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…


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…

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…

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…

lectures on art

Yesterday (Tuesday) night I went to a political meeting.

It was a meeting of a campaign group to get stand-up and sketch comedy recognised by Arts Council as proper (ie fundable) art, and it’s gaining momentum. More on that later.

Anyway. On the way to that meeting – to get in the mood – I stopped in at the National Gallery to see some ‘real’ art. And I bloody love it there – I still find it amazing that you – anyone – can just walk in off the street and for no money at all be looking at some of the greatest artwork in history. You just walk in, you go up a few steps to the right, and you’re looking at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Or if you’re me, you’re looking at Renoir’s Umbrellas.renoir-umbrellas

I hadn’t seen it in a few years and as soon as I saw the young woman in it I cursed myself for not visiting her more recently. I’m totally in love with her. I think perhaps I always have been; she’s just so calm, so assured, so stylish, relaxed, beautiful – so brunette. It’s either been raining or it’s just about to: everyone else, in their out-of-date clothes (because Renoir painted them four years earlier) has umbrellas. But they’re wrong – they must be wrong because the brunette has no umbrella, not even in that empty basket. And she is too beautiful to be wrong.

She’s so different from that little blonde girl on the right with her petulant blonde face. I know that face – it was still there in grown-up petulant blonde women I’ve known (and occasionally fallen for); I know what that face looks like when it gets older…but I still want it in the painting so I can watch how far above and beyond it my brunette is; that soft, clear, rounded face just sails away from all of them…

I also saw a Picasso painting – I think it’s just called ‘Child’. Picasso, child

It always looked somehow familiar to me, but I didn’t know why until recently when my mother told me she had a copy of that picture with her when she gave birth to me. Someone had suggested she should take the most beautiful thing she could find and look at it while giving birth. I don’t know if my mother was hoping that by doing that, I might be as beautiful as the boy in the picture; I think she’d be disappointed if she was. I mean, there are similarities I guess: he has blue eyes, and I have blue eyes; he has a ball at his feet and I do quite like football; for a short while in my teens I was into cross-dressing. And biting the heads off small birds…

Anyway, so after that I went to this campaign meeting. The vibe was pretty good, and people were coming up with lots of suggestions for ways in which we could get the Arts Council to recognise comedic artforms as art. There were a few brief moments of tension, when (as I understood it) there was disagreement over whether this could be done straightforwardly through letter/petition/civil society-style campaigning or whether the whole artistic establishment needs to be taken apart and put back together again with a different mindset and a different kind of aesthetic language. (It’s pretty normal, I think, for progressive campaigns to face tensions between revolutionaries and practical gradualists. As usual, I fell on the side of cautious gradualism because, as discussed before, I am an anarchist but I’m a pretty conservative one…)

Anyway, any tensions gave way in the end to some really good practical things we can do to get Arts Council England to have another look at their position, which is pretty exciting. I got the job of drafting the initial letter to the chair of Arts Council England, asking for a full explanation of why nothing funny ever gets funding. Which I’ve done. You can see it here.

And if you’ve got nothing else to do and you agree with the cause, join the facebook group. It’s got 800-odd members now – and (r)evolution is in the air…