In praise of sincerity and emotion in comedy

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Stewart Lee and Daniel Kitson – artistes in their own right                     

Everybody who’s spoken to me for more than about ten minutes about comedy and probably anybody who’s seen my act will know I’m a huge Stewart Lee fan. Though he wasn’t the first comedian that I loved – that would be Eddie Izzard – he was the comedian that made me a fan ofstand-up comedy as an art-form.

Stewart Lee views stand-up comedy as art. His is not an unusual view-point, especially amongst the UK alternative. There’s a great bit from Simon Munnery about his annoyance about being reviewed “as the closest comedy gets to art” that perfectly describes the frustration stand-ups feel about how our craft is viewed.

Not all stand-up has to be art, of course. Michael McIntyre isn’t an artist. I doubt he wants to be. That’s not a criticism, if you were to decry everything that doesn’t attempt to be art and isn’t, you’d spend a lot of time walking down the street declaring road signs shit. McIntyre is entertainment, and that’s fine.

In contrast, Stewart Lee views what he does as art and his work should be judged as such.

The entirety of a stand-up comedian’s art is contained within the presentation of their onstage character. The show I consider Stew’s best, 90s Comedian, represents his attempt to present an argument regarding religious censorship of art. There are other themes too, and Stew handily sums up the aims and ideas of the show at the end, so that the audience know that they’ve seen some art.

Though 90s Comedian is based on Stew’s life, the character he presents on stage is relatively distant from his real person. Though, inevitably, the ideas and opinions in the show are all his own, for its success it’s important that the audience understands the figure on stage is an artificial construct. tThey’re meant to doubt him. In much of his later work, such as in the latest series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle where he attacks Graham Norton for winning a Bafta, the joke (and therefore the artistic merit) is found in the gap between Stewart Lee the Comedian and Stewart Lee the actual real person. Of course Stewart Lee isn’t really angry at Graham Norton; his onstage character is. As such the material is a comment on fame and failure; on arrogance. For us to understand the point  he’s making, we need to understand this dissonance, that an artistic comment is being made, otherwise it’s just a badly ageing man airing his own bitterness.

This distance from his own material makes Stew a somewhat cold figure on stage. There’s not a lot of warmth or genuine feeling to be found in his work. Every joke, or story told, is in some way an attempt to further the message of the piece. There’s never really a sense that the audience is being brought into his world sincerely. It’s as if a novel is being presented on stage, a monolithic block of ‘art’.

Recently I’ve been watching and listening to a lot of Daniel Kitson’s shows. I’ve said before that Kitson is the greatest living stand up and my certainty of this has only increased as I’ve delved deeper into his available catalogue.

There’s a lot of reasons I think this is true. Firstly, Kitson is one of the most naturally funny people alive. When he’s onstage there’s always a sense that he could make the entire audience laugh uproariously whenever he wanted to. That any quieter moments are entirely intentional, any time he’s not making an audience laugh must therefore be a moment of great wisdom.

Secondly, he has a fantastically unique and clever way of expressing his ideas. In the last blog I wrote for Nothing in the Rule book I used a quote of his that better expressed the point I was struggling to make over a thousand words, in a few sentences.

Thirdly, I think his shows are some of the best sincere investigation of an artist’s own character that I’ve found anywhere.

(The best place to investigate Kitson’s work is either live (difficult to get tickets) or the full audio recordings he’s posted of a few of his shows on Bandcamp. Many people have watched his three five minute videos on youtube and gone away wondering what all the fuss was about; the equivalent of just looking at the top left corner of Rain, Steam, Speed and declaring that “Turner cannot paint”)

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Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. 

Kitson’s shows are often introspective affairs, evaluations of his own character. His stances on issues. Though of course Kitson is a character on stage – every comedian is, to a degree – there’s never the sense of the remove that we get from Stewart Lee’s work. We become intimately involved with Kitson’s character, we understand him as a man. Kitson discusses big ideas intelligently, but all of the themes of the shows are born from his own character. In After the Beginning, Before the End Kitson presents us with the idea that we can truly understand our own character by telling us about his own life, and how he and others have perceived his personality. The audience thus come away from Kitson’s show with a portrait of a man, rather than of a cold, distant, concept..

I’m being unfair on Stewart Lee here, who does at times give a far better investigation of his own character than I’ve given him credit for and I’m largely using him as a comparison because I believe that he is the only “artistic” comedian that non-comedy nerds will be aware of.

