(Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic will return one day, but while I am waiting to write new things for this wonderful magazine – back issues still available – here is the sort of thing I wrote for it)
There is a reason I decided to focus on doing stand up about Schrodinger’s cat, benevolent suicidal urges and art hate. Being an observational comedian is fraught with dangers and impending shame. If you are not careful, you may find out that your normal existence is actually a twisted vision of the group’s comfortable reality.
So it’s gig number one, and you’re confident. You’ll slay these people with your wry examination of our shared experiences.
You stand on the stage and say, “hey folks, you know when you do that thing” and you lengthily dissect that thing we do.
An uneasy quiet.
They look back bemused. Some are little uncomfortable. One is already jamping the sharpened end of a match beneath a fingernail to distract them from their empathetic shame. It is clear is that each of them is thinking “no, I don’t know when I do that thing”. Briefly, each one feared that they would be the freak, but the lack of communal laughter has satisfied every individual that they are a happy mass.
At this point the observational comedian is on the back foot. He is quite certain that everyone shared his habit of dipping their hand in the toilet bowl after urinating just to see if the water was warmer. Now, within the first minute of his time on stage, the observer has discovered he may not be as other men.
A blip, that is all. He is certain of his next observation. Didn’t he laugh about it with his friend Neil all those years ago?
He talks animatedly about how when we are kids we all go to the graveyard and try and chip off the dress of an angel statue with a screwdriver in the hope of seeing its angelic genitals. This too turns out to be more eccentric than he thought. Surely Neil found it funny? There he is at the back, with another match under his fingernail. The comedian never knew that Neil just laughed along because it was only the two of them, without a group to go by, it was a 50/50 chance one of them was a weirdo. At 11 years old, Neil laughed in case everyone else had a screwdriver and stone angel lust. As the years went by, he had become increasingly certain it was wrong and feels a pang of guilt about their desecration of that mausoleum in Croxley Green. Maybe he should have told his friend that his impulses were wrong all those years ago rather than letting him find out as he stood on stage in Hanwell. There is a possibility he will never leave Hanwell now.
This is not a true story and yet, every night, it could become a real story. For those who believe in many worlds theory, it is probably a true story somewhere, but one that is unlikely to be empirically proved.
Johnny Vegas, a force of angry nature on stage, used to say “I am not going to say do you know what it’s like when, because none of you know what it’s like to be me”. Their followed a river of beautiful melancholy.
Observational comedy is a hugely successful business with a comforting message – “do not worry, we are not individuals”. We are one big mass with a very limited variety of reactions to most situations. We feel the same way about our partners. We react the same way when drunk or stoned. Apparently we are vaguely sophisticated ants scurrying in the same direction but with less fear of washing up liquid. Comedy is experiencing a boom at the moment, so you can sit in an arena with 15,000 people looking at each other and saying “hahaha I do that I do that”. This doesn’t mean everyone does that, but if you don’t do that do you want to be the lone person like a Victorian Punch cartoon shouting “but I don’t do that”.
The pressure of the crowd is great. Recent research into why suicide bombers went through with their acts suggested peer pressure was more important than religious or political fervour. The political/religious fervour gets you first of all, but it’s the sitting in front of a camera surrounded by your zealous friends saying into the lens why you will be committing your act that pushes you over the edge. The destruction of your life and others occurs because you think, “if I don’t blow everyone up what would my mates think. I’d never be able to look them in the eye. Not that I ever will be able to, as mine are about to explode from my skull”. I am not comparing laughing at Lee Evans to the actions of a suicide bomber though, but maybe the police should keep an eye on his more zealous fans.
I was recently in Oslo performing at their first alternative comedy festival. One night I was watching an event with my fellow Dodgem Logician Josie Long. All the acts were speaking in Norwegian, despite my childhood love of Roald Dahl it’s a language I have never attempted to grasp. Despite my lack of comprehension I felt compelled to laugh. I was worried about what were all those guffawing around me thinking as I stood smiling. What was wrong with this man who did not find Martin Beyer-Olsen hilarious? He is not like us, why doesn’t he laugh? We must throw him harshly on the black ice. I avoided betraying myself by beaming.
Laughter can be very alienating. Sometimes a heckler is furious because others are laughing and he doesn’t get it. Their violent fury comes from the sense that your jokes are specifically designed to make him feel stupid. When someone says “you’re just not funny” it is difficult to get into a discussion about the difference between the objective and subjective (I have got over this by traveling with a Samoan who places any troublemakers in a leather trunk we later leave on waste ground).
An observation can be true, but too uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing for anyone in an audience to admit.
I was on my way to a gig in February feeling numerous aches and psychosomatic mystery lumps. I was trying to nail down which cancer or cancers I had. On that Monday night I decided it was probably bowel, lung and prostate. My ribs had ached after a particularly strenuous gig, so that was lung. I kept thinking I needed a wee every time I was nowhere near a toilet – so that was prostate. My colon has been spasmodic for many years (since I spent a year living of one cheese and onion sandwich and lots of beers per day) – so that’s bowel. I should make it clear that I am a fighter and have never let my hypochondria get in the way of my working life however ill I have imagined myself to be. I am hoping that my bouts of hypochondria will have helped built up my body’s immunity when I really get something (not that I’m not saying I don’t have something at the moment. I have stomach ache as I type this). As I walked on the stage, I decided to jettison most of my carefully thought out comparative critique of Flashdance versus Black Swan. “carefully thought out” generally means I thought of it over an hour before the gig. Instead I decided to open with “so how many of you have ever thought you had cancer?”
Astonishingly it appeared that out of over one hundred people, I was the only person in the room who regularly noticed a lump or felt a vivacious nerve ending cough and thought, “which cancer this time?” I was not content with their response and felt it best to hector them. Nope, seemed I was the freak in the room. I opened it out by telling them that I had not always been plagued by thoughts of cancers. In the late eighties I mainly thought I must have AIDS because I had had sex a couple of times. Every stretchmark I happened to notice around my armpit must be a sarcoma of some type or other. This didn’t seem to lead to any increase in hands in the air or “YAYS!”
Fortunately at the bar I met a man who confirmed he had spent much of his worrying time in the eighties thinking he had AIDS and later I was sent a message by a woman who said her boyfriend often finds a new cancer on Monday morning, but he felt too embarrassed to put his hand up. So observational sometimes comedy doesn’t get a reaction because it is wrong, just that people in crowd imagine they are the only one and so remain silent. It seems it is more socially acceptable to caterwaul about your husband/wife being hateful than admit you might be unsure of yourself, health and sanity.
I used to ask the audience how many of them would talk to themselves when they were alone in their house or how many would sometimes do a little dance on their own. There would be some response. Certainly more response than when I told them how as a little boy I was so scared of rabies due to the horrific public information films that I would hold my breath in a not very successful suicide attempt. The moment that would gain the greatest response was when I asked “how many people here have stood on a train platform and looked at the person in front of them and thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to shove them in front of the train’”. It seemed the masses were keener to admit psychopathic tendencies than the joy of solitary dance moves.
So I have decided not to perform too much personal observational material. In the worst case scenario, it turns out everyone is like me, and that would never do.
 Martin Beyer-Olsen was clearly very funny and still made me laugh with some of his movements and facial gesticulating. The game of guess the routine via face and arm movements alone was entertaining in itself.
Now here is some Young Hunting – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCvEZwhwiwU&feature=related