on the problem of not being quite mad enough

Tonight, out of the blue and on my way home from a gig – a really fun one, in fact – I had a bit of a brainwave.

It’s not original, of course, but it’s this: that stand-up comedy is not for people without some serious emotional issues. Really well adjusted people – however funny they naturally are – really wouldn’t do it. Even relatively sane people like me, although we can get solid laughs, can never be that great.

In actual fact, many great comedians aren’t that funny as people. Some are quiet and withdrawn; some are really tiresome because, in Steve Martin’s words, they are ‘never off’, their brains having become machines of gags/banter/whimsy and they become exhausting to be around; and many, like the people I spent this evening with, are polite and intelligent and lovely. But we are no funnier than the average person.

The difference is that I don’t think any of us are without some kind of serious emotional flaw. The problem is, after six years of stand-up, I don’t think I’ve ever yet been quite emotionally flawed enough, for long enough, to ever get really good.

I mean, considering what it takes to actually get that good. Because you can’t just rock up and be consistently funny. You have to write material, rehearse it, go out to gigs (often terrible ones), night after night after night, and every time ask yourself, ‘why didn’t they laugh as much at that bit as I wanted them to…?’ And analyse it and do it differently the next night, over and over again…

That takes an incredible amount of drive – a kind of drive I have had, sporadically, for a few months at a time before getting exhausted. But that isn’t enough. You need a drive that commits your entire being to it. And that drive doesn’t come from nowhere.

Basically, you have to really really care whether people like you or not. I mean, really CARE. If you have some talent, of course, you can rock up, mess around a bit, do some old material and call it consistent, or competent, or whatever. But it’s not storming. If you have a decent level of confidence in yourself and your own value as a person, you can be okay. But never really good.

To be that good takes a horrible, nagging, worm-like insecurity that eats you from the inside out. But it drives you to be funny.

And I worry, secretly but often, that every time I turn up to a gig underprepared and do respectably but not stormingly, it’s because I just… well, I just don’t worry enough about whether the audience will like me or not.

Perhaps this is, in itself, my flaw.

So I carry on, competently gigging, semi-regularly, until I’m fucked up enough to really need to get good…


back in edinburgh

So I’m in Edinburgh again. And it would be weird not to blog while I’m here.

Plus it’s 8am, and most of the comedians will have only just gone to bed. There is not a single flyerer in sight. So, blogging it is.

I just got off a night megabus, and I’ve got that woozy, early morning slightly surreal just-tried-to-get-a-night’s-sleep-on-a-bus-and-failed feeling that I usually reserve for arrivals in Paris. It’s not that dissimilar from standard Edinburgh sleep deprivation, but it’s annoying because, as a veteran of night coaches, I had a sleeping strategy this time.

I didn’t even try to get my own double seat – I’ve tried that before and it just means that any massive snoring bad-smelling weirdo can come and sit next to you and take up all the space with their massive snoring bad-smelling body. But this time I knew all the seats would be fully booked, so I chose to try and get in the middle of the queue. That way, I could get on when about half the seats were taken. That way I could quite legitimately pick my weirdo.

I picked well: not far from the front there was a small woman, about forty-ish, who did not obviously smell and was having a quiet telephone conversation in a sane-sounding US accent. I sat next to her, and she gave me a polite, not-mental smile. When the bus pulled out, she settled over to the far side of her seat, put a blanket over her head and went into a calm, snoreless sleep, leaving me to celebrate the success of operation pick-your-own-weirdo, and feel just a little bit smug at not feeling too cramped.

At which point, the dark-haired man in the seat in front of me violently jammed his seat so far back into the reclining position that it almost crushed my legs. Then he couldn’t get it to go forward again – he’d forced the seat way further back than it was designed to go, and now it wouldn’t budge. He shrugged, lay back and closed his eyes, and I spent the rest of the journey unable to move my legs, and with nothing but a headrest separating the dark-haired man’s head from my crotch.

So I didn’t get much sleep. Whenever I’ve taken night coaches to Paris before, I’ve got over this feeling by sitting in the nicest café I can find and getting a café au lait. But this time I’m in Edinburgh.

So I’m sitting in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, looking over the crossroads where I’ve flyered for shows I’ve done every year for the last few years. It’s the place where I always notice how it’s suddenly getting dark early in the evenings towards the end of the festival. And no other square in the world has rained on me quite so much.