However, I feel that Kitson’s looser more personal approach better uses stand-up comedy’s strengths. Other art forms, including books, paintings, films, and so on, are always presented to the audience with what one might call a remove, be it through the conduit of a page, as in poetry and literature, or actors, in theatre. Even performance poetry could, ultimately, be performed to an empty room to much the same effect. Only stand up, performed live, presents itself as a direct conversation with the audience. While this conversation may not be participatory, with the audience strongly encouraged to remain silent, their laughter is an intrinsic part of the performance. The comedian is directly before them, usually alone on stage with a microphone. Surely there is no better medium to present a truth about oneself?

Kitson understands this better than most. Even in his most reflective shows he often breaks a monologue to talk to a member of the audience, who may be doing something interesting (like eating food out of a tupperware). This makes his performance feel more alive, more involved, compared to Stewart Lee, who’s interaction is largely limited to audience evaluation (you can see this in the below youtube clip), which, while often hilarious and brilliant, feels much more stage managed, with the quieter reactions to jokes clearly deliberately solicited.

Kitson’s sheer natural ability to be funny on demand allows his shows to maintain this personal, sincere feel throughout. Other comedians talk about having to break character, or shift their status, in order to deal with hecklers, but Kitson never really does. Of course, he might need to shift from introspective to brutally insulting, but because he lacks a theatrical remove from the audience, this feels much more natural than with other comedians.

It’s easy to identify with Kitson, not in the observation “don’t we all do this funny thing with our dishwashers” way, but as a person. He’s widely known as a recluse, often discussed as an elusive enigma, but having watched him perform around five times and listened to hours of other recorded material I feel I know him far better than other acts and that’s not just due to familiarly. Kitson’s wide-eyed earnestness, his joyful sentimentality, all come across well in his work.

In other art forms sentimentality often comes across feeling fake and artificial, as if the writer is attempting to make us feel things for their own sake. When Love Actually attempts to tug at my heartstrings I can actively feel myself resisting; it’s trying too hard. The same is true with better films than Love Actually (which is to say most films), there’s just too much artifice for the emotion, the story, to ever feel quite real. With Kitson, and other similar stand-ups, it’s all coming directly from the horses mouth, how can it be artificial if it’s what the person on stage is actually feeling?

A lot of this might feel obvious to more seasoned comedy fans and I’d also like to say that by no means do I believe that Kitson is the only comedian capable of effectively performing in this way, as there are tonnes of comics doing brilliant shows using their own character to say something broader about humanity.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that, while stand-up can say these real, important things and evoke real emotions in the audience, comedians themselves are by no means truthful. I imagine tonnes of Kitson’s shows are chockablock with lies.

It’s just easy to feel that comedy is under-appreciated as an artform, with the lighter entertainment side of the industry over-shining the more sensitive artistic side to the extent that it gets forgotten. There’s room for both; it’s just a shame that in ‘mainstream discourse’, stand-up still does not get the respect it deserves.

About the author of this post

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Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty five year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

 

 

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Thoughts of a stand-up comedian: Next year is my year

 

Microphone-Whealans

Competition season is upon us. I’ve already crashed out of two large competitions for new acts, Laughing Horse New Act of the Year and Leicester Square Theatre New Act of the Year. They’re a frustrating experience and I hate them. There’s nothing quite like the imposition of competition to make an activity which I love doing, stand-up, stressful and unpleasant.

I’m not saying this, of course, just because I failed to progress in two of the biggest competitions; but it is a factor. Laughing Horse wasn’t fun, partially because I was so very bad in it. My poor performance can, in part, be explained by a lethargic audience, tired after sitting through fifteen other acts (I was on last), including one who did a good fifteen minutes on stage instead of his allotted four. But I was also lacking in my usual energy, my presence was stilted and I visibly lost faith and interest when my first joke didn’t provoke huge laughter.

Leicester Square Theatre was frustrating for the opposite reason. I was really good and didn’t progress. I was on second and got big laughs from a large crowd. I came off stage delighted, certain that if I wasn’t placing first on the night I’d be given a wild card through to the next round. Three days of nervously checking my emails followed, before all the quarter finals were set in stone without me in them.

