I like big rants and I cannot lie

Something happened tonight.

I was onstage at Scurvy Wednesdays and something happened, and I don’t know who else in the room noticed it but there was a moment, just a moment, when I thought I might just have found a voice.

It all happened like this: I realised a few days ago that there is something funny in the idea of a comedian who had a real love of silly jokes but recognized the silliness of the jokes, referenced it, explained it. Tim Vine does it incredibly well, though that’s not the point of his act. To an extent, it IS the point of Stewart Lee‘s act but in many ways he’s almost too clever to put that on the surface of the text because he wants the audience to laugh at his actual material as well…

Anyway, when I was at the Comedy Cafe last Wednesday, my silly jokes were, for the first time, not getting the laughs they had been getting the previous night. I had this idea of pretending to get angry, ironically taking it on the audience for the stupidness of the material. And I did a little bit along the lines of, “I’ve been doing stand-up for three years and until now I was doing hard-hitting topical comedy,” and they laughed. And afterwards, Joel Dommett – an act I really rate – said, “you’re really funny when you get angry.”

And I remembered, then, about a really interesting gig I did a few years ago, at the Bedford in Balham. While I was onstage, someone laughed at an odd time. A girl with her boyfriend. And I asked them what they’d laughed at, and they said, the way a beer mat had stuck to the bottom of the glass. And I good-naturedly and mock-hysterically abandoned my material and got angry, went off on a rant about how that was the most damning heckle ever because they were implying that a sticky beer mat was funnier than the comedian, and perhaps we should all just play with beer mats, and then I thought ‘fuck it’, and I ran with it and got a beer mat up on stage and put it behind the microphone and went, ‘is THIS what you want? IS IT? IS IT?’ And the audience laughed.

I don’t think everyone felt entirely comfortable that night, but it got very good laughs from most of the room, and I finished my set to a generally very good response. Afterwards, a very good and wise comedian called James Cann – who then went up and did a flawless set of brilliant prepared material – said to me, ‘you picked on someone who was laughing. That’s dangerous.’ It was a night where audience judges decided the best act of the night by marking them out of ten; I got a few 9/10s, but the couple I’d picked on, even though they told me afterwards they thought it was brilliant, had ‘ironically’ given me a 1/10. James had got solid 8/10s from pretty much all the judges, so – perhaps deservedly – got the highest average score and won the night. (He does mostly improv now. I like to think that’s because he got tired of doing the same consistently great stuff every night…)

Anyway, I had learned that night that not everyone likes an angry comedian, and I didn’t do it again for a while. But I had really enjoyed doing it.

So after Joel had reminded me about this, I thought to myself: I wonder what would happen if the act was a comedian who not only recognises the silliness of his silly jokes but is actually really angry at himself for doing them. Is there potentially something funny in that pathetic self-and-audience-loathing of a comic who thinks he’s somehow better than his material, even though really he isn’t? I suggested this idea to Loz over a lunchtime beer last week, and he seemed to think it was worth a try.

And it occurred to me that actually, there is an extent to which I can honestly identify with that idea; I did spend an incredibly long time at University studying philosophy for the end product to be nothing more than a serious of puns based around the phrase ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’.

So when I was deciding what to do tonight, and I realised that hardly anyone there had seen this ‘big butts’ bit, I thought, I’ll do it but then I’ll play this anger at my own silliness up. I’ll go onstage and I’ll get really angry. And I’ll rant and shout and I’ll be pathetic and self-loathing.

And that’s what I did. At the start of the set there were not so many laughs for the actual joke. But then, the more shouty and pathetic I got, the bigger the laughs got, and there was one point when I almost lost my flow because I had to wait for at least one particularly big laugh to fade. And for a very brief moment, I genuinely lost myself in what I was doing, got lost in the moment, in trying to channel the raw emotion, of how painful and frustrating stand-up can be, of how much I want to be good at it…that so rarely happens…

Then, after about 5 or 6 minutes, the tide of the rant had peaked and dipped, and the room was left in a state of slightly awkward tension. What was needed then was to have written a really good punchline to break that tension and make it all okay.

I didn’t have that punchline. Instead, I tried to do a new bit about pie charts. It didn’t really work and the set fell flat towards the end. Which was probably a bit of a let-down (the bit about pie charts is quite good, but it wasn’t the place for it).

