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.

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day 5: a healthy amount of obscenity

Who needs phones? Yesterday was a really good day.

Rachel made me a bagel; I bought some really nice coffee; and then I did three great gigs.

I also – although this isn’t what made it a great day, honest – saw two different sets of mens genitals.

The first gig, which didn’t include any genitals but did at least prepare the ground for their – ahem – appearance, was Al Cowie’s gig at Cabaret Voltaire. I co-compered with Patch Hyde, which was as much fun as you might expect if you know Patch (or you read my previous blog about him).

Also included on the bill were Rik (and it was nice to see Rik’s stand-up again after so much Flashbacking) and Tony Dunn. With all the politics of Scurvy last year, I’d forgotten how much I like Tony’s act and how much sheer nerve the guy has. But I should never have forgotten it. It was mid-afternoon, there was at least one child in the audience, and Tony opened with a routine about having big feet which (if you’ve ever seen it before, you’ll know) was entirely and deliberately done to alienate most of the room and it was hilarious.

Afterwards, I went to the Carphone Warehouse to see if my replacement phone had arrived (it hadn’t) and stopped in at the Hive to pick up flyers and see if Bob Slayer, who does an earlier show at the venue, was doing something hilariously disgusting in his show (he was. When I looked into the room, Bob was standing on a chair, spinning around blowing into a melodica, with his pants down and his cock out. The next time I saw him, later that night, I had to try and explain why it wasn’t gentlemanly to be trying to grope the barmaid in public. He seems to be a law unto himself).

Anyway, by the time it got to my Showcase gig, I’d done plenty of flyering and it pretty much filled the room. I think the best thing about doing more compering is that I’m finally getting comfortable with it. That gig was the happiest I’ve been with my compering yet.

We had a good audience in too; including one middle aged couple who were standing outside the show just before we started, wondering what to see. When I told her that the lineup was Luke Benson, David Whitney, Paul Ricketts, and Rachel Anderson, her ears pricked up.

“There’s a female comedian – Rachel – in this one?” She said, and the man she was with audibly sighed.

“Yes,” I said, “in fact she’s going to headline.”

“Right,” said the woman to her companion, “we’ll watch this one!”

The show then included David Whitney’s gloriously filthy (and, to be fair, very clever) oral sex material, and Rachel coming on and singing her song about dealing with low self-esteem by embracing one’s inner slag. Rachel’s song is, of course, heavily tongue-in-cheek and actually comes, I think, from a point of quite strong moral principles. But the woman who had come to see ‘a female comedian’ left after her act, stoney-faced.

Which serves her right for being both sexist and completely devoid of any sense for irony. I just wish she’d been able to see Tony too. Or even Bob Slayer. She’d have hated that and it would have been brilliant.

Apart from that of course, it was a great show. The Flashback show was good too; It felt like there was still a good energy in the room (even if there wasn’t a great smell) from Dr. Brown who is on right before us – when we arrived at the caves I looked into the room and he was revealing his genitals as well, albeit to much greater laughter and applause than Bob had got).

Anyway. It felt from the start of the Flashback show that Rachel had hit exactly the right kind of pace and energy, and even though the audience didn’t give up as much love as I thought the performance merited, it was still a pretty good performance.

We even got a fairly early night – I was in bed by four.

All in all, a good day; and one in which, surrounded by I think I managed to appreciate the obscenity of Edinburgh comedy without really needing to join in. Still, there’s a lot of festival yet to go, and it’s not too late…

Showcase: Audience 48; Performance 7

Flashback: the best performance yet

Overall: BIG WIN

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…

day 5: what gets lost and what gets kept

At lunchtime yesterday, we did the comedy equivalent of eating a pile of spinach, sweetcorn, some greasy big macs and a pint of strong coffee and then did a huge shit on our audience.

Except that doing that would at least have shown a reasonable amount of commitment to what we were doing.

We delivered the whole show, all three of us, as if we didn’t believe in it – and after the previous day’s inspiration from Nietzsche, it’s a pretty easy to deduce that this was never going to convince an audience to believe in it. What started as a lukewarm response became near-silence by the time Tony was doing his ‘Monkey with AIDS’ bit at the end. And Tony’s ‘Monkey with AIDS’ bit is genuinely brilliant. It was unfortunate, in some ways, that this was the day my sister and her husband turned up to watch.

Afterwards, we discussed what the problems were and what to do about them. Tony was initially reluctant to abandon the show, and I had thought at first that if we went out the next day at least pretending to believe in the show, and delivering it with punch and pace, then we could convince audiences that it was a good show even if it had weaknesses in the content. Lawrence was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to be able to believe in the show even if he pretended to, though.

