'Learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle. In short, enter a mould without being caged in it. Obey the principle without being bound by it. Learn, master and achieve!” – Bruce Lee
There is an frequently repeated quote, I believe by the hilarious Canadian stand-up Tony Law, regarding an abundance of 'young men in T-shirts noticing things' in the world of comedy. It's become the slogan used to condemn the average young male comic.
Without getting too pedantic, I’d like to just point out that there are many styles of joke-telling but only one good one. It’s called 'good'.
I think who the critics are referring to is not 'young men in T-shirts noticing things', but actually 'young men with no life experience or self-awareness noticing things no-one gives a shit about'. The wave of such characters is inevitable considering the comedy climate, where the dream of being a professional stand-up has become an old whore banshee, luring drifters.
But there is a wide and varied menu of jocular styles out there – and a new one emerges every time a comic finds their voice. However, there’s actually only a few different kinds of people. So until the comedian actualizes what it is that makes them special, they are going to come across as beige, T-shirt wearing mud.
In England, comedy is approached with the same weariness the English have when faced with most things. It can be intensely analytical. I’ve heard terms used here that I’ve never really heard used anywhere else. Such as the 'proper joke' – which is almost always some sort of pun that feels generated by a computer. The 'pull back and reveal', often condemned as an easy out for a punchline (although this technique nearly always makes me cry with laughter, even when executed sloppily).
There is 'whimsy' – which was once described to me as being when the comedian makes frequent reference to badgers, owls, and cheese. I get the impression this is one of those terms born from spite towards comedians of this ilk (or should I say ‘elk’!). I’m guilty of having my perception of certain comics coloured by being previously warned of their whimsical tendencies, only to find they transcend this stupid word and are hysterically funny in a true way. 'Fiction hides the greater truth' – not sure who said that, but yeah.
The term 'urban' has somehow seeped into the lexicon from across the Atlantic, much to my chagrin. I despise this term, as I was born and raised in an ‘urban’ environment (read: city) and I am never welcomed on ‘urban’-themed shows. In fact, I think it’s actually quite urban indeed to be young, wear a T-shirt, and notice things. This is used more when referring to genre, rather than a particular style of joke. Of course, it’s practical in a marketing sense – when it comes to desperately trying to suck the moisture from the bricks of the depleted well.
And many more. Now when you see these terms being co-opted, and feeding highly successful marketing strategies, it’s easy to become jaded. But, to those who are discouraged by the 'clogging of the drain' (a term used by embittered comedians in reference to the masses of floppy-haired children keening into microphones worldwide) – you should focus on the tiny world of your own notebook, your personal home. Yes there are scores of hopefuls in comedy, but only the good survive. And the persistent, who will become good. And I think part of this is being open to all techniques to create your own thing.
Now get out there and start noticing things.
- Mike Sheer is a London-based comedian from Toronto, who will be performing his solo show Undergod in Brighton and Edinburgh. This is from his blog at www.rantenstein.wordpress.com.