Pints of view

Dean Burnett on the link between comedy and alcohol

I recently took part in the BBC Wales Funny Business contest, which was a remarkable learning experience. However, one unusual aspect was that we had to audition at 2pm – not a typical time for comedy – and in venues with fully licensed bars. During the day, with sunshine streaming through the windows and only a handful of other contestants and a few friends as an audience, the atmosphere was oddly jarring.

But maybe this is just another example of the belief that for a successful comedy gig to occur, alcohol must be available.

This is not a theory exclusive to promoters looking for bar profit; many acts are convinced of this too, as evidenced by some of the contestants. One act opened by knocking back a drink on stage and declaring ‘I don’t care what any of you think now!’ Another contestant, when dying on his arse, turned on the crowd and shouted ‘What are you lot drinking? Ovaltine?’ But at 2pm on a weekday, a hot beverage was more likely to be drunk than liquor. But because it’s a comedy gig, the audience should have been getting pissed, apparently.

In Cardiff, one act turned up with a bottle of what looked like vodka and smelled like pure ethanol, proceeded to get hammered and increasingly aggressive until his turn came, at which point he took to the stage, criticised all the other acts because they ‘had stuff prepared’ before using up his time with Ozzy Osbourne impressions and leering at the female judge, until his wife came to pick him up, kids in tow. And yet he still seemed surprised when he didn’t get through. It’s this, and many other examples, that make me question this seemingly unshakeable symbiotic relationship between alcohol and comedy.

I have no issue with alcohol; I like it fine, although it’s a bad idea to take it to excess – which can be said of pretty much anything, such as cheese or television. I understand its role as a social lubricant, although nobody seems to be picking up my term of ‘conversational KY Jelly’. But it’s this implacable relationship with comedy that I think needs to be looked at.

Case in point. I regularly MC a student gig. Doors open at 8pm, show starts at 9pm. It regularly fills up in the first 20 minutes, nearly 200 people but even when you can’t physically get anyone else in, we still wait until 9pm, even though we could easily start the show earlier. Why don’t we? Drinking time. People don’t buy beer (much) when the acts are on. The beer is where the venue makes most of its money. But there’s another reason. If the crowd has been unresponsive in first half of the show, then the 15 minute interval is extended, even doubled, because in the first half ‘they weren’t drunk enough’.

It is this that I would argue with, that the drunker an audience is, the better the gig will go – even though things often seem funnier when you’re drunk. Alcohol is, after all, a suppressant, and the first thing it suppresses is your inhibitions. Whereas normally someone might be reluctant to laugh out loud in a large group for fear of embarrassment, a few drinks later, this doesn’t occur to them. And once one person is laughing, others join in, classic social group dynamic. Of course, the best comedians take away this choice altogether, they can make you laugh whether you want to or not.

But although the inhibitions are suppressed, this is only the first thing. As the dose increases, other things stop working, your higher cognitive functions, your vocabulary, your social awareness, your speech skills, your motor skills, your visual system, memory formation, and even your respiratory system. This is alcohol poisoning, when you die. The only thing alcohol doesn’t suppress is appetite, which is why if alcohol is ever banned in this country, the doner kebab industry will be minutes behind it.

This is just a reminder of the darker side of alcohol. But nobody can deny that alcohol does often result in comedy. How many people have a hilarious story that begins with ‘Once, when I was pissed…’? I’d wager nearly everyone reading this. Traffic cones are mundane, functional objects, but after several drinks, a lot of people seem to think that they take on this hilarious aura, where any incident or activity involving them is intrinsically funny. And this is why alcohol is deemed useful at comedy gigs, because it makes the audience more susceptible to laughter.

But that’s where problems start. A pissed person might be more willing to laugh than a sober one, but their attention span is reduced, their thought processes are slightly scrambled and their appreciation of subtlety drastically reduced. This was hit home to me when Simon Munnery headlined the student gig. It was my first time seeing him, and it was hands-down one of the most intelligent, well thought-out and brilliant pieces of stand-up I have ever witnessed. Yet the crowd responded with, on average, low-level chuckling and polite laughs. A lot of them clearly ‘didn’t get it’. Most were pissed by this point, and to really appreciate Munnery you need to have all your faculties about you. This was a clear demonstration of alcohol clearly hindering comedy, rather than helping.

There are, of course, worse examples than this. There’s nothing that can ruin a gig more thoroughly than the pissed heckler(s). Even aggressive, mouthy or attention-seeking loudmouths can be silenced by a decent act who knows what they’re doing. But if the heckler is pissed, there’s little that can be done. Witty put-downs, clever come-backs, even the sound of dozens of people in the same room shouting ‘shut the fuck up!’ in unison, none of these seem to have any impact on the truly pissed heckler. When they’re part of a group, this can be even worse, as now the drunk has the added security of mates to back them up.

I’ve never done a Jongleurs gig, nor have I even been to one, but I know many acts that have, and the general consensus is that they do it for the money, not because they enjoy it. A quick scan of the website shows that getting drunk and shouting out is encouraged, and I can criticise all I want, but it is a successful business strategy.

I guess it depends on what you define as comedy. If you’re a connoisseur and expect stand-up to be insightful, thought provoking, shocking or illuminating as well as funny, then Jongleurs isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you rarely ever see comedy and all you want is to have a laugh at some jokes while getting drunk with your mates, then it’s probably the ideal place to go.

But this where the relationship between alcohol and comedy flips over. In many clubs, the impression is that the comedy is a means to sell booze, rather than the booze being means to increase the enjoyment of comedy. And whenever you see a sponsored comedy event these days, it’s invariably sponsored by a drinks brand. Comedy is again being used to sell drinks (Peter Kay’s ‘’ave it!’ anyone?) This is not a brilliant insight and should surprise no-one, but that’s the extent to which comedy and drinking have become intertwined these days; it’s so obvious that nobody notices anymore.

It’s different for the acts. As mentioned earlier, some newer acts feel that drinking is essential, and many need a measure of Dutch courage to steady their nerves. Even some of the higher end acts regularly drink on stage; Ian Cognito has a whole rant about it and I’d never be brave enough to question him. I’ve seen Perrier nominated acts take to the stage, pint in hand, nothing wrong with that or their performance, but what about when it goes too far? Johnny Vegas appeared to lose a lot of his fans as a result of his drunken on-stage antics, and as with the pissed heckler, the pissed comedian who doesn’t care what other people think can ruin a gig, perhaps more effectively, as they are the one that people have paid to see.

I feel I’m not alone in this. Lately, there seems to be a move away from the link between booze and comedy. Anyone following Richard Herring’s blog will know he’s given up drinking this year, and appears to be all the better for it. The best example of this is the legendary Brendon Burns, who went the full rehab route. People seemed worried that without his drink and drug stories, he wouldn’t be as funny anymore. He used to be great, but these days he’s phenomenal. Clearly, the drink was holding him back, not making him funnier.

Others have picked up on this too, with the increasing success of Terry Saunders’s Laughter In Odd Places gigs, taking comedy outside the pub and into unusual, alcohol-free places. I can only hope this is a trend that continues.

Drinking is fine, comedy is great, but you can have one without the other. In a society where alcohol is increasingly celebrated, rather than being a means by which to celebrate something, it is important to emphasise that it is not essential for enjoyment. Good comedy alone can also cause a great buzz, to the point where you can get hooked. There’s the important distinction. People addicted to comedy laugh a lot, whereas alcoholics rarely ever do.

Published: 21 Feb 2008

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