Romantic Outsider? Bitter Misanthrope? just someone doing jokes? – what is a stand up?

Now that it is edited and there is nothing I can do about it, I sit and wait for the fury or indifference or venom or multiple corrections I will receive for the documentary about comedians and unhappiness I have just made with Alex Mansfield.

This is a human trait I see in many comedians I know, and other humans too. Should you make the error of a vanity search on the web, you will not stop until you have found the person who hates you. When you are on stage, even if the laughter is regular and joyous, one corner of your mind thinks about the people who aren’t laughing. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see that man in the front row whose face has never been more miserable than it is now. New facial muscles have been discovered by him to demonstrate just how upset and disgusted he is that your mind should create such sentences. Back in your hotel room, you obsess over that one routine that was precarious, or that joke you think you told that town before, and you become certain that even those who left happily have unpicked their evening with you by the time their bus reached their street.

I think I pitched a documentary about comedians and unhappiness for self-interested reasons. I love stand up comedy. I have spent more than half my life in it, and most of my life obsessing about it. I can think of nothing else I could be. I also hate it, and wonder if my discontentment with what I am comes from the years of seeking the attention and laughter of strangers, or if that discontentment just comes from the fact I am me and there is nothing I can do about it. My work ethic comes from the knowledge I am lazy if I am not run ragged, also, it is a “descent into busyness”.As long as I am examining existence for the purpose of shows and creativity, then anxiety has purpose beyond, “what’s the bloody point”. The “bloody point” is to mull over “what’s the bloody point”, while people hopefully enjoy looking at your absurdity.

This year has been the wobbliest year I can remember. I think my tour show has frequently been the best I have done, with much room for improvement obviously, but it has been the wobbliest and most wretched in terms of motivating myself to get out there and do it, as well as having sometimes released the choke chain on my emotions after gigs I have been disappointed in. That said, it is all under control and I am functioning. Don’t most humans go through ups and downs and confusions about being self aware and existing, whether computer programming or baking french sticks? (this is one of the reasons I am giving up stand up for a while…if I can manage it – an experiment)

(also, though there have been wobbly moments, there have been more great bits probably. The propensity to highlight the grey must have come from my refusal to let go of a teenage frame of mind imbued with Morrissey and graveyards)

I have been frequently worried while making this documentary that it did not become self-aggrandising and romanticising – “we comedians feel so much more deeply than others, oh pity the fool and their wisdom that brings no profit to the wise”. There is also a danger in belittling real mental health issues. While interviewing Jo Brand, I toyed with the idea that stand up can be a self-inflicted bipolar, though I did not mean to the depths that the real clinical condition takes people. Metaphor is tricky when using such terms. It was about the daily, hectic change from 10 hours of solitary travel and existence, to two hours of frenetic showing off, then, with maybe a few drinks at the bar with audience members and still showing off, a return to a room on your own, edgily walking through drunken streets, with your head held low for fear that the rambunctious boozers will jeer your speccy face. (I notice the first comment under the Chortle article questions use of mental health terms. I have a knack for living in a many worlds state where nearly all possible criticisms are imagined).

Simon Amstell, one of the most fascinating stand ups working today, and a brilliant self-analyst, talked of using every stand up show to work out who he was. Others, including Alexei Sayle, talked of stand up being the ability to create a version of who you are that you might wish to be, the romanticised image of the rebel or romantic that cannot exist in the humdrum everyday, but arrives near fully formed in the spotlight.

For many stand ups, there is a need to scrutinise yourself and your view of humanity, but this act of dissection can lead to too much prodding and tearing until you become a loose bag of paranoid offal. I am what I am, and you are what you are, because of so many experiences, a vibrant mix of nature and nurture, and, in the end, you just have to get use to it and work out the best way forward.

Jason Cook talked of his use of therapy, and the horror when one therapist suggested she could cure him of all the ills he carried with him. “Oh no”, he said, “you mustn’t make me totally well. I use some of this sickness to make a living”.

Darryl Cunningham, author of Psychiatric Tales, considers that Spike Milligan, someone who suffered from frequent bouts of crippling mental illness, created despite, not because of his mental illness. Is there a danger that some comedians may try and drive themselves to a place of unhappiness believing that extreme melancholy and dissatisfaction with life is where comedy is? There are those that feast on drink and drugs, believing the great poets did, so they can be a great poet via the act of cirrhosis. I don’t believe in utter contentment.

The idea that you can be happy all the time seems to go against being the sort of creature that recognises itself in the mirror. As Josie Long, someone I frequently talk to during highs and lows of touring, said, and I concur, despite everything else, there is “a natural, joyful propensity for showing off”. I imagined being something else, and I didn’t like it.

I hope that the documentary is neither too flippant nor too po-faced. It was a tough edit, and could easily have been three hours rather than one.

It will be broadcast on Radio 4 this evening and is then found here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04n20v4

I can be found, with my support act Grace Petrie most of the time, in Newcastle, Canada Water, Bordon, Totton, Manchester, Goole, Barton on Humber, Belfast, Exeter and many other towns in the UK (and then the US and Australia next year) Details here http://www.robinince.com

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2 Responses to Romantic Outsider? Bitter Misanthrope? just someone doing jokes? – what is a stand up?

  1. I will listen with interest.

  2. Jane says:

    Don’t most humans go through ups and downs and confusions about being self aware and existing, whether computer programming or baking french sticks? Totally agree. Love your article. Looking forward to listening again.

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