Wherefore Art Thy Comedian?

By Oliver Johnson

Montreal, Canada, 1991. The Centaur Theatre. The set is all black. Only a microphone and a stand are on stage. A man walks on, also all in black; black jacket, black polo neck, black trousers, black shoes and long, almost-mullety black hair. He stands on stage and talks for an hour about moths, religion, advertising, the Kennedy assassination, auto-fellatio and mass-marketed popular music. The man is Bill Hicks. The event is the annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, now the largest comedy festival in the world. That hour of his Relentless show proves to be one of the most iconic, passionate and engaging hours of stand-up comedy ever performed. It’s the comedic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. It was the pinnacle for a career tragically cut short by pancreatic cancer. But does anyone remember it? Would anyone consider that gig a milestone in cultural history? Almost certainly not. Why? Because it’s just comedy. Comedy can’t be serious or important. It’s just one fucking joke after another.

Ah, the old ‘talking seriously about comedy’ paradox – the pesky, parochial speed bump that ensures comedy will always retain its circus clown aura. It’s this that prevents serious discussion of comedy; it is this that means a great stand-up show can never be considered alongside a great play or work of art. It is perpetually amazing that for a society as obsessed, as infatuated, with comedy as ours that we refuse to look at it in a more serious light. No one is willing to put the comedian, let alone that vagabond the stand-up comedian, on the same pedestal as the playwright, the author, the poet, the director or even the actor; how on earth could Eddie Izzard be considered in the same way, let alone on the same plane, as Samuel Beckett?

TV is the prime culprit for the dissemination of the idea that comedy is simplistic, unsophisticated and shallow. The deeply disingenuous faux-spontaneity of Mock the Week can lull you into thinking that standing in front of a mic and saying anything can produce a laugh completely disregarding the small army of programme associates and behind-the-scenes writers who write in that spontaneity down to every last ‘um’ and ‘argh’. On chat shows, directors are asked about their artistic intention for their latest release and their style of cinematography, whereas a comedian is asked about that hilarious anecdote involving a duck and three litres of lubricant. Martin Scorsese waxes lyrical about the colour palette for Wolf of Wallstreet, whilst Sean Lock titters about how much he hates leaf-blowers. DVD recordings of comedians’ live gigs focus on those bits which are most facile, most easily accessible and appeal to the lowest common denominator, in order to dredge in the largest viewing audience. Hence why Michael McIntyre is on a perpetual loop during prime time on a Saturday evening, and Stewart Lee is relegated to 11 p.m. on a Thursday. Television’s view of the comedian is stuck in the court jester frame of mind; presenting the comedian as comic relief to be laughed at or with, never to be taken seriously.

Indeed, the attitude that comedy is somehow an easy ride is one that seems to be prevalent throughout most artistic disciplines, including the word of cinema. The effluent stream of breathtakingly mediocre ‘comedies’ that are produced on both sides of the Atlantic (see any of Judd Apatow’s abortive productions or the still fresh abomination of Keith Lemon: The Movie) demonstrates a distinctly less thoughtful or intelligent approach than would be taken to a thriller or a drama. Not only are the vast majority of comedies that are brought to the big screen pathetically written and injudiciously conceived, but they propagate the idea that making people laugh can be easy; that swearing, nudity and the occasional knob gag will tickle an audience pink. This pernicious idea that somehow you can downshift into comedy, that resorting to humour is what you do only when all other alleys are shut off, is the reason that truly funny films are so few and far between. Actors who think that they can effortlessly slip on the comedic mantle and expect to be hilarious are nearly always shown up by this fallacy. Comedic acting is perhaps the hardest form of acting there is, entailing the tricky balancing act of wit, awareness and, most crucially, timing; hence why Seth Macfarlane really ought to have thought twice before casting himself in A Million Ways to Die in the West. And it certainly reflects on cinema’s low regard for funny films that the last proper comedy to win the Best Picture Oscar was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall all the way back in 1977.