But I will find that punchline, and I will destroy rooms with it…

And besides, I felt pretty satisfied when I left the stage. I felt like I was getting close to something, that there was a glimpse of an act, a voice, there. 

At no point do I think that everybody in the room really enjoyed it. I know Tony didn’t. The phrase he used after the show was ‘car crash’, which hurt a bit because he’s such a good act and I value his opinion a lot. But I do know that I tried something new, that there was a section in the middle where I was getting good laughs from a fair chunk of the audience, plus Loz seemed to really enjoy it (at least before I did the pie charts), and the other acts smiled and shook my hand in a way that they don’t do when I actually do badly. (I know what that’s like, I’ve done it enough times now.) 

So perhaps it’s not to everyone’s taste, and I have no doubt at all that there will be nights where this new idea goes horribly, horribly wrong.

But I do think I may have found a kernel of an act to believe in and work at; and that is more than I’ve ever had since I started doing this whole ridiculous stand-up thing. More importantly, it’s a reason to look forward to the next gig.

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the justice of paying to play

There’s a popular conception of ‘justice’ as meaning ‘people getting what they deserve’.

Political philosophers like to call this idea ‘Justice as desert‘, though I’ve often thought this might be because they like making bad puns about getting the after-dinner sweet you deserve (it’s a badly kept secret that philosophers love puns; the fact that Jacques Derrida based most of his philosophy on puns didn’t make him rare, it was just rare that he didn’t mind admitting it).

Anyway, the thing about justice being the idea that people get what they deserve means a few things: firstly, it means that anyone who argues that income tax should be low on the grounds that people deserve to keep the earnings they worked hard for, while also arguing against high rates of inheritance tax, is an idiot: either the condition of deserving wealth is a person’s own hard work (ie not that of their parents) or it isn’t.

Secondly, and of more relevance to this weblog, it means that there is a remarkable amount of justice in stand-up comedy. You can call it instant karma, you can call it survival of the whatever, but it really does seem that those people who work hard at their act while making the effort to be polite and nice to people are very often rewarded, and those who don’t are, in a sense, punished (for example, I know of one act who has offended so many other acts that his gig request emails now contain a list of people he’d rather not be on a bill with. I don’t personally dislike him but he’s upset so many people that perhaps it’s not entirely by chance that he struggles to get gigs, and then struggles for laughs when he does get booked).

Anyway, I’ve noticed this phenomenon even more recently.

The day of my gig in Eastbourne on Sunday, for example, I really wanted to have a good gig, so I worked really hard on planning my act, I got to the gig early, I did my absolute best to be polite to everybody, and then in the evening I had a really lovely gig (and a pretty good night out afterwards, largely thanks to the excellent company of Bobby Carroll). On the other hand, at last week’s Scurvy Wednesday, I was fucking dire. I mean, really reeeeally bad. I wasn’t prepared properly and then I stupidly picked on a lovely and well-meaning guy in the front row; his girlfriend was offended, I got a garbled apology all wrong, headbutted the microphone and that came up in a massive infected lump which took six days to clear up.

Anyway, you get out what you put in; you get what you deserve.

But then there is the question of where that leaves pay-to-play gigs like the Lion’s Den ‘Comedy Car Crash’. Does paying to go on earn you a better gig? Of course not. But I had a stormer there on Tuesday. Obviously the concept of the night is pure evil, and Andrew O’Neill, (another act who I really admire and whose hard work and professionalism and general loveliness seem to be reaping rewards for him) rightly pointed out to me through facebook that I shouldn’t be doing any gigs like that because promoters should never under any circumstances be charging acts to put on a show for them.

But as I mentioned in my last blog, the Lion’s Den is an anomaly; it’s a great club despite its relentlessly evil business model; its a great place to try out new or risky material because they almost always have a great audience in (often bigger and smarter and more receptive than most of the clubs I’ve done for free/flyered for next to nothing). I can only guess that it’s because Tim and co. are so hardworking and so nice and so respectful of the audience and the acts (with the exception of charging them four quid, obviously) that they get what they deserve.

I think if they genuinely were just being dicks and taking the money off acts because they couldn’t be bothered to promote the night properly then I hope nobody would go and the night would fail. I certainly wouldn’t go. That would be justice.