The problem was twofold: firstly, the show was under-rehearsed and the script just wasn’t as good as the previous year’s (though these things could have been improved by some more work and by doing the show every day); and secondly, the whole format wasn’t working, largely because there was just a big lack of energy – the previous year’s show had been almost Pappy’s-like in its pace, with so many frenetic costume changes and mad props that it was hard for the audience not to get carried along by it – they enjoyed themselves because we looked like we were enjoying ourselves. By contrast, this year’s show ended up being the three of us standing around awkwardly with the mood dominated completely by Tony’s deadpan, downbeat persona.

It was a problem that we had completely not seen coming – Tony’s dark, deadpan stuff, which does so well in his stand-up, really is very very funny, and we all had enough faith in it to believe that it would work. Tony had persuaded us, with reasons that made complete sense, that he should play the central role in the show and throw stuff out to Loz and I; I’d only been hesitant about that at first for dumb egoistic reasons, and Tony was very persuasive, especially because he was doing very well, been a competition finalist etc, while I’d had two or three average-to-bad compering gigs at Scurvy Wednesdays and my confidence was shot to bits.

In the end, though, the slow, downbeat mood and the slightly more vanilla tastes of the lunchtime crowd just meant there wasn’t enough movement or fun in the format for lunchtime audiences to go for it. In short, Lawrence was right: the show was doomed and it had to go.

So, we’re doing it as a variation on a pretty normal three-hander now: Tony will come on, do some crowd work, bring me on, I’ll do a set and bring Loz on, he’ll do a set and bring Tony back, and then Tony will do some more stuff before we all come back to do a song at the end. (If it seems unusual to have one act both opening and finishing the show, it’s mainly because Tony can’t really do his more risque stuff at the start of a lunchtime show, but is also keener to do the show-opening crowd work than I am. Like I said, I had a few bad compering gigs at Scurvy Wednesdays, which was partly bad luck but largely my own fault and due to a lack of preparation – plus Tony has been making pretty disparaging comments about my crowd work, many of them not innaccurate, since about January. So any confidence I used to have at it is pretty much gone – and compering, more than anything, is about confidence. At the moment, anyway, I don’t really want to do it – I just want to be doing the best sets I can.)

Anyway, as if to prove Tony was right about doing the compering, his compering in the evening gig was excellent – the best I’ve seen him do – and the show was great. Everyone got laughs, James Sherwood headlined and the whole thing was the best one yet. The only downside for me was that I had to cut my set very very short to get James on quickly; by the time he got on there were only 9 minutes of the show left and Sherwood had to do his last song at record speed…

When I got home, though, I couldn’t sleep at all. I have so many thoughts…ugh.

(On the upside, a few of those thoughts were about a brilliant play I’d seen between the shows – A Respectable Wedding, which is on at C Venues and which everyone should see. It’s a play by Brecht, translated by Rory Bremner, and performed by a group who with apparently infinite energy and who really seem to be able to get the best out of each other. Five stars from me. Or at least, they won’t be dropping any shits on their audiences. )

Circling the Drain: Audience – small; Performance – almost abominable (2/10)

Scurvy Standup Showcase: Audiences – medium; Performance – good (7/10)

Other stuff: Edinburgh is messing with my mind. Get me out of here.

Overall: LOSE

day 4: the rollercoaster of appearance

Not getting enough sleep really plays havoc with your emotions.

I was tired when I woke up; I hadn’t got to sleep till nearly four the night before and woke up at 10. That’s not enough sleep for a nearly-thirty year old, and I was tired all morning. We got to the Royal Mile to flyer a bit later than we should have, and as a consequence about a third of the audience were made up of Tony’s family. Tony has mentioned before that his family are quite religious folk, so I’m not sure what they will have made of our intensely blasphemous show. Understandably, Tony pulled back from some of his more brutal lines. When combined with my tiredness, Loz’s uncertainty about some of his lines, and the general size of the audience, it didn’t add up to a great show. We rushed stuff; we cut stuff; the show ended up being about half an hour long. Perhaps I had the better gig of the three of us, or at least the least worst. But in the circumstances, that didn’t exactly make me feel any better.