Hollywood’s failure to really grasp comedy should stand monument enough to just how difficult it is to make people laugh. And really, comedy on screen is the safest form of comedy to do, because there are an infinite number of buffers (writer, director, studio) between you and the reaction. Stand-up comedy is, comparatively, the pinnacle for humourmongers; the Mount Sinai of comedic art forms. It really is worth taking a moment to stress just how daunting stand-up is as a concept. It’s you, a microphone, a stage and an audience – that’s it. There are no barriers, there is no safety net, there is no emergency eject. And there’s also only one way of knowing how it’s going; either they’re laughing or they’re not, there’s no room for interpretation or bullshitting. It’s no coincidence that the language used to describe how a show went, hopefully ‘I killed it’ but probably more like ‘I completely died out there’, emblematises how coaxing laughs out of strangers can seem like a life or death ordeal. It’s a shameful truth that the idea of comedy being easy remains one of the greatest cultural fallacies, all the more so when compared to the Spartan sadomasochism of stand-up.

It only takes one longer look at stand-up comedy to see that it is conceptually not at all different from any other more classical form of art. In fact, it’s probably ostensibly more challenging than other art forms because it requires so many disparate skills. It combines the writing aspect of an author, with the performance side of an actor, whilst also throwing in the decision-making and selection of a director for good measure. A stand-up comedian necessarily has to be a multifaceted talent in order to be successful, because if any one of those trio of fundamental skills is off, the whole balance of the act is disrupted. Great writing is no good if the performance is lacklustre, and vice versa. The stand-up is forever morphing from one role to another as the moment demands, juggling all the necessary skills just to coax that laugh, that suppressed giggle, that fleeting snigger from your throat. Stand-up comedy is a hard job that requires a hard set of skills, skills that easily fall within the established tradition of classical artistic forms.

Stand-up is worthy of its place amongst the more classical arts for more than just its difficulty though. Pogo-sticking is also a very tricky skill, but its claim to artistic relevance is somewhat tenuous. For one, stand-up comedy can evoke so many more emotions that just happiness from an audience. Laughter can not only make you euphoric and content, but at the very moment of humorous release you could equally feel pensive, uncomfortable, doubtful or insulted, depending on how the laugh was provoked. If it was by Richard Herring musing on the unlikely positives of being a racist, it could well be laughter mixed with a degree of contemplation or confusion. If it were Sarah Silverman doing a knife-edge routine about adopting terminally ill disabled children, you’d probably feel deeply uneasy in the midst of your laughter. The fact that the moment of laughter is such a liberating experience, one that obliges you to completely forget anything else that’s going on, means that it’s a prime moment for eruptions of emotion. And great stand-up can frequently produce a cocktail of emotional responses that go well beyond just making you laugh. Though a contrived example, Russell Kane’s famous Edinburgh Fringe show about the death of his father went far beyond jokes and melded those two most unlikely of bedfellows, grief and humour. Although hardly an original move to centre a comedic set around your personal life, Kane’s genuinely emotional discussion of the impact his dad had on his life was intermittently both funny and sincerely heartstring-tugging. Most people would probably consider coming out of a comedy gig crying as a bad omen, but here it was a signpost for the emotional clout stand-up could wield.

Increasingly, stand-up comedians are also drawing upon other art forms in order to expand the toolbox available to make people laugh, to further sophisticate the process of being funny. Gone are the mother-in-law one-liners of the working men clubs from the 70’s, and instead there are now narrative arcs, recurrent thematic concerns, symbolism, character development and ironic self-awareness. Eddie Izzard for years has been using recurrent characters in sketches throughout his shows, creating a distinct structure and sense of cohesion in what would otherwise be a sporadic smorgasbord of skits. His previous world tour, Stripped, managed to use the recurrent character of an anthropomorphised giant squid to successfully tie a sketch about Noah’s Ark into an emboldening ending monologue about man’s ability to innovate. Stewart Lee used the thematic concern of idealised conceptions of society as the basis for his Carpet Remnant World tour to fantastic and hilarious effect. Even forms of stand-up that have traditionally been seen as gimmicky by other comedians, like comedy songs, have been through this sophisticating process, as the work of Tim Minchin attests. Who says funny ballads can’t tackle the Israel-Palestine conflict, belief in an afterlife or the taboos associated with language? (Not all in one song).