But Tuesday’s gig was – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – it was worth paying the £4 to do, given that the other options I had for that night would have cost me more than that to get to and would usually (at this time of year) have audiences in single figures, because they can’t afford to properly publicise; and the reason I’m paying £4 at the Lion’s Den (which cost me nothing to get to) is to make sure the night is well publicised…

The question I’m wrestling with is, is it just to do a gig which is unjust in principle, if it’s for people who (with the exception of that one awful principle) deserve to be putting on good nights? Does doing the gig mean I don’t deserve to have a good gig? Agh…

I don’t think paying to play makes you deserve a good gig; that would be nonsense. But maybe having to deal with the problem of justice every time you do it…Ah, I don’t know.

I’ve confused myself altogether, now.

Perhaps that’s what I deserve.

pushing the boundaries of not funny

The great thing about stuff that isn’t funny is that it can be made funny.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

What this means is that there is never a guarantee that anything a really interesting comedian does is actually going to work. Oh, you can do the kind of dull pullback and reveals that are very likely to get a laugh, the kind of stuff that gets you gigs at Jongleurs or wherever. But that likeliness, that predictability, means they aren’t really very interesting. And anyway, why would you want to do that kind of thing when what’s really happening is that the order of words in a sentence is doing all the funniness for you? Firstly, it means that with the exception of its grammatical structures, your act itself is of no value – a great comedian should be able to say anything and make it funny; and secondly, it’s no fun.

I’ve always thought this, but recently it’s made real practical sense. I’ve been deliberately starting my act with the new ‘sir mix-a-lot’ bit which is basically just some really bad jokes. Not predictable jokes and certainly not reveals; but the kind of silly puns which ought to get no laughs at all. But it’s meant I’ve needed to really sell them, and that has meant that I’ve had to really develop my style in a way that I wouldn’t have had to with more obvious jokes.

I’ll get to the point. Last night I did a gig at the Lion’s Den in King’s Cross. It’s a club for which I have a really profound mixture of love, affection and distain: of course the business model of gong shows and pay-to-play shows is anathema to interesting comedy, but Tim Rendle and the other guys imvolved in it are such wonderfully cool and nice people and have so much enthusiasm for giving really well-promoted stagetime to new acts that it almost doesn’t matter. I really think they are doing more for new comedy there than almost any other club in the country, certainly more than the big clubs.

But last night was weird. It was a typical friday-night-open-spot-show-in-May kind of audience (ie very small and mostly made up of the comics plus the odd friend, and a group of four or five well-meaning but fully-inebriated young women). Nobody was getting gonged off because the audience was so small and intimate that nobody wanted to hold up their cards. But it didn’t really feel like anyone was really killing.

I was due to be on in the second half, and I’d planned to do (I even had written on my hand) the same stuff I’d done at the lovely Northampton gig the night before. But in the second half, some audience members had left and the whole thing took on a feeling of pointlessness. Anyone who wasn’t a comedian was now holding a red card, and they seemed to be getting bored.

I could, I thought, go up and do those jokes I’ve got on my hand. I probably would have beaten the gong quite easily if I did. But what would have been the point? Most of the people still in the room were other comics who are not exactly short of opportunities to see my act anyway…

During the interval Katerina Vrana had joked that instead of doing the show, we just sing a duet. I had laughed. It was a funny joke.

But like I said before, the thing about funny jokes is that it’s possible to take them seriously. So when it was my time to go up, I took her up on her suggestion. I announced to the audience that I wasn’t going to do the stuff I’d planned and was throwing away the script, and the room cheered. They cheered again when I got Katerina up on stage, got her to sing the first few lines of ‘I Got You, Babe’ with me and then left her onstage trying to spontaneously make up blues lyrics while ran over to a piano that was next to the stage and hamfistedly fucked out some blues chords. Katerina (to her infinite credit) ran with my madness. It felt anarchic and exciting, and like nothing else that would be on last night.

As soon as I stopped playing, the gong sounded.

I hadn’t realized it, but at some point the few people who still had cards had got fed up and carded us. Then Rachel Stubbings came on, did a straight set of gags and won the night.

Afterwards, I tried to figure out exactly what happened and why I/we got gonged. Tim Rendle said he loved it but called it “failure by proxy” because I’d left Katerina onstage with no plan.

