round again…

I needn’t have worried so much. I’ve made a huge amount of progress in the last year, I got a lucky slot in the middle of the first half and had a fairly strong gig with lots of laughs. I went too fast at the end, but it was enough for me to get through. Plus for some odd reason, nobody else really killed and the second half especially felt oddly subdued.

The horrible thing was that at a normal gig with that kind of lineup, I would have been pleased to be on a strong bill and would really want the whole night to go well. But at a competition, once you’ve done your bit you just find yourself sitting at the back of the room, secretly willing others to fail but not admitting it to anyone and pretending that the whole thing doesn’t really matter while secretly feeling petrified.

It’s awful.

None of which means I’m not happy to progress. I am. Now I just need to keep working hard, do lots of gigs and not balls up the next round.

Oh, and remember that the whole thing doesn’t matter.


i put a youtube clip up of me

I have just spent today making a youtube clip of me, chopping bits together from four or five different gigs. I did it this way (rather than just putting a whole gig up) partly so that I could make sure there was no jokes in it that hadn’t worked, but mainly so that I could give people a good idea of the mood of my act without actually putting any of my best reveals up there. Because I think that would ruin it.

So, if you are feeling masochistic and want to watch it, it’s here

why you should never google yourself, epilogue

As an epilogue to yesterday’s story, it is worth mentioning that my mum phoned me yesterday afternoon.

“Well done for changing your google search result,” she said. “I had been deliberately not telling people how to find you.”

I didn’t even know she had been googling me, despite the fact that the entirely fictional opening three minutes of my act is is based on exactly this kind of embarrassment…

(insert your own point about life imitating art here)

why you should never google yourself

My name is Charlie Duncan, and I am a London-based stand-up comedian. I am not a Christian folk singer from Columbia, and neither am I a rent-boy.

Why say this?

Well, I try not to, but I couldn’t help it – I googled myself this morning and this is what came up:

I am a little bit concerned that Google considers the myspace page of the other Charlie Duncan to be of more interest than mine (I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, but his music is grotesquely banal).

But I’m more concerned at the quote it decided represented me best, which was admittedly a bit of dodgy thing to write even in the context of this blog but is, if anything, worse when torn out of context to say “this is who this bloke is.”

I imagine the other Charlie isn’t that keen on it either. Though if anything, that makes me kind of hope that it never changes…(*cackles mischievously*)

updating for godot

I saw an advert on the tube last night which said they’re doing another run of Waiting For Godot at the Haymarket Theatre.

As I think I said when I wrote about it before, if you have any interest AT ALL in any kind of literature, philosophy, psychology or performance art – even if you are retarded and don’t like Beckett – then you have to go and see it. Seriously. You have to.

There’s a few cast changes (Roger Rees has replaced Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and, believe it or not, Matthew Kelly is doing Pozzo. At first I thought this might mean Ronald Pickup would emerge through a cloud of smoke to announce, ‘Tonight, Matthew, I will be playing Lucky’. But it won’t – it seems Kelly has gone back to being a serious actor nowadays, and he’s good at it).

The main reason you have to see it, though, is still McKellen as Estragon. He was phenomenal before and he still will be.

You can get tickets in the cheaper seats from £16 here, and if you don’t have a job then you might even be able to get tickets on the day for £11. Considering I paid £50 in the summer and though it was worth more, this is a total bargain.

I’m going again. Anybody wants to come, let me know…

a witty fool

Happy New Year! And we’re back.

So, I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare over Christmas. I like Shakespeare a lot, for two main reasons:

1) The sonnets are fucking stunning

2) His comedians (not comedies – comedians) are brilliant.

Take the Fool in Timon of Athens. Admittedly it’s a bit of a weird play, but it’s one of my favourites because it’s about philosophers, and also because it’s not like a normal tragedy – it’s so well written (apparently with help from Thomas Middleton) that you have to take a kind of sadistic amusement in Timon’s stupid downfall.

Anyway, the Fool in it is awesome. It’s no accident that he appears with Apemantus (who is clearly the smartest person in the thing – despite having ‘apeman’ in his name).

Why such an awesome fool? His banter is just spectacular: it’s cutting and insightful and self-deprecating at the same time, like perfectly judged heckle put-downs. But given the chance he’s also got things to say. Like in this bit:

Are you three usurers’ men?

Ay, fool.

I think no usurer but has a fool to his servant. My mistress is one, and I am her fool. When men come to borrow of your masters, they approach sadly and go away merry; but they enter my mistress’ house merrily and go away sadly. The reason of this?

I could render one.

Do it then, that we may account thee a whoremaster and a knave; which notwithstanding, thou shalt be no less esteemed.

What is a whoremaster, fool?

A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ‘Tis a spirit. Sometime it appears like a lord; sometime like a lawyer; sometime like a philosopher, with two stones more than his artificial one. He is very often like a knight; and, generally, in all shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in.

Thou art not altogether a fool.

Nor thou altogether a wise man. As much foolery as I have, so much wit thou lack’st.

That answer might have become Apemantus.

How good is that? Bonus points if you spotted the bollock gag. But mainly, this is funny because the fool is actually saying something quite wise about money-lenders and about men’s attitudes to women that gets there 400-odd years ahead of all our pathetic ‘hey, women can really mess with our heads, what’s the deal with that?’ stand-up.

But the thing I love most about Shakespeare’s clowns is that whatever the situation is, they are never the arsehole. (And as the philosopher Kent Valentine says, “there’s an arsehole in every situation – and if you’re looking around and you don’t know who the arsehole is, guess what – it’s you!”) But in Shakespeare, the clown is never the arsehole.

It’s worth asking why this is. Possibly it’s that, from the point of view of a satirist, they can stand above the situation they are commenting on and so are able to make a better judgment of it. Possibly it’s the tendency we’ve had for so long (that exists right up to the present day with Jon Stewart et al.) not to trust people who are too serious in comparison with the joker, who seems to have nothing to gain but laughs – which makes them more trustworthy.

Or possibly it’s just that Shakespeare wrote a lot of his ‘Fool’ roles for his mate Bob to play and he wanted to make him look cool and witty.

But whatever it was that made Shakespeare make his comedians smart and his arseholes overly serious, it’s always left a pretty profound impression on me. I’ve been an arsehole plenty of times, but (I hope, since I’ve got out of my teens at least) not on the scale that Shakespeare’s real arseholes – like Romeo or Lear or Polixenes or even Malvolio – are.* And I hope that’s from not taking myself too seriously.

What Shakespeare’s fools teach us is that life is funny, and if you demand to be taken seriously in that context, then the only place you can go from there is tragedy, humiliation or madness. But if you’re ‘just’ a clown, you’re free to say what really needs saying.

It’s interesting, too, how many arsey things comedians are permitted, even encouraged, to get away with in comedy clubs. I remember somebody or other – I forget who but I think it might have been John Gordillo – saying that comedy audiences don’t pay to see somebody be nice; they pay to see somebody call a cunt a cunt. Which I like immensely. Clowns are given the green light to say things which are more arseholey than a real arsehole would ever say, because we all know that they are saying it from a position in which they are not expecting to be taken seriously.

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit,” says Feste, famously, in Twelfth Night. I don’t like Twelfth Night that much, but it’s a line that’s stuck with me; it’s something I only wish Gordon Brown could learn from Boris Johnson; and it’s certainly something worth remembering for everyone else who’s playing this Big Game Of Not Being The Arsehole we call ‘humanity’…

*I know what you’re thinking – should Hamlet be in this list? No, of course not. He’s a comedian. But that’s for another time…