But stand-up is at its best when it forces you to think, and it’s here that stand-up has the strongest argument for being considered as artistically valuable. Lenny Bruce was a controversial figure, to say the least, in 1950’s and 1960’s America, but one that had an uncanny ability to produce material that was, all at once, funny, subtle, precise and profound. Listening to him talk about societal attitudes towards obscenity, a crime that he himself was arrested for on numerous occasions, asks some truly searching questions about why we consider some things offensive and others not. It is a skit of near incomparable wit, and ends with one of the best lines in comedic history; “If the word motherfucker stimulates you sexually, you’re in a lot of trouble”. Or take that other giant of American stand-up, George Carlin. His work ethos of writing a new show every year ensured a constant and unbroken stream of comedic brilliance that spanned a fifty-year career, and, as you can imagine, touched upon an enormous range of topics, from the philosophical to the stupid. His rant about society’s consumerism and our cultural obsession with stuff, owning stuff, buying more stuff or coveting other people’s stuff, is a textbook example of how humour can also be incisive. You watch, you laugh and you leave thinking. And as hard as it is to make a serious point in a serious way, it is so much harder and impactful to make a serious point in a funny way. Though the serious and the amusing might seem like polar opposites, the confluence of the two produces an incredible ability to be thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating.

Let’s take a flight of fancy for a minute and imagine the comedian was seen as an artist; what’s the point? Does a change of labelling actually make a difference in any material sense? Well, I think it would. It would mean, hopefully, that people are better able to appreciate what makes good stand-up and what doesn’t. It would mean that stand-up on television would be characterised less by the unrelenting blandness of Russell Howard’s Good News, and instead by more interesting, sophisticated fare that caters to the maturing palates of the viewing audience. At the very least, it would open the door to the whole range of satirists, musical, physical, alternative, character and surrealist comedians who are out there, replacing the army of observational pseudo-comics who currently choke the airways. As with any form of art, seeing one genre is inherently limiting, hence calling stand-up comedy art would hopefully widen the public’s thirst for more diverse and idiosyncratic forms and interpretations of stand-up. TV’s current depiction of comedy is like only reading Dan Brown novels and thinking that’s as good as literature gets; if you never see anything different, how can you judge what is better, worse or even to your own taste? Instead of growing bored by the limp repeat appearances of the Rat Pack of average comedy, starring Chris Addison, Jack Whitehall and Gina Yashere amongst others, we could hope to see a broader and more engaging set of faces. Imagine seeing Paul Foot, Tony Law or Josie Long as the regulars on the BBC. It would be a future filled with more offbeat, unusual and engaging stand-up; the comedic equivalent of a thriving and inviting coral reef in place of a poxy, long-stagnant pond.

Holding comedians to higher standards would also prevent the all-too-regular shitstorms that emerge whenever a comic stammers something ‘offensive’. Rather than venture into the labyrinthine no man’s land of attempted moral philosophising or inadequate generalisations of societal standards, seeing comedians as artists would entail the form of criticism that is appropriate to art. So, it would mean that rather than pillorying Frankie Boyle for riffing about Jordan’s disabled son, the actual joke itself could be taken apart and analysed. Rather than criticising Boyle for daring to make a joke about the disabled, let alone a disable child, if we took a moment to analyse what he said, it would be painfully obvious that the humour was derived from the him breaking the taboo around talking about disability in comedy. Far from laughing at the child, Boyle was drawing a nervous, anxious laugh from his own indelicacy, taboo-breaking and, yes, crass approach to talking about the child in that way. It was a joke not at the expense of Jordan’s son, but at his own knowingly unacceptable approach of talking about the subject. But that kind of conclusion can only be reached if the time and effort is taken to analyse the comedy in a serious matter, just like a novel might be pealed apart by literary critics or despondent GCSE students.