I asked Tania Edwards, who is really great act, if perhaps it just wasn’t what the remaining audience expected.

“Well,” said Tania, “it wasn’t comedy.”

Still, the point is that it could have been. There really is no way of knowing. To make original comedy, you have to take something that isn’t already funny and make it funny… But you can’t do that without taking a few risks…

homecoming

I just did my first ever gig in Northampton, and it was lovely.

That wouldn’t be at all interesting, of course, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m from there; I was born and grew up in Northampton. And it’s special. Not just special for me – just…special.

Alan Moore, who is also from Northampton (and famously still is), lives round the corner from the venue. He isn’t wrong when he goes on ad nauseum about what a remarkable place it is. It is remarkable, largely because of its unremarkability (it’s an average sized settlement of averagely mixed social class, slap-bang in the middle of an average bit of England; it really has almost nothing special about it apart from its resolute refusal to have anything special about it). But…also because there’s something about the air there. It smells sweet and frustrating and parochial and kind and arrogant and foolish, and that kind of air is creative rocket-fuel for me.

The gig itself, as one of the other acts pointed out, seemed to have everything possible wrong with it; free entry, in the main room of a pub, in a fairly insalubrious part of a provincial town, with the ‘stage’ right by the main entrance, an inexperienced compere (who, while potentially a great act, just didn’t have the stagetime behind him to do the almost impossible job of warming up a room), no name acts and a generally non-comedy-literate crowd. But it was genuinely great.

Unlike a lot of London gigs I’ve done recently, loads of people turned up (including some of my best ever friends who still live in town), the room was packed, and there was so much goodwill in the room that by the time I got onstage, the audience had figured out exactly when and how they were meant to respond to show their approval. And they did. The act on before me had just done straight gags and they’d loved it, so I did a fairly gag-heavy set based around my new ‘sir mix-a-lot’ bit, which plays with the conventions of joke form (albeit in a fairly tame way) and they seemed to really enjoy it.

In the gents afterwards, a man with classically bad Northamptonian hair said to me, ‘I liked your stuff – it was really…alternative’. When I explained that that term was often used as a veiled way of saying ‘not funny or good in any way’, he assured me that he really had meant it in a good way.

And for once, I actually believed him.

betting on the horse

THE LINEUP FOR THE LAUGHING HORSE FINAL HAS BEEN ANNOUNCED

And for the sake of shamelessly courting needless controversy in order to draw attention to my blog, while ridiculing the idea of the ‘comedy competition’ (without explicitly showing my deep bitterness that I’ve never won one), here is the Charlie Duncan list of odds

 

FAVOURITES:

Helm and Taylor 4/1 (because they stormed their semi-final and are more fun than jellywrestling)

Kai Humphries 4/1 (beat a very strong semi-final lineup, beating Fergus Craig and knocking out Joe Bor, Joel Dommett, Tom Goodliffe)

Joe Lycett 5/1 (also won a very strong semi, knocking out Tania Edwards, Mark Simmons, Joe Baker)

 

OTHER POSSIBLE WINNERS/PLACINGS:

Fergus Craig 7/1 (Hackney Empire new act champion, came 2nd in a ridiculously strong semi.)

Sam Gore 7/1 (a big hit in the Manchester/Yorkshire circuit, though he won the semi with the weakest – on paper, at least – lineup)

Jason Patterson 10/1 (won his heat, very charming and confident, frequently does well. Likely to get a placing.)

Alex Maple 14/1 (Lovely act, won his heat but might be too laid back to upstage the likes of Helm + Taylor )

Tony Dunn 14/1 (strong runner up in the semi despite going on first, killer material, big Scottish face)

 

OUTSIDERS:

Lady Garden 25/1 (Hackney Empire finalists but would have to do something special to win this)

Andrew Ryan 25/1 (Affable Irishman, was a runner up in a very strong semi, but would have to pull off a surprise against the big guns to win)

Mike O’Donovan 25/1 (lovely stage persona and deserving finalist; like Alex Maple, may be too laid back to storm in a competition final though)

Lambros Fisfis 30/1 (Very funny, but as the 2nd placed act in one of the weaker semi-finals would be a surprise winner in the final).