I don’t mean this blog to come across as the ravings of a bitter man, although it is by definition. The three acts who progressed through my heat, James Bennison, Red Richardson and Joe Jacobs, are all excellent. I wouldn’t place myself above them in a competition. There is, though, a definite annoyance at being really rather good, being told so by my peers, and then getting nothing from it. I’m insecure and ambitious and these slight failures make me ask questions that I probably needn’t. Are there inherent problems in my act? Am I actually good enough to make it as a comedian? Am I deluded?

All the comedians I’ve talked to about this, and I’ve talked to a good number because I am very insecure, have said similar things. Firstly, competitions don’t matter. They’re an accelerator, helping you get to paid gigs faster, sure, but if you’re actually any good, the recognition that a trophy brings you will come along in time anyway. Secondly, they’re essentially random. Good comedians won’t get through and rubbish ones will. It all depends on the audience, where you’re placed in the running order and a myriad of other factors. You shouldn’t worry so much, you’ll get lucky in time.

I think these are half true. Sure, a good comedian will eventually find success anyway, but I’d rather find it sooner than later. Besides, you get a thousand pounds for winning a big new act competition. I’d quite like a thousand pounds. Secondly, there is a certain element of unfair randomness but generally speaking the people who win competitions are good. There’s always a way I could have been better, without compromising my act, to wow an audience. It’s easy to blame fate, to blame the very nature of the universe. It’s harder to accept the inevitable unfairness and try to do the best with it you can.

So what now? I’m at the point, after six months and a hundred gigs, where I can comfortably do fifteen minutes in front of a packed Saturday night crowd. I’d like to move onto more paid work but there’s no real urgency yet. The mantra, repeated to friends and myself, has become “next year is my year”. I feel I’m growing as a performer all the time, I’m getting significantly better at dealing with troublesome crowds. I’ve got a healthy amount of material. I’m developing an identity. Most importantly though, I’m consistently funny. I’ve actually been paid real money. Twenty whole pounds of it.

“I tried out a joke about Jeremy Corbyn and homoeopathy the other day, and nobody in the audience either knew what Jeremy Corybn or homoeopathy were.”

Aside from the vague objective of ‘improving’ my goal is to have a half hour I’m happy with for the Edinburgh festival next year. With underlying themes and everything. I’m gradually managing to put together something that feels fairly consistent; but it’s difficult finding the time and space to try it out all at once. Most spots I do these days are ten minutes long, and I’m proud that I’ve migrated onto these longer sets from doing just five minutes so quickly, but it’s still barely enough time to lay down anything with a longer, more considered narrative.

I can find spots which are fifteen to twenty minutes long at the club where I’m now a regular: Cafe Mode. However, the audience found there, drunk party goers, aren’t the kind of people who are going to appreciate twenty minutes of satire. I tried out a joke there about Jeremy Corbyn and homoeopathy the other day, and nobody in the audience either knew what Jeremy Corybn or homoeopathy were.

The material will come together in bits then. Grown by a series of amendments to my existing cannon, trying out little new jokes that can be added to what I already have. The occasional longer two to three minute bit. I’m hoping to gain the confidence to perform new material for longer stretches, at the moment I give up at the slightest sign of trouble. Too cowardly to accept anything but instant love from an audience. A brave comic allows themselves to die. I’ve got to learn to commit suicide and come out unscathed. It’s not as dramatic as that really though, it’s just comedy.

About the author of this post

Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

 

Thoughts of a stand-up comedian: ‘I Have No Voice But I Must Perform’

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When I’d just begun stand up, the excellent Scottish comedian, Matt Winning, told me something along the lines of “You should wait till you’re at fifty gigs before you decide whether you’re funny or not, because by then you will have found your voice a bit more.”

I’ve reached my fiftieth gig, through a mixture of open mics and a few ‘proper’ booked gigs. It’s probably natural then, that I’m returning to Matt’s advice. I’m usually pretty funny. Well, last night I told an extremely unfunny joke about the experimental noise artist Prurient that nobody understood and insulted an Albanian man, but I’m usually pretty funny. I make people laugh on a regular basis. I’m hardly the funniest new comedian around; but I’m not bad.

I’m concerned, though, that I’ve yet to find what my voice actually is. I don’t mean this literally of course, I’m well aware of the fact I have a prominent London middle class accent. I’m not proposing that I begin performing in course Glaswegian tones or the husky growl of Tom Waits, although both of those sound quite funny so I might give them a go.