It would be a long overdue transition from meaningless drivel about ‘crossing the line’ or insensitivity and a move instead towards the marginally more concrete ground of analysis and textual criticism. That’s not to say that meaningful analysis of material clears comedians of moral responsibility. Indeed, it does the opposite; it would finally make them legitimately artistically responsible. Thus, Stewart Lee could be vindicated when he blatantly ironically and satirically joked about wanting Richard Hammond to have died in that dragster crash, but would absolutely condemn thoughtlessness like Daniel Tosh’s recent gaff when he spontaneously ‘joked’ about how funny it would be to see a woman in the front row being raped (Yes, really). ‘It’s just a joke’, the comedian’s Nuremburg defence, would no longer cut the mustard, and they would have to answer for, and defend, the material that they are the authors and curators of.

And the times could well be a-changing. There are small but encouraging signs that the public may now be receptive to a more serious outlook on stand-up comedy. The BBC announced recently it would no longer allow all male line-ups on its panel shows, which suggests even the executives are finally bored of the drearily repetitive faces that plague Would I Lie to You? week-in week-out. Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience is a token, but greatly appreciated, platform for comics would who normally never be given the spotlight on television. In 2011, HBO produced its Talking Funny special, where Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Louis CK sat around for an hour and spoke about the intricacies of stand-up and the mechanics of writing a show. Although the choice of comics was dubious and the content often veered into shameless self-promotion, it nonetheless gave a generally welcome, analytical insight into the mindset of a comic. Clearly, broadcasting networks are willing to devote at least some time to a proper look at comedy, and it can be hoped that they commissioned that content in the knowledge that there was an eager audience ready to lap it up.

Or at least, that’s what I wanted to write. I wanted to end this with a bright, cheerful note about how stand-up comedy may finally be carving its own niche in the pantheon of classical arts; an uplifting epilogue about how comedy as a whole was finally being taken seriously. But my enthusiasm could well have been overwrought, given what Steve Coogan said in an interview for this month’s GQ. When asked whether he preferred to be called an actor, comedian, writer or film-maker, his response was gobsmacking; “ ‘Comedian’ irritates me. It is reductive and trivialising.” That is doubly shocking, firstly because Coogan’s only original and interesting work has come through his comedy but also because you could almost taste the disdain for the even the label ‘comedian’ through the page. It seems that even one of Britain’s leading comedians has fallen prey to the sterotyped image of comics that is broadcast from every outlet. Surely Coogan can understand that the term comedian is only ‘reductive and trivialising’ if you accept that it is? It’s all the more galling given that he gives no evidence for why he has such low regard for the term, suggesting it’s just an accepted cultural attitude. Indeed, that Coogan immediately went on to explain how his ‘job’ involves writing and producing demonstrates that other more classically artistic skills are perceived as respectful, whereas comedy is quickly maligned for its simplicity and lack of erudition.

It really remains to be seen whether we are now ready to see the stand-up comedian more like the author than the children’s entertainer. The answer, sadly, is probably not. It is certainly unavoidable that the immense popularity of the inane, anodyne and bland observational comedy now in vogue suggests people are willing to remain blissfully ignorant about the real ins-and-outs of comedy. And it is also true that most people are more than happy to sit for an hour in a theatre, hopefully laugh and leave without being provoked to think, consider or contemplate at all; an experience that has no resonance beyond its allocated running time. Who am I to say that there’s anything wrong with that? But it’s just sad when there is so much more out there in the world of stand-up that very few people will ever see or take the effort to care about. Comedy may well be thought of as simplistic and shallow, but that’s only because we allow it to be shown in that light.

One Response to “Wherefore Art Thy Comedian?”
  1. Timon says:

    ‘two most unlikely of bedfellows, grief and humour’ r u having a laugh? Otherwise gr8 article.

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