on love – from stand-up philosophy

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stand-up philosophy: the academics’ edition

WOW.

On Tuesday night something a little weird and very special happened: about three hundred people turned up, at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, to hear a bunch of academics talk about philosophy.

There were so many people that we had to run two shows simultaneously because there were just far two many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre.

And I was the lucky, lucky fellow who got to compere it all.

—–

There is some backstory to this. Last autumn, I was talking to Dr. Gordon Finlayson of Sussex University about the idea of Stand-up Philosophy. We were discussing how it could work, who could do it, what its purpose would be, etc. Gordon suggested that since the emphasis would be on serious (but accessible) philosophy rather than comedy, it could be called ‘Philosophy Stand-up: No Joke.’

And then Gordon said that he thought it would be a good idea to talk about it to the rather prestigious and brilliant Forum for European Philosophy based at the LSE, which organises public philosophy events and of which he is part of their planning committee.

And then a few months later, as I was trying to organise my little experimental night in the Jeremy Bentham pub, Gordon said to me, ‘It’s happening. You should come to the next planning meeting of the Forum.’

Crikey, I thought. And then I went along.

The committee of the Forum for European Philosophy convene in a rather ornate meeting room, high up in the Old Academic Building of the LSE. The board is packed with various professors and senior lecturers and is chaired by the Forum’s director, Simon Glendinning. I hadn’t met Dr. Glendinning before, but I knew of him. He is something of a big deal authority on J.S. Mill. On that day he came in wearing a very smart suit with a waistcoat and tie, looking extremely distinguished and – for me – quite intimidating. And there I was – as a comedian – at a table with them all.

I was quite taken aback by how much they seemed to like the idea of Stand-up Philosophy; they had already scheduled an event, and Gordon seemed to have persuaded them to let me compere it.

Simon and the other philosophers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat hesitant about my suggestion that we invite some stand-up comedians to take part too. But that didn’t matter: the point was that they were interested in the idea.

Afterwards, I worried. Was anyone even going to come? The event had been booked at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, after exams had finished and outside of term time. It was booked for the Wolfson Theatre, a quite fancy new lecture theatre which seats 130 people and doesn’t allow people to take drinks in. There were no comedians on the bill, and most people outside of the very small world of academic philosophy wouldn’t have heard of any of the philosophers who had been invited to perform.

Surely we would be performing to about ten or fifteen sober postgrads in a room which was too humiliatingly large?

—–

Then, it seemed, philosophy made a comeback.

This summer, the ‘How The Light Gets In’ festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye seemed to really take off.

I started my night at the Jeremy Bentham pub, and the room has been consistently full (much fuller, in fact, than most comedy nights at this time of year).

A few weeks after that, an event called ‘My Night With Philosophers’ ran a night of public lectures at the Institut Francais; I went to see what was happening and there must have been close to a thousand people there.

And then we put on our event at the LSE on Tuesday.

I arrived at six in the evening, and there were already about ten people sitting in the Wolfson Theatre. That’s our ten, I thought. They’re keen.

Then more people came. And more. And more. They filled all the seats in the theatre by 6.20. And then they just kept coming.

Eventually, Gordon and Simon – who had both volunteered to perform – suggested that we were either going to have to run a second show, or turn away at least a hundred people. So we found some space and ran a second show – simultaneously with the first – with me frantically running between the two rooms, welcoming acts on to the stages, charing mini-Q-and-A-sessions and generally trying to give the whole thing the impression of orderliness.

It was brilliant.

After about an hour and forty minutes, everyone was exhausted but both rooms had seen all six philosophers speak, and they seemed very happy.

There was even a podcast made of the show in the Wolfson Theatre. It’s at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1939

—–

I’m starting to get the impression that many, many people have been interested in philosophy in a much more serious way than most academic philosophers like to think; they just find academic philosophy pretentious and inaccessible.

Philosophy has been concerned for its own survival for a while; academic philosophers are terrified about department closures, and cuts in teaching budgets and research funding. But at the same time, we’ve been gradually making our discipline so completely opaque to outsiders, especially in the language we use, that what we do is often impossible for any normal person to get their head around.

Too many academic philosophers complain that Alain de Botton can sell a million books, while doing almost nothing to make their own arguments available or accessible to the public. Instead, they obsess about whether they can get an article published in tiny niche journals that only about two hundred people ever read. These philosophers are right, I think, to be worried for their survival. And if they don’t survive, who will miss them?

But I think philosophy which makes itself as accessible and unpretentious as possible is capable of thriving. A few academic philosophers are starting to get this: that the general public of non-philosophers contains a huge number of people who are intelligent, curious, and want to know about philosophy. They do want to know what philosophers are doing, and do philosophy themselves, and know how philosophy can be fun and useful and important to them, too.

They just need ways in.

I want Stand-up Philosophy to be a way in. And I am finally starting to think that I am not the only one.

stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…

HOORAY.

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…

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?

day 11: midway, and the feeling is that things have perhaps already peaked

Since I’d made a promise to the entire cast of a play who turned up at the showcase the previous night, I thought I’d better start the day by going to see their play.

And oh boy was it depressing.

It was called ‘The Fallen’ and it was the single most saddening play I think I’ve ever seen – it was about a soldier who returns from war with post-traumatic stress and then kills himself, and how his wife and son cope with it. The music was beautiful and I was a little bit terrified by how a bunch of kids from Warwickshire could perform so maturely and powerfully. There can’t have been a single one of them over twenty, but between them and the musical score they genuinely had me in tears.

Having said that, even though I started crying during the play, when it came to the physical movement-y parts near the end, the treatment was so heavy-handed that I actually stopped crying and just got annoyed that it hadn’t been more subtle. Perhaps I just don’t like dance. But there was no need to have more than two or three mimes of an action that used to be done with two people and now had someone missing. It’s a common problem with amateur and youth productions, that directors feel everyone has to have enough to do, and rather than giving them actually different things to do they have an extended section where everyone does a variation on one thing, which can get dull. Ah, well. It was a good production all the same, and they clearly had quality performers right through the cast.

Timmy Manners arrived today, to run the showcase with me for the rest of the festival; I was relieved to see him because I was starting to get a little jaded. I might just have been tired and hungover, of course, but the comedy that seemed to be coming so easily last week seems to be getting tiring now.

It didn’t really help that the showcase was the hardest work so far. It went okay, but it didn’t really take off, and even David Whitney struggled a little bit. I think he’s tired too.

To be honest, I think everyone’s tired. It’s a good thing that the Flashback were having a night off; the show wouldn’t have been great. I kept myself awake after the showcase with a trip to ‘Hunt for a Universal Genius’ (which James Sherwood was particularly funny in), and a party at the Caves.

But to be honest, it would have been better to just go to sleep…

Showcase: audience – small; performance 5

Overall: LOSE

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…

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