Shouldn't comedy be more than 'conversation plus'?

By Chortle editor Steve Bennett

Remember that old Monty Python sketch when Michael Palin pays to have argument? The gag is surely in the preposterous idea that someone would hand over good money to experience such a mundane, everyday communication.

Oh, wait. That’s the entire foundation of stand-up. A whole industry built on the similar premise that there are millions of people prepared to spend their hard-earned on receiving witty conversation from a stranger. Sure, they could chat and joke with their friends and loved ones, but instead, they seek out comedians, those prostitutes of the spoken word, to get their nefarious kicks.

Perhaps there was a time when witty conversation was hard to come by. During The Blitz perhaps. But now it is everywhere. The tone of the nation is to take the piss. Tabloids openly mock politicians, who in return have to prove to voters that they enjoy a joke. Heck, even smoothie bottles try to be humorous, to give the faceless corporation that makes them an ‘attitude’.

This is a far cry from that day, 50 years ago to this week, when That Was The Week That Was was first broadcast. Channelling the satire boom of the time, the show genuinely shook the Establishment. In those days, mocking the Prime Minister or other authority figures unheard-of. Now, in a world where Boris Johnson tries to zip-wire into the Olympics or Nadine Dorries deos bush-tucker challenges, that sort of satire is hard to pull off.

It’s hard to be irreverent when nothing’s held in reverence. Not the Church, the State, Royalty or the Press, The iPhone 5, maybe, but that’s about it.

Yet while jokiness is a constant presence in the ether, still the conversational stand-ups come, telling us about what happened on the bus, recounting a funny thing their mate once said, noticing the bleeding obvious. They are not really offering more than a decent conversation, but are likable, with an amusing style.

For those starting in comedy, this chatty style is the easiest to do. It’s a funnier version of yourself – and you already know how to be yourself. The machinery that has sprung up at comedy’s entry level – the courses especially – is largely geared to this, to teach the rookies how to heighten the stories they might tell their mates and hone them into routines. You can apply the comedy formulae, polish the words and phrases until they are ‘just so’, acquire stagecraft and confidence (or the illusion thereof) The result, an army of people who are broadly similar versions of the pub wit.

This is the prevailing tone of comedy – even the be-all and end-all of comedy, in most people’s perception, thanks to the limits to what makes it on to TV. For once every few years, the grappling claw of television will descend on the comedy circuit and take an everyman stand-up off to a glamorous new life of fame and riches, like the Little Green Man plucked from the arcade machine in Toy Story 3.

Those chosen are affable acts people warm to, with an engaging personality that can be moulded into whatever TV – and presumably TV audiences – want. But the selection seems almost random: John Bishop, we’ll have you, Jack Whitehall, you too. Justin Moorhouse? No, you stay on the circuit (and the radio).

But the bone fide comic geniuses – if rarely the most successful – are the people who go far beyond the Conversation Plus level of stand-up. They make the comedy world warp around them; not the other way around. Their stage personas would be terrible people to have a drink with; yet they’ve found what’s funny, stuck to that, honed it on the abrasive surface of audience reaction night after night, and ultimately made it their own.

What prompted these thoughts was a post made on the Chortle forums yesterday, in which a newbie said he had written some material inspired by the Leveson Report, and wanted to know if he could do it in the clubs. ‘I was wondering how well political material goes down with audiences,’ he asked. ‘Does it matter which part of the country you are in, or what kind of club you are in?’

This seems typical of the tail-wags-dogs philosophy. There’s surely not a part of the country that’s decided, as a population, it doesn’t like the political stuff... even if some promoters might have decided, probably arbitrary, what ‘sort’ of comedy their customers like.

For that is to miss the point, it’s not primarily the ‘kind’ of comedy that audience members like or dislike, but the person delivering it. Mark Thomas can do political comedy in any corner of the UK, but if Tim Vine was to come out and do half an hour on Gaza, it might not go down so well. The best comedians have the authenticity of doing material that suits their personality, not what they think the audience wants to hear.

In any case, there’s not such a thing as the generic ‘audience’. Nor is the world quite so strictly categorised as the marketing men would like. I’d wager there’s a big proportion of people who’d like political diatribe AND stupid puns, though finding those together on bill might be a challenge, especially as clubs increasingly find that themed nights are more successful than random mixed line-ups. That may be because there is frequently too little diversity within the acts on those mixed bills – but that’s a conversation we’ve had before.

Published: 1 Dec 2012

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