Most successful stand-up comedians have a distinctive flavour to their comedy. You could identify a Stewart Lee routine by reading it off the page, let alone hearing it spoken. Simon Munnery; Josie Long; Bridget Christie; Tony Law; each one a top stand up and each one totally unique. Even outside of the arty alternative, comedians like Michael McIntyre or Kevin Bridges can arrive on stage to an audience who already know what  to expect.

The voice of a comedian is not just the content of their jokes; but their phrasings, rhythms, timings and looks. Different comedians can give the same material have drastically different meanings. Tim Vine and Simon Munnery both often tell neat, clever puns. Tim Vine just tells them like a father who continues to joke at a daughter who is publicly embarrassed by him because he knows she’s secretly enjoying it. Simon Munnery, meanwhile, can make a simple bit of wordplay seem like the arcane wisdom of a wizard whose brain has been fried by powerful magic. Same jokes, vastly different outcomes.

Even the better comedians  a newbie like me is able to get on bills with have their own distinct voices. The audience – that’s to say the real, non-comedian audience – will probably have no idea who they are; but, within a minute of their performance, little that follows will be a real tonal shift. The audience will remember their presence, if not necessarily their jokes. Ashley Haden’s air of having uncomfortably trapped you in the corner of a pub to let you know, hilariously, exactly what’s been bothering him. Joseph Murphy’s weary commitment to the telling of his wonderful jokes, as if he’s being forced to continue by a mad king who really loves spooky puns.

I could continue list the styles of my favorites of the comedians I’ve gigged with, but it would be little more than an open-mic masturbatory exercise so I’ll refrain from doing it. They’re all very good though and I love each one of them. Especially you (if you’re a comedian or a loved one).

I’m still not sure where I fit in. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve veered between the personas of a man who hates both his own jokes and the audience, an energetic fun loving hawker of bee puns, and a passionate, smart, political satirist. At present I’m not sure exactly what my persona will be until I actually step onto the stage and begin my first joke. I’m not at the stage where I’m a confident enough performer to be able to deliver my jokes in a certain fashion irrespective of my mood.

Perhaps though, those who have seen me multiple times would have a different opinion. When I saw Daniel Kitson (who is probably the greatest working stand-up and performs like a child who’s just discovered a particularly rude word and is delighted to tell everybody about it) he did an hour long show about how our impressions of our own character are less true than how other people define us. Perhaps stand up is like that. Perhaps I’ll never really understand exactly what my own voice, or style, actually is.

I think it’s probably more important for me, at this early stage, to understand my own weaknesses, limitations and strengths. I know I struggle with crowd interaction, I’m not yet very good at saying something amusing about somebody’s job or telling men that they are less attractive than their girlfriends. My attempts to do looser, stream of consciousness style bits have also all resulted in dismal failure.

I can’t be great at every style of stand-up and, while I probably need to improve the areas in which I’m weakest, it makes sense to focus on honing and exploiting my strengths. The two gigs in which I’ve arguably been at my best, last week, I used an angry, shouting style, hurling words at my audience and  barely pausing to allow for laughter. I enjoyed performing like this and I know the audience enjoyed it too (one of the great things about stand up is that you get immediate feedback on your work); but in subsequent gigs I’ve had difficulty maintaining the level of energy required.

As my on stage-character is an ironic figure – a male feminist who doesn’t understand feminism , the worst of middle-class liberalism – I also need to overcome my worry that the audience will genuinely think I’m a dickhead. A friend recently saw me perform and said “if I didn’t know you were genuinely a proper feminist, I’m not sure what I’d conclude about you as a person from what I just saw”. I think it’s something that, as long as I’m being funny, I shouldn’t worry about. Anybody worth talking to will be able to appreciate the satire.

I’m going to perform the same, shouty, set at least eight times over the next 2 weeks. If I can pull it off as I’ve envisaged it I hope I will have found my voice for the time being. Stand up is an evolving medium, and I’m sure I’ll continue to grow and evolve over my ‘career’ but for the time being it’s heartening to be finding myself on the stage.

About the author of this post

Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

Experience: My first 20 gigs as an aspiring stand up comedian

Microphone-Whealans

It’s my first gig. I’m at Angel Comedy, and it’s rammed. There are people standing, there are people being turned away from standing. The MC, Barry Ferns, has got the crowd properly warmed up. This is an audience that wants to be entertained, they want to laugh at every joke and unless they find a very good reason to not, they will.