In fact now I come to think of it, this is the Starbucks where I come to get out of the rain. I’ve sat in this Starbucks before (many times), and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually been happy in here. In fact, I’ve only ever sat in here and felt depressed.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have very many memories of sitting anywhere in Edinburgh in the daytime and really being happy. I’ve always been miserable and worried and tired, and usually either hungover or still drunk. The few occasions I can remember being in Edinburgh and being really happy have almost always been followed by sudden, crushing downs that were usually a direct result of whatever it was that made me happy in the first place.

Still. I’m here now. And I’m only here for three days, and I’m not doing a show.

So perhaps this year will be different.

And the first step towards that is to get out of this fucking Starbucks.

what, too soon?

I knew this would happen. You try and give up blogging, and then you realise that you still feel compelled to shout things into that endless opinion-hole we call the internet, and that those things will take more than forty characters.

So, here’s the thing. There were two very unhappy events in the news yesterday (for those reading this far into the future, I mean the terrorist bombing and shooting in Norway, and the death of the singer Amy Winehouse). And to comedians and comedy writers, unhappy news events mean jokes.

I’m in two minds about whether this makes us sick or healthy: sick because we think that making jokes will help somehow; or healthy because we understand that making jokes will help somehow.

Anyway, it’s a compulsion. You should have seen the comedians on facebook yesterday: everybody seemed to have something to say, and the people who didn’t say anything were conspicuous by their absence.

But there are two big pitfalls with this. The first is that you risk joking about something too soon. There’s a standard cliché of bad topical stand-up that involves doing a distasteful joke about a sad news event and then if it bombs, follow it with, “…What, too soon?” It says to the audience, ‘Look, wasn’t I being brave there? But I recognise it hasn’t worked – yet.’

In fact, it’s such a cliché that I’ve seen some very good stand-ups (I think I remember Ian Stone doing it best) make a joke about something that is really ancient history, like the extinction of the dinosaurs or the decline of the Roman Empire, and then follow it with, “…What, too soon?” And of course, that gets a very big laugh from comedy-literate audiences.

And then you also have the second pitfall, that if you are going to say something at all, it’s got to be well-judged. You have to be very acutely careful about who the butt of the joke is, the tone you’re taking, what people will interpret about you when they hear or read the joke.

Now, in this context, and bearing in mind that I didn’t have a gig last night, I posted two comments on facebook yesterday.

The first was not a joke. If anything, it was the retraction of a joke: an RIP to Amy Winehouse, with a somewhat belated apology for a bit I used to do about her. In fact it was a joke about the global economy being supported by her spending money on alcohol and drugs. I must have done it hundreds of times, because it used to get a really good laugh. It once got a twenty-second applause break at the Comedy Store gong show. It got such consistent laughs that it kind of became my favourite joke I’d written.

But in retrospect – and you don’t have to believe me, but it’s true – I would have given up every single one of those laughs for her not to have been tortured like she was. I just don’t think the papers or the public, or I, ever really got our heads around how big her problems were; not until it killed her. In fact I think it was only funny because I, and the audiences who laughed, thought that somehow she’d be okay really.

But now we know that’s not true. And so it doesn’t seem funny any more. It just seems frivolous and mean and I feel terrible about it. She had an incredible voice and the whole thing is, in its most literal Greek sense, a tragedy.

The second comment I posted was this:

i hope that the oslo terror suspect being a christian fundamentalist isn’t used by civilised countries like saudi arabia as a warrant to start invading innocent, if backward, christian nations like the usa

It’s not a great joke. It’s not really even a joke – it’s the use of a standard primary-colour joke-writing tool (commonly known as ‘the old switcheroo’) to make what I hoped was quite a serious point in a relatively subtle way. Also, without wanting to sound precious, I spent about twenty minutes writing and re-writing it before I posted it, to make sure that the butt of the joke was very clearly not the victims of that event. I’ve had jokes misunderstood before, and it’s no fun. But I always recognised afterwards why those jokes were misunderstood, and I accepted that it was my fault; I’d been lazy with my writing.

