As usual I put this up under cover of darkness, a loosely linked collection of thoughts on stand up, failure, and becoming product. I’ll either delete or rewrite this tomorrow, but here it is now. As usual, it is a fairground ride of bad grammar and motley spelling, fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
“On this glorious occassion…of our splendid defeat” Anthony Newley in Cockleshell Heroes
A stand up recently told me of a journey he shared with an agent. To fill the time on the ‘A’ road, he mentioned a fast rising young buck comedian. Sadly, all was not as wonderful as it might have seemed to those who saw the young man’s rapid success from afar, apparently he was in a grey fug of despair as he just couldn’t get “his next 12 minutes”.
It seems he had had his spot on some bigtime telly stand up show, but now he couldn’t find “the next 12 minutes” for the hoped for follow up appearance a series or so down the line.
I am now old-fashioned. I wasn’t in the olden days, I was the height of modernity once, but now the very things that made me new-fangled are old-fashioned, like sandwich toaster that seals as it toasts or a Betty Blue poster. I found it strange to think of artistic depression caused by failure to create a product suitable for a Comedy Roadshow.
And that’s what troubled me, the increasing sense that stand up might be no more than a product; “what can I write that will get me on telly”.
My troubling was both naive and, to some extent, hypocritical.
Of course a thrusting funny youth wants to get on TV and garner the rewards, but echoing what Stewart Lee said in his misreported writing lecture, I like to believe that a stand up means it, that each sentence is not forged predominantly by and for a committee, to be stamped and passed for general consumption. This doesn’t mean it has to be political or confessional, it might be silly or slapstick, juvenile or hifalutin, but it somehow represents something from within the human being showing off before us.
George Carlin, recently name-checked by the Arctic Monkeys, so by default making me hip by mentioning him, though less hip by using the word hip, talked of the difference between comics and comedians. Bob Hope had an audience in stitches, but when he left the stage, no one knew anymore about him than when he went on. After watching Carlin for an hour, you got a real sense of the human within. This does not mean all comedians must bare their souls, there is plenty of room for beloved entertainers and furious, itchy, screaming beatniks to live side by side, but in the rush to create as much stand up as possible to fill as many hours of TV as possible, I worry that passion is being replaced by product. This is not just in comedy, this is across the arts, a sort of utilitarian approach to entertainment. A low hum of joy for the maximum number of people, much as so many blockbusters offer a requisite number of explosions, laced with cleavage and perfunctory romance – the Mills and Boon approach to novel writing – “here is the graph that shows you where the kisses must happen and readers research requires an accident by the threshing machine should occur at chapter seven”.
Entertainment is pastuerised.
Your programmed distractions will give you a brief sense of well-being, but do not worry, they will not change you, or haunt your dreams and memories.
I don’t think enjoying the sense of passion in creation is a contentious idea, you can see it in the work of Lenny Bruce and Stan Laurel, Nina Simone and Nick Cave, but it seems that bringing up such notions is now seen as snotty or elitist. Yet I think there is a strange ugly elitism in the idea that “the humdrum human” loves their X Factor and boxed cash games, they wish for no more than that. Who is really looking down on who?
One afternoon, idling under the pretense I was thinking, I typed this facebook status.
“I like the idea that comedians mean what they say and what they say really means something to them, that it’s not just an act of commerce.”
No great depth, just a thought typed.
A few minutes later, a club promoter and comic replied,
“Great stuff Robin, as long as Mummy & Daddy are there to pay the bills.”
The depersonalised font of facebook could reveal nothing, but I sensed a spattering of venom. So, anyone who has ever taken a risk on stage, canvas (artist’s or wrestling) or poetry slam has only done so safe in the knowledge that they have a fallback position of privilege and bail out. Is this saying that the majority of working comedians on the circuit don’t speak their mind at all on stage, that they are like aging courtesans, dignity long since departed, attempting any move to stay in the king’s favour. I know this isn’t true, there are many wonderful comedians making a living on the circuit and speaking their mind, I won’t name them as I know how performers hate a compliment.
The comic/promoter got increasingly personal, made up stuff, said that by saying I liked to believe people on stage really meant it, that I was somehow attacking club comedians, “smug twat” this, “superior education” that.
(privilege check – I have been lucky enough not to suffer abject poverty and I have had a pretty good education, I know I am lucky and in the minority)
I was not trying to suggest there was any shame in making money, I’ve been getting away with it for years, I even have a washing machine and that luxury Calvin & Hobbes set
Oddly, when I think of original artists, of people I know who have taken risks, they do not come from highly privileged backgrounds – Alan Moore, Simon Munnery, Josie Long, Darren Hayman, none were born in a punt on the Thames and suckled by wet nurses in ermine. Amongst my friends, people who have taken far greater risks than me and to far greater effect, I am probably the most privileged. For a lot of the time on the comedy circuit, when I was even worse than I am now, I didn’t take enough risks. I was lazy and fearful, everything improved when I dug my heels in and started to realise what I wanted to say. I realised why I had first loved stand up, because more than any other art form, you can unleash whatever you want from your mind without an editor, publisher or producer dabbling with, questioning or mangling your meaning. It’s up to you to sabotage yourself. Of course, the audience might hurl bottles or abuse, but even during the abuse there might be a few in the crowd who think, “I like the cut of this person’s jib, I might go see them again when they aren’t concussed by Peroni bottles so soon.” Oddly, I think I failed less in front of audiences when I started to leave those tattered, yellowing words which I thought were safe. (not that I didn’t and don’t still fail, i may be failing in a town near you soon)
Every week I try to play Old Rope, a new material night in central London. I wait to go on feeling the foolishness of anyone witless enough to stand in front of a group of strangers and make voluble some thoughts in their head, hoping they do not shame themselves with silence and granite faces. I do not always succeed, and sometimes when I do succeed I know it is only because of my ridiculousness as I holler something about meteors or Ingmar Bergman. It is only through failing that I have become better, there is a greater certainty in my uncertainty than there was in those aged routines I clung to, even as they attempted to drift further and further away from me.
There are plenty of tip top comedians who will guarantee laughs and jolly good night, but to keep it all interesting, we still need to have that readiness to fail every now and again. It is rarely a performer’s intention to fail the audience, and sometimes, audiences can experience something far more magnificent in failure with chutzpah than dead-eyed success.
Perhaps my self-help book will be called Happiness through Failure – how fucking up leads to a better life.
In science news, Incomplete Map of Cosmic Genome is out including Stewart Lee, Prof Brian Cox, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre and tens more. http://cosmicgenome.com/Home.html
currently putting together my new show for 2014, which may well have moments of failure, not too many I hope. Starting off in Bristol, Norwich, Nottingham and Sheffield, then a town near you (yes, I know where you live). Details here www.robinince.com