There’s been about fourteen comedians on before me and I’m the penultimate act. I’m nervous, properly nervous. I’ve got about five friends in the audience, well three friends and two friends of friends. This is a room of total strangers, about a hundred of them, and I have to make them laugh. Mental, why did I ever sign up to do this?

Barry does about five minutes, calls my name and before I’ve had time to do any final preparations  I’m on stage. I take a deep breath and launch into my first joke. It’s a good joke but I tell it badly. It gets a big laugh anyway and my nerves dissipate. My next joke goes well too and the one after that. My entire routine about King Solomon goes down a treat, it doesn’t really have an ending and there are no proper punchlines, but if it’s getting laughs like these who cares? Comedy is easy and I’m fucking brilliant at it.

It’s my second gig. I’m at Heavenly comedy. It’s a small room below a pub which the comedians have to set up before the gig. There are seventeen comedians on and two genuine audience members. The room is hot and the audience is bored. They want to go home but they aren’t allowed to because they’re all comedians, they have to stay to the end to support the other acts and turn makeshift comedy club back into a small room beneath a pub. They don’t want to hear two minutes of incompetently told jokes about being tall and a three minute routine about King Solomon that doesn’t have any punchlines. Especially not from a man who is visibly shaking from nerves. At best, I get two laughs. Comedy is impossible and I’m fucking terrible at it.

I’ve done twenty gigs now and many of them have been like my second. A room either beneath or above a pub in front of around fifteen other comedians and a few genuine punters who look somewhere between confused and concerned. I genuinely love it and my only regret is not having done significantly more over the past three months. I secretly think I’m quite good too. Don’t tell any of the other comedians I said that though or they’ll shun me for being immodest.

My earnings thus far are: three drinks (two Cobras and a Yakima Red) and eleven AAA batteries. I won the batteries for coming joint second in my heat at the Jaunty Lark competition, which is my career highlight to date, and every appliance I power with them will a reminder that I’m at least a reasonably good comedian. Unfortunately all my alarm clocks, nineties Gameboys and anal vibrators require AA batteries, so I’m hoping I’ll win some of them in the final (which is later this month).

I’ve performed, all in all, about twenty-five minutes of material. Some of it has worked, some of it, like my 4 minute routine about Stewart Lee, has conclusively not. I write a lot of material as the writing is probably my favourite part of the whole thing. Aside from the booty and batteries obviously. The process of watching a routine turn from a half baked idea based around a single pun to a genuinely tight five minutes of comedy is wonderful. I’m seldom happier than when I’m in-front of six other comedians trying to turn my new routine about satire and feminism into something that’s at least serviceable.

About half of the gigs I’ve done have been ‘bringers’. A large proportion of the gigs available to new stand-ups require the act to bring audience members along with them. My friends, generally, have been very supportive and I’ve only had to cancel one gig due to unreliable companions. Most comedians seem to hate bringers and some refuse to do them on principle. I’m somewhere in the middle. Most of the ‘great’ audiences I’ve had have been rooms full of people dragged along by acts. It’s a pleasure to perform in-front of a packed room but I’m also beginning to run out of friends who haven’t seen most of my material. There’s only so many times you can sit through my puns about Ed Balls.

I’m not sure the friends of acts are proper audience members anyway. They either only laugh at their friend or are so surprised that some comedians on the open-mic scene are actually quite good that they laugh uproariously at every single joke. My twentieth gig, this evening, was in front of my first genuine, paying, audience who’d come of their own volition (for some reason) and the atmosphere was very different to what I was used to. Obviously I’m far too new a comedian to make wild judgements about the nature of audiences but my feeling is that bringers aren’t a particularly good place to hone your craft. I’m only going to become a great comedian if I learn to kill at the nights where it’s just the other comedians and a few bedraggled people off the street. After that, a room full of real, actual, people will surely be a doddle?

Anyway, I’m getting better slowly. Lots of comedians have come up to me and said they’ve really enjoyed my sets, or given me invaluable advice, which is always lovely. I’m constantly humbled by how many other brilliant comics there are on the circuit. As arrogant as I am, there’s rarely a night were I can conclusively say I was amongst the funniest on. I went to see the wonderful Bridget Christie a few weeks ago and her brilliance reminded me quite how far I have to go before I’m considered even competent. I reckon I’ll need to do at least eighty more gigs before I can even begin to think of myself as a proper comedian, I’ve got around ten planned in over the next two weeks. That’s a start.

About the author of this post

Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deal primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.