And then, in the continuing facebook opinion melee, the following conversation happened. Before you read it, I should add that I’m not quite sure who this Alan Sellars fellow is; he is somebody whose friend request I accepted because he and I had about 200 mutual friends, which gave me the impression he is probably a comedian. But whether he is funny or not is, as always, for you to judge (sorry if you have to blow this up to read it):

You’ll notice that I am the person who liked Mr. Tinman’s trademark sarcasm at the end there, because I was happy that it had stopped as well. So, anyway, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so keen to have a go at Alan. But the broader point is that joking about terrible things that happens runs the risk of trivialising them – unless the joke has some carefully targetted weight behind it. And the more I think about it, the more I agree with the theory (Tony Allen’s theory, I think) that every joke does have a target, a victim, a butt of the joke. And if it isn’t clear who that target is – say, in the case or wordplay gags, etc – then you can assume that whatever subject is being joked about is the butt of the joke.

In the absence of a clear butt to Alan’s joke, we have to assume that he was making fun of both Amy Winehouse’s death and the victims of the Oslo killing. And that’s why Rob Collins is quite right to call him a fucking idiot.

Although Rob is wrong to say you can make a joke too soon. Because joking helps. I’ve laughed a lot at funerals. Sometimes it’s the only thing that works. What counts is how you do it, and what you mean by it.

I’m not saying that my joke was particularly brilliant; in a comedy club it wouldn’t get a big laugh, because to be honest it’s more political than it is funny. But I think it’s quite clear, in a subtle kind of way, that the butt of the joke is not the victims of the killing. The butt of my joke was the kind of politician who uses clashes of religious ideology as a means to go to war. In fact you couldn’t possibly say it’s too soon, because it’s really no more than a straightforward anti-Bush jibe – ten years too late. Oh – plus a small, equally dated swipe at Americans, which I’d quite like to take out now.

But once you’ve made a joke, you can’t take it back.

Sometimes – today especially – I wish I could.

the new problem of what i will read at 2am

There are three reasons why I started writing a blog. The first was because (as anyone who has read this thing since the start will know) I am a pretty average comedian; but, it turns out, not too bad at writing about it.

The second reason was because I wanted to chart my comedic progress (particularly during Edinburgh). You probably already know how that went.

And the third was because of reading Andrew Watts’ blog. Which he has apparently now decided to pack in.

So I could be writing about anything this evening. I could write about the first ever Sussex University comedy night, which I basically had to organise from scratch and which finally went ahead on Monday to an audience of over a hundred; or about the Beckett project I’m working on; or about the ridiculous fact that some MPs are, without a hint of irony, claiming that it’s a bad thing for museums to exploit interns.

But I’d rather write about how sad I will be if Andrew never blogs again.

For a start, it’s the only way anyone ever seems to get any new material out of him. As a performer he’s quite unashamedly been doing the same first five minutes of stand-up for five years now, which is as long as both as us have been performing. I can’t even remember my first five.

In fairness, it’s a brilliant opening five and it’s got him into the kinds of paid work and competition finals that I’ve never got. (I mean, that might be because I have never really tried competitive stand-up – I loathe competitions on principle and never even bothered to enter So You Think You’re Funny or the Hackney Empire New Act Competition or most of the others, and even when I have entered competitions, I’ve always sabotaged my chances by using them to do totally new material about stupid things like Picasso and the BNP. Not good, solid stuff about women and cricket. But that’s not the point – the point is that one great joy of reading Andrew’s blog has been watching an act that I regard as relatively successful, harping on endlessly about Jack W****hall’s instant fame. I think I just liked knowing that even if I’d entered and been a multiple competition finalist and rising star like Andrew, it still wouldn’t actually make me happy…)

Also, I should say that I have disagreed with Andrew on almost every point of religious, cultural and party political principle that he’s written about. He doesn’t like Beckett and adores Julian Fellowes; he somehow thinks the Liberal Democrats are inherently racist and that if the slave trade were still happening now it would be the Tories leading the campaign against it; and he holds pretty much exactly the same High Anglican church values that I was brought up with, and found impossible to justify under even the tiny weight of my own teenage philosophical questioning, let alone the kind of properly empirical demands I’d try to make now.

And yet…he’s really funny. And smart. And I like the way he writes an awful lot. And his blog has conclusively proved the George Orwell thing about how you shouldn’t spend too much time around conservatives because you’ll only end up getting to like them.

Often, agreeing with the conclusions is kind of irrelevant. As always, the real content is in the style. And if nothing else, Andrew’s blog has taught me (of all people) that public-school-educated Christian Tories can be okay really – perhaps even decent, honest, intelligent people. And because of this, that blog has shifted my distain away from them, and onto the kind of small-minded party tribalists who still think that all Tories/Labour/LibDems/whatevers are stupid and evil.