Martin Hill 30/1 (great ranting which could get a great response on a big night if he brings the room with him; but was only 3rd placed in his semi so has to be ranked as an outsider)

 

If anybody wants to place any bets with me, they’ll have to do it on the sly seeing as how as I’m not a licensed bookmaker. But feel free to ask for my bank details. (A payout is not guaranteed under any circumstances. Alex Petty, other employees of Laughing Horse and their families are not eligible to enter.) 

necessity and contingency

I think I’m a pretty good philosophy teacher.

There was never a doubt in my mind – not at any point – that I would be. (Bear with me, the self-loathing’s coming in a minute.) Anyway, it occurred to me today that maybe my being good at teaching philosophy is partly due to the fact that I’ve never doubted my ability to do it.

And then I wonder whether I would be better at stand-up comedy now, if I had never doubted that I would be a great comic. And I wonder if there’s a psychological hurdle that I still need to cross in order to get to that next level. (See?)

When I’m standing in front of a class teaching philosophy…I feel comfortable, I feel confident, I feel funny. When things are going well, I might catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a window, moving with that sense of purpose and fun that I see so often in the comics I admire. I play spontaneously with ideas, coming up with stuff on the spot that is better and funnier than anything I could have planned. And yeah, I get quite a lot of laughs. Admittedly in the context of a philosophy class the laughs are easier because that’s not ostensibly the primary purpose of the activity so the pressure’s lower; but I get a lot of good laughs nonetheless, because I don’t doubt that I will. Even when things aren’t going great, I don’t doubt for a second that I’m still going to pull it round.

But in front of comedy audiences in the last few weeks… I seem to have this fearful voice in my head that says, ‘don’t fuck it up – don’t fuck it up or you’ll lose them…’ And then a joke doesn’t work, I get distracted by it, and then (stupidly) refer to it, which gets a good initial laugh of recognition that the joke didn’t work but doesn’t do much for the audience’s faith in the rest of my act…

Most audiences don’t really notice, of course; they still laugh all the way through the set and seem to enjoy themselves; and I’m mostly still doing the kind of open-mic circuit gigs where nobody really kills, so my jitters maybe don’t stand out that much. But I’m sure I can sense a slight feeling in the room of, ‘well, that was averagely competent’; and I can feel the difference between an average gig and really good one. And it’s a good few weeks since I’ve done a really good one.

It hasn’t always been like this, of course. There’s been patches when I’ve got on a stormingly good run of gigs, when every audience – big or small – seem to laugh like I’m saying the funniest and yet most insightful things they’ve ever heard; when every line seems to get a really good, honest laugh and the best ones get spontaneous applause; when girls have come up to me after gigs and told me how great I was (obviously I thank them politely and go home to Nan)…when I’ve thought, ‘maybe I really am able to do this well…’

But that feels like short runs of gigs – maybe 10 or 12 at best – and more significantly, it never feels like that success was inevitable or necessary. It always feels like it will come to an end. (And most annoyingly, it very rarely seems to coincide with really important gigs like the competitions, or open spots at the big clubs).

So I’m guessing the difference really is just confidence. It’s quite likely that I’m a confident teacher because I come from a family of schoolteachers; of course it’s inconceivable that I won’t be a good teacher. It’s the family business.

But annoyingly, neither of my parents are comedians.

So I guess I worry that that makes a difference; though when I can think rationally, I know that it’s not the genealogy, but the worrying, that really makes a difference.

In short, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…”

“…oh, and having crap material. Obviously” 

being on the internet

I’ve been on my computer for a silly amount of hours in the last few days. I’m more or less convinced that the radiation from my laptop has made it impossible for me to ever have children.

Still, it might be worth it; that observed lesson went pretty well, plus I now have a blog and there is an official Scurvy website for anyone to look at, should they possibly want to.

Websites take so bloody long to build that it’s a wonder this internet thing ever took off at all. Still, it has some kind of nascent existence now, even if its essence is yet to be chosen. Not that a website could ever experience itself as being a radically free being-for-itself, of course – that would scare old M. Jean-Paul as much as it scares me – but the point is, it exists at last.

It was about time it did. As well as the Islington Club show, we’re doing two Scurvy shows this summer (‘we’ being myself, Loz, and Tony Dunn), and they need publicising. And what better way to make sure information is available for everyone to ignore than to put it on the internet?

Anyway. It’s there now. It is; therefore I don’t need to think about it.

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