I sat with Loz in a cheap pizza cafe on Grassmarket afterwards, feeling tired and miserable and barely talking, and then went to do the Comedy Manifesto. The Manifesto is a wonderful topical panel-type gig, but somehow I didn’t enjoy it. David Mulholland, who books the acts, had booked both me and Tony, which was good in a way but also I was starting to feel like I needed a break from scurvying. It didn’t help that we had to go on opposing teams, because I’ve sometimes felt a kind of odd competitive tension with and from Tony that isn’t good and doesn’t do much for my confidence, what with him being a very talented act and all. Anyway, we both had good gigs – but throughout the whole thing I had this empty feeling like a lack of belief in myself, and afterwards I went home feeling tired and sick and like I just wanted to go home and be with Nan.

But then, once I was in the flat, three things happened. The first was talking to Nan on the phone. That just made me feel a little better, better enough to stop being miserable and just have a nap. The nap was the second thing.

The third thing was waking up and picking up my copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science which, whatever its flaws, is one of the great self-help books of all time. And I randomly opened it at aphorisms 57 and 58 – the very beginning of Book 2 – and read:

“the reputation, name, and appearance, the usual weight and measure of a thing, what it counts for – originally almost always wrong and arbitrary, thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their skin – all this grows, merely because people believe in it, and it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body. What at first was appearance becomes, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such.”

In other words, of course, this is the simple truism that if something appears to be a certain way, it will, eventually, become that way. Once again, style is more significant than content.

And I thought, that’s it! So much of comedy is about confidence, but it’s not initially about being confident; it’s about appearing confident. However much my confidence might have been knocked in the past, I thought, if I appear confident tonight then that is what I will become…

And I went out and did my best to look confident, and as a result did a significantly better gig than ought to have been expected from the crowd that had turned up to our evening show. I did the full ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’ routine that begins with stupid puns and ends with me screaming about wasting my life, and the audience went with it, for the first time of the festival, and they laughed out loud in a room that until that point had been pretty short of big laughs. And I came offstage feeling confident.

Paul Foot headlined, and pushed the level of challenge to the audience up to the kind of thing that I am currently nowhere near capable of yet, of course. But, sitting and chatting with Patch Hyde and Loz after the show I did still feel briefly confident – felt like none of the put-downs and the knocks of the past really mattered.

I’d like to be able to keep appearing that way. But yesterday was an upslide on the rollercoaster, and I’m sure there are downs yet to come.

Circling the Drain: Audience – Small; Performance – 4/10

Scurvy Standup Showcase: Audience – Medium-Small; Performance – 8/10

Other stuff: Rollercoastery with a useful thought.

Overall: WIN

day 3: 6/10

Edinburgh intensifies context.

Whatever the normal feelings you have about your artistic achievements, they are always within certain contexts: how your show compares with the previous day, how your performance compares with that of others, where you fit into the landscape of that artform as a whole, etc. Normally, of course, that happens quite slowly.

But here – where you are doing several shows a day in a small city heaving with other shows – those contexts become intensified, magnified. A few years back, a friend of mine, whose first year in stand-up had been phenomenally promising, apparently did an Edinburgh run where she didn’t quite do as well in the first few days as other acts in the same show, lost confidence which never returned, and gave up comedy shortly afterwards. Everything she did during that festival was placed so starkly in the context of how they had done in their first year and and how other acts did. It was a tragic loss.

So when I say that yesterday was a 6/10, and I felt pretty good about it, that is largely because of the context of the previous day. Tony woke me up with a cheery good morning and some coffee, which was nice; the first proper ‘Circling the Drain’ show was a technical shambles but I didn’t forget any of my lines (which was my biggest worry) and got a few good laughs; and even two of my ex-students turned up to see the show, which was wonderful, especially because of the slightly surreal fact that one of them seemed to spend the duration of the show knitting. Brecht said you should always smoke cigars in the theatre because the slight distraction detaches you slightly from the performance and allows you to make a better judgment of it. Perhaps knitting is the new cigar-chomping.

I spent a big chunk of the afternoon getting prepared for the evening show and then that went much better than yesterday. Rik Moore opened the evening show with his usual charm and genuinely brilliant use of ‘found’ comedy; that set me up nicely to do some ‘found’ stuff of my own, ie my bit about petitions to the Prime Minister, and my ‘sandwiches’ bit which I’ve always liked but got a slightly more muted response than I was hoping for last night. It needs more punchlines. Loz did very well again, and then Nat Luurtsema headlined. She is absolutely lovely and very very funny, but it’s possible that she suffered from the same problem that myself and Mike Wozniak had the previous night – ie that following Lawrence’s songs is very very difficult. He finishes with the whole audience singing the theme from the ‘Bodyform’ adverts and loving it, and to come on and just talk to people after that is hard…See, it’s all about context.

