I Never Meant to be Boring – ideas vs laughter

Writing about the upcoming film of Blade Runner, Philip K Dick remarked that the problem with Hollywood was its concentration of disturbing the senses, but not the mind.

This is not just an issue of Hollywood anymore. It is the issue of music, comedy, twenty four hour news – is it enough to create a hasty reaction without interfering with the slower, thoughtful parts of the brain.

“We have so much to choose from, you better grab us immediately or we’ll wander off to something that promises a more instant gratification.”

The argument is that everyone’s life is so hard that once they have paid admission to the cinema or theatre it would be an insult to activate their brain too much. I am not sure that everyone balks at entertainment that requires a modicum of effort. I am not sure it is even effort, it might just be engagement. Sometimes I want The Walking Dead, sometimes it’s Solaris.
Not everyone has spent their days endless slaughtering animals in an abattoir, chipping at a rockface in a subterranean hellhole, or caring for the sick, and even some of those who have might still be happy to be offered something that might take more than a minute to reach a climax.

In my tail end of regularly playing comedy clubs, I noticed that an act might be on stage, having garnered many laughs, and then moved into a longer piece. The lack of instantaneous laughter could see the audience beginning to drift off, despite seven minutes of constant entertainment, it didn’t take long for doubts to seep into the group. The speed of loss of trust was remarkably fast.

When I started watching live stand up in the mid 1980s, I didn’t always know what the hell was going on. The excitement of being in a cellar with Jeremy Hardy or Phil Cornwell or Claire Dowie was enough to carry me along. The sense of occasion was enough. The comedy I saw got sharper and more interesting or more absurd, the sort of circuit it was then would be hard to create now because comedy is such a damn big thing. I couldn’t expect to walk into any club now and see what I saw then because there are one hundred times as many acts and a thousand times more punters, whether they are going to Old Rope or the O2.

There is no shortage of risk takers on the circuit and I am constantly delighted by new acts and events I see.

This is why I am encouraged by regular nights like Lolitics or Lost Treasures of the Black Heart or Stand Up Philosophy. These are rooms that have an audience that are prepared to give acts a little space. Sometimes a great idea cannot be found within minutes of performance, sometimes a little space for potential failure is required. Sometimes, on the cusp of failure, something magnificent is found. Even the journey into failure can be fun, if you’re still performing with commitment and trying to engage, it may entertain in its own way more than leaning back on the microphone and “going through the same old shit one more time”.

The fear of failure is a dangerous thing. Once you have found your first working thirty minutes, it seems to take a lot more effort to find the next thirty minutes. Seemingly, without volition, your mind says, “hey, don’t sweat it, you have what you need for now”. Making yourself risk new ideas in front of people becomes a more and more conscious act, it’s not as if you have to do it, that thirty is doing you fine. You can become a music hall act.

The problem with a comedy night is you can go along with so many different expectations. if you go to blues night, you will expect the blues, if it’s trad jazz, you’ll expect trad jazz, if it’s prog…well, maybe that is slightly different, but you would at least expect something that lies between John Carpenter and King Crimson (actually, those boundaries seem too narrow). Comedy has never been so broad. Will your comedy night have something akin to Stewart Lee or Michael Mcintyre or Reeves & Mortimer or Roy Chubby Brown?
I think some clubs played it too safe and this led to acts feeling they must play safe as they had families and commitments and a fear of losing a booking. I know I did, and still I was never good enough for Jongleurs.

Is comedy art or commerce? Are you aiming to be Patton Oswalt or Jay Leno?

Some of the more die-hard comedy fans deserted the clubs because the misogyny and the casual racism and the homophobia crept in at the club night they went to and they presumed the comedy they wanted was gone.
This is why some clubs likes Lolitics and Stand Up Philosophy almost lay out a manifesto before you get through the door.

I don’t think anyone should go on stage with the intention of boring the audience, and it should never just be about what you are going to get from this because otherwise you shouldn’t be working in an environment that requires an audience.

One of the important lessons I learnt from the circuit is that I never want to be too far from being able to get a laugh, though I have learnt that sometimes you can be entertaining a room without the constant sound of laughter (it’s the contagious tickly cough that gives the rise of boredom away, and the slack and dulled faces).

I have been asked by other comics, “what’s more important to you, the ideas or the laughs?”, and I think the answer is both. The ideas I attempt to expound are very important to me, but I am not aiming for a silent reception. the challenge is to turn the thoughts in my head into something that is entertaining and, if possible, might be memorable as well.

The space to fail leads to far greater successes. The aim is to avoid being boring, but as I have just gone over 1000 words on this, I may not have succeeded this time.

I am off to Oxford Lit Fest, How the Light gets In at Hay on Wye, The Life Centre in Newcastle, as well as clubs in Sheffield, Manchester, Shoreham and Leicester. www.robinince.com

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2 Responses to I Never Meant to be Boring – ideas vs laughter

  1. David Brain says:

    I’m with you on this one. I write puzzles (almost for living but not quite), and there is a definite divide between those solver who demand an instantaneous response and those who are prepared to give the setter a little time to establish their credentials.
    That doesn’t mean the folk who demand an instant understanding are any less deserving of attention or that they are less capable of appreciating subtext or complexity; it’s just that it’s much, much harder to give them something worthwhile, so you end up simply giving them the surface instead. And that then risks reinforcing the cycle…
    (Mind you, I also have the disadvantage of not usually even seeing the response to my work; at least a comic gets – or doesn’t get – laughs. I can have a crossword in the paper and, short of snippy letters about specific clues, have very little idea of what’s going on with my audience.)

  2. It’s a hard one, as there’s definitely space for things just being funny without any big message, or serious talks that lead to brain-strain. However so much depends on the venue and what the audience expects, and that can be hard to judge beforehand. Not that audiences won’t be happy with discovering something unexpected, but they will probably take more convincing than you might expect. Another factor may be the “promises” that the earlier parts of your act make – people may get turned off not by the difficulty but by a change in style mid-set. (Sorry, I’ve been reading too much advice about writing books recently and a lot of it is quite keen on making sure that what you promise with your early chapters leads to a suitable pay-off later on otherwise your audience will dislike your book, no matter how good the prose.)

    I’ve been lucky with performing in shows which are quite explicit that what they want to deliver involves science and so when I try to delve into some of the more counter-intuitive bits of physics the audience are generally willing to come with me. It was really nice in the one hour show I did at Cambridge science festival last week when I realised that I was in the middle of a quite science-heavy and joke-light bit of the show and the audience all still seemed engaged. It did probably help that there were only 25 of them though; is there an optimum size of crowd for this sort of material, or perhaps you need the right amount of intimacy? I’m sure you’ll know better than me given your vastly greater experience.

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