So if it is true that Andrew is not going to blog any more, then I will miss Andrew’s blog. I will miss regularly learning new things about abolitionism. I will miss being woken up at 2am by email alerts from MySpace – MySpace, of all fucking things! – saying “Andrew Watts has posted a new blog!” And then reading it anyway. I will miss hearing about his successive glorious failures at pulling girls at gigs. I will miss getting day-by-day updates on the long-running narrative arc of how his mother is gradually becoming convinced that stand-up really is the right thing for him to be doing (and if this is true and not merely a literary device, she would be the only person still unconvinced in the country). I will even miss his little rants about how everyone shouldn’t hate Tories, especially now that, however much I hated their last budget or what they’ve done to the Lib Dems, I don’t hate them either…

So. Andrew. If you should read this (which I’m sure you will, because like all good stand-ups you are a terrible narcissist), then I want you to know that if you stop keeping a blog then it will be like The Archers just stopped. Certainly for me, and I have no doubt for a few others besides. And even when it’s boring, nobody wants that.

But if you’re definitely going to stop altogether, then, well…thank you.

And, um…can you like to come and do my Sussex University gig if it runs after Easter?

why i’ve gone a bit quiet again

So I’ve been a bit quiet again the last few weeks, but it’s mainly because I’ve started this thing which has been taking up a bit of time…(mumbles incoherently)

…all right, so I’ve basically started a PhD. Don’t worry, you won’t have to call me Doctor or anything. Not unless I’m examining your vagina with a torch.*

But I’ve enrolled to do some doctoral research at Sussex University (because the lecturers there are super) on the philosophy of stand-up. Yes, that’s right. The philosophy of stand-up comedy. And I’ve spent the last three weeks writing a short piece on John Morreall’s philosophy of laughter. I’m trying to decide whether to publish it here or not…

* copyright Toby Williams 2007

the wisdom of silenus

There’s a reason why comedians shouldn’t be allowed near alcohol. I think we’re fairly well-disposed to misery anyway, but people prone to annual post-Edinburgh anticlimactic mood slumps shouldn’t drink at all.

Not everyone gets the post-festival depression, of course – some comics I’ve spoken to just came back exhausted.

But there seems to be a fair bit of depression about. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether you stop drinking (as is most sensible, despite the alcohol-withdrawal period) or carry on and just accept that you’ve become an alcoholic.

I know so many stand-ups who don’t drink at all; they don’t need naming here, but if you know any then just ask around and you’ll find a higher than normal percentage of teetotallers. Meanwhile, the ones who do drink probably drink too much.

This is possibly because, Edinburgh aside, drinking – like comedy – is both a relaxant and a downer. They are both mechanisms for those who know just what a bleak and shitty thing life is, and understand that the only alternative to nihilism and suicide is to embrace it anyway, to make something joyful out of it, to create laughter out of pain.

Which is what comedians and alcoholics generally tend to be addicted to.

If you’re fully committed to one mechanism, it’s likely that you’ll either have to forgo the other – or embrace it just as completely.

I think the Greeks were probably onto something with their myths about Silenus. He was the closest companion – often, it’s said, even the tutor – of Dionysus, the god of wine and orgies and music and loss of control.

Basically, Silenus was the guy who taught fun to the god of fun.

In art, he’s pretty much always depicted drunk. Old, bald, and drunk. Sometimes he also has the ears and legs of a horse, but I think that’s probably irrelevant.

Anyway, for those of you who are not familiar with it from The Birth of Tragedy or whatever, the story goes that one day, King Midas – yes, that one – was trying to find the secret of happiness, the thing that is most desirable for humans to have. Midas did that kind of thing, and it tended to get him into trouble. You remember the gold-touching thing.

On one occasion he went to speak to Silenus. Silenus repeatedly refused to tell him, so Midas did what any smart king would do and got Silenus drunk. Eventually, Silenus laughed and burst out,

“Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be better for you not to hear? What is best for you is utterly beyond your reach: it is not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing! But the second best for you is – to die soon.”

Remember – this was Mr. Fun. This is what Mr. Funny Funtimes, the man who taught fun to the god of fun, can only admit when he’s drunk.

