Stand up is one of the freest artforms of all. You do not require actors, directors, a script editor or historically accurate ruffles. All that is required is something you want to say that you believe others may be entertained by too. You really can say whatever you want, only your conscience, ego or hurled abuse and glassware can stop you. This is where the struggle festers, do you dare say what you suspect may lead to derision or, worse, silence? Do you dare stand in front of people and face their possible rejection? Will you be the one sitting in the toilet cubicle after the gig, unable to leave it until the three men loudly pissing and hating you at the urinal have left the restroom?
There is supposedly a division in contemporary stand ups who learnt on the same comedy circuit. One army is apparently led by Stewart Lee, the other is led by Michael McIntryre. Whether either of these humans know about their status as generals, I am not sure.
Sometimes these groups are divided up as “the circuit comic” and “the Edinburgh comic”, other times as “the lazy hack” and “the pretentious prick”.
It is a pretty pointless spat, mainly reserved for bitching on car journeys. “the circuit comic” declares that “the Edinburgh comic” doesn’t have the abilities to deal with the rough and tumble of stags and hens and couldn’t play a late night show in a sports club where the audience are fuelled on booze, ketamine and PCP. “The Edinburgh comic” declares that “the circuit comic” is dreary hack without an original idea in their mind and a failure to respect the art of stand up.
It’s a dreary feud which mainly exists to fill the time before facing the audience. Bitching is a relaxing and effortless conversation for times when your mind is really on something else. It is a hobby of poets, painters and playwrights. In the end, the sides really aren’t that clearly divided, many comedians can fit into both categories. Little is gained by watching the tails of others, blaming the success of others on your lack of it gets nothing done.
The lines between “hack” and “art” are murky.
What does being a hack mean? It doesn’t mean playing the more mainstream club circuit or doing jokes about smoking joints, men and women, dogs and cats, menstruation or intoxication. I think the hack is someone whose comedy doesn’t come from their own thoughts, but merely translations of other comedian’s routines. I see the hack as thoughtless, there not talking about life observed but about a life observed through other comic’s observations. It is a highly idiosyncratic comedian who has managed to go through their whole career without being guilty of that. Most of us have been hacks at some point, and many of us maybe hacks again. Finding the ability to convey your voice and opinions honestly on stage normally takes years. Very few comedians spring fully formed and wholly competent onto the stage. I am aware of my own accidental hackery. When away from comedy circuit and the routines of others, you can find ideas you are certain are yours, grand routines that will slay them with your insight, satire and verbal dexterity. Upon unveiling the routine with a self-satisfied gleam in your eye, a look to the side of the stage that says to the other comedians, “now get ready for this”, you are surprised to be told that you are one of 94 comedians who had made an observation about terrorist martyrs being rewarded with virgins.
There are few original thoughts. In this time of self, we may be vividly aware of our individuality, but as tests have demonstrated, we may be more similar than we wish.
After all, if we were all utter individuals, the observational comics find themselves surrounded by silence. “hey, you know when..?” “no, none if us do. we live in a fractured society where none of us have any common ground”.
Should the starting point of “I find this funny” rather than “I imagine this is the sort of observation that will go down well in the current comedy marketplace”? Comedians can be particularly adept at being arrogant egotists and rampant self-loathers within seconds.
The sweaty man walks into the dressing room with a frown on his face.
“oh dear, I don’t think that went very well”.
The other comedian agrees it wasn’t the sweaty man’s best gig.
The sweaty man’s face leaps to exasperated life .
“what do you mean? I got some big laughs and…” etc etc etc
Not everyone has to aspire to be a true original, there is nothing wrong with just being damn entertaining. If there is any divide, it is between the lazy and passionate. The worst thing a comedian can do is just not bother. To see in their eyes that “here we go again, let me trot out these lines one more time as I look at your faces and think only of the cheque.”
I remember the horror of looking down on myself and thinking, “hang on a minute, you are putting no effort in at all, you lazy, rude sod”. The comfort blanket of overly familiar routines can eventually become a hammock to snooze in.
I read a column Victoria Coren wrote after her father’s death. I apologise if I recall it wrongly. His advice on writing on any issue was never to go with your first idea. That is the idea that is most commonly found in the minds of others. The second idea is the idea all those have gone to being aware that their first idea will be the most commonly written one, but by the time you’ve got to the third idea, then that is yours. I am often conscious of which routines I could kick up a fuss if someone stole them. I have had jokes nicked, and sometimes I have thought. “never mind, it is no great leap of imagination to arrive at that”, other stolen routines I have felt, for reasons of subject, phrases and the direction of the ire, “I am pretty certain that is mine”.
How much of yourself can you reveal before you are in jeopardy?
What we all have to attempt to do is entertain the room. The comic whose true intention is to be loathed or ignored is a rarity and someone who may do better spending money in a torture dungeon club to get their kicks. But there is a danger of going out and presuming you know what the audience want. They might be more complex than you imagine.
I remember waiting to go on at a sometimes rowdy comedy club in the west of England. Within 3 minutes of the gig starting, the compere was demanding to know of the girlfriend in a young couple had given her boyfriend a blow job yet. Few environments is such questioning considered acceptable social behaviour, but the comedy club is one of the rare places it is. That night, the audience were gentler than usual, and there was a sense of unease and a lightness in the laughter as the couple gamely squirmed. Afterwards, I asked the compere why he went in so hard, he told me, “it’s what they want isn’t it?”
Alan Moore once said, “if the audience knew what they needed, they wouldn’t be the audience, they’d be the artist”
I am currently touring, I always am, and will be in Norwich, Reading, Eastbourne, Uckfield, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester and 50 other places this autumn. Details of all that sort of thing are here