After that, we went out. I laughed, but for some reason I’m feeling generally insecure around everyone this year, even people I like. I don’t really know why that is. Still, as an evening it was nice. At least, it was okay until me and Loz came home and put the computer football on. Then he beat me 4-1 and I decided it was time to go to bed.

In the context of a much better day though, I didn’t mind that so much…

CTD: Audience – Small (20); Performance – competent, with some good laughs (6/10)

SSS: Audience – Almost Full; Performance – competent, with some good laughs (6/10)

Other stuff: Generally fun

Overall: WIN

day 2: a bad day

My first really bad day turned out to be like a teenage boy: it was always going to come, though it would have been nice if it hadn’t come so quickly.

Even that appalling joke, I think, was always going to be so bad because it is associated with yesterday.

The day didn’t start so badly; I found a very nice cafe in the morning, which makes cappucinos with real chocolate flakes on top, and things seemed to be going okay. But when I got back to the flat, things started going a little off. First, Tony beat me at pro evo. Insignificant, perhaps, but a sign that the day was not going to be as good as the previous one.

Then we went to Espionage, where our lunchtime show is due to take place. We hadn’t flyered because Loz hadn’t arrived yet, and so we thought nobody would turn up and we could just check out the venue. But then 10 people from Bolton turned up expecting to see a show; we put one on, but it felt unprepared as we each in turn tried to reel off as much material as we could remember. The audience didn’t even seem to want material – some of Tony’s most brilliant bits were received to a kind of muted smiling (though his stuff for ‘Circling the Drain’ got some good laughs), and my stuff felt mostly laboured and only got laughs for the really jokey jokes. The erotic fiction went to almost nothing.

We didn’t even ask for a collection at the end (though in retrospect, we still should have).

Feeling sombre, we picked up Loz from the train station and got him back to the flat where Tony was due to record his regular podcast with Tania Edwards and guest (who in yesterday’s case was Luke Toulson), but no sooner had me and Loz go out of their way than I got a call from the Daily Telegraph, who for the purposes of flogging their horse way past the point of death were running an article about comedians doing jokes about MP’s expenses. They’ve been practically flogging glue on this for months, even a week after they broke the stupid story, and I wanted to tell them to fuck off and stop wasting people’s time with stuff nobody cares about.

But then, I thought, it would be extra publicity for the show.

So, me and Loz sat in my room for three quarters of an hour and came up with absolutely nothing funny. It was depressing. In the end we’d written two jokes, both of which were lame, and we decided not to bother calling them back.

By this point, Loz had been in Edinburgh for two hours and only seen the inside of a flat, so we went out to put up some posters and then flyer for the evening Scurvy show. We did a much better job of flyering today and we filled the room, but when the show started it turned out that we’d accidentally filled the room with drunk twats. They struggled to listen to Tania, who opened the show; but then, out of nowhere, Lawrence came on stage and absolutely stormed it. By the end of his set they were drunkenly singing and clapping along to his songs and he worked them really well – it was a real joy to watch.

But then I had to follow it. And I couldn’t. They didn’t go for my first joke; a drunk man finding his seat ruined my second; drunk idiots were talking at the back all the way through, and my best laughs were for ‘saver’ comments about things like the sense of awkwardness in the room. It wasn’t a 100% death, and in the circumstances it could have been worse, but I still failed to really pull them round. What made it worse is that my sister and her husband had turned up to see it. The only consolation was that Mike Wozniak, who headlined the show, didn’t really do an awful lot better for the first ten minutes of his set. And he is an incredible act.

After that, all the others went off to watch George Ryegold do his show. I would have dearly loved to join them, but I’d already been booked to do ‘The News at Ten-ish’, Gill Smith’s topical review show. It’s a nice format – Gill gets guests up to talk about things in the news, and I was feeling pretty downhearted but got by on the strength of a story I found about an English tourist in Greece who’d had his genitals set alight by a greek girl he was drunkenly harrassing. So drunks aren’t entirely useless for comedy, perhaps… Still, at that point I didn’t really want to be onstage at all.

And then I went back to the flat, where Tony beat me again at pro evo.

Circling The Drain (CTD): Audience – Small (10); Performance – Unprepared 4/10

Scurvy Standup Showcase (SSS): Audience – Large; Performance – Bad 3/10

The News at Ten-ish: Audience – Small (13); Performance – Not really prepared, but Competent 4/10

Other Stuff: Depressing

Overall: LOSE

A few more days like this and I’m getting an early train back to London.

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