Most alcoholics and most good comedians understand the bleak pointlessness of existence all the time, and never more than in the weeks after an Edinburgh run. The laughter stops and we get left with – what?

Overdrafts; insomnia; distraction; collapsing relationships, homelessness (if, like me, you were dumb enough to leave your house to go to Edinburgh)…

And then we come back to London and we make stupid judgements.

And nobody stops us.

We shouldn’t be allowed.

day 24: the last night of the fringe is always weird

By early Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in an empty flat.

Rik and Fraser and Rachel had all left (after doing lots of cleaning, which was very lovely of them), but I was still there. Like an idiot, I had booked the showcase for one last Sunday night show.

Last year, when we did the Scurvy Stand-up Showcase, Tony and I decided not to bother with the showcase on the final night. I went out in the dark drizzle, drank too much and had some conversations that don’t need repeating here but which have never dislodged themselves from my head and probably never will.

The year before that I ended up in an argument that I didn’t want to get into.

The year before that, I ended my last night in Edinburgh sitting in Waverley Station at 5.30am trying to get a train to a remote rural farmhouse, wondering why I had been such an idiot to quit stand-up and realising that the months I’d taken away from it had set me back further than I had thought.

What I’m saying is that the last night of the Edinburgh Fringe is always weird.

I spent the day wandering around the city – which had, as it always has towards the end, the feeling of a carnival being gradually taken down while people are still trying to go on the rides – looking for things to do. The best thing I did was to go and watch Eric do his Laws Of The Land show. This was good, not just because it’s a really good show, but also because, totally by surprise, I was in it.

I knew Eric had asked to use a few of the e-petitions I sometimes read out when I do the closing section of the Comedy Manifesto; I had said of course he could, and when he asked if I’d make him a video of me doing it, I said I certainly would. Then, Edinburgh being Edinburgh, I didn’t get round to making the video. But I wanted to see the show anyway, and so there I was, quite happily watching the show, when a big picture of my face appeared on the screen – and a very generous plug for the Showcase. Then Eric asked if I’d like to come up and do the bit myself since I was there. I was so flattered that I didn’t need asking twice.

After that, though, it got to the showcase itself. I was a bit unsure about doing it, but Timmy really wanted to. So we did a bit of flyering (Timmy more enthusiastically than me), but didn’t book any acts because we didn’t think anyone would come.

What we didn’t factor in is that so many other shows were cancelled on the last night. So five minutes before the show was due to begin, and 50-odd people turned up, I grabbed Jonathan Prager off the street, and Timmy grabbed Doctor Brown.

Both were greeted with stony silence by an audience who were basically just a bunch of dicks. In the end, Phil (Doctor Brown) just told the audience to ‘go home and take a good hard look at themselves in the mirror’. Then he walked off. It was horrible.

Then I told one particularly twatty-looking guy in the front row called ‘Dean’, who had shouted a heckle about tumbleweed earlier on, that if he thought he could do any better than one of the most brilliant clowns I’ve ever seen then perhaps he should come up and try it. I was thinking that at worst, it would make the show a bit more interesting, and at best it would fill some of the cavernous expanse of time we’d left ourselves by not booking anyone. And as expected, at that point the audience came alive – the first sign of cooperation or engagement from them at all – and started shouting for ‘Dean’ to get up.

So he did. And he did five minutes of horrible, shit pub jokes. And the audience went wild for it.

He even closed with a ‘Paddy and Mick’ joke. To rapturous applause. To his credit, he had pretty good stage presence and he did at least give that bunch of bastards in the audience what they wanted. But they wanted Paddy and fucking Mick jokes.

As we stood in the Hive’s sick-smelling backstage tunnel, Timmy turned to me and said, “You know what we’ve done? We’ve broken comedy. Broken and defiled comedy.”

And he was right. Unfortunately he wasn’t quite able to recreate that kind of witty insight on stage, and he headlined to ten minutes of silence. But maybe that’s because none of his material is the kind of racist crap that the audience wanted.

Anyway, we got about £8 in the bucket at the end, (and a painful chat with some people who’d sat at the back and were insistent that ‘Dean’ had been a set-up, hadn’t he? No, he really wasn’t, I said), and then decided to go to the so Just The Tonic end-of-festival party. Where there was a free bar. And we got drunk enough to forget what had just happened and to try and remember that – weird final night aside – it had been a good last few days.

And so ended the festival for another year.