Meet comedy's Awkward Little Boys

Doug Lost discovers a new comedy genre

Whimsical comedy seems dead in the water. Floating biliously, its cardigan-covered corpse soaked heavy, bloated by the mannerisms of the few, which have been appropriated by the many.

Go to any open mic night in London and you will see some good-looking fool mimicking Josie Long’s inimitable enthusiasm. A failed drama student picking up a book to deride in the style of Robin Ince (though, unlike Ince, it’s a book they’ve never read.) These changeling imitators are only distinguishable by the uniform dead look behind the stars in their eyes, hoping their karaoke rendition of this once-hot genre will obscure their lack of true stage persona. Dead eyes like a piranha as their lack of originality devours whimsy’s once lank and sexy husk.

The fact that whimsy as a genre has never really gained a foothold at the Comedy Store is understandable. It never existed to be that. The broader fact that art centres, its natural home, have this year not sought out the specialised likes of the Trachtenburgs nor Bridget Christie but have plumped for the technical brilliance of Sarah Millican and Rhod Gilbert suggests the comedy barometer is moving away from the obscure reference and towards the far more universal disappointment of life.  The service station, the break-up, sex.

You can also see this shift around the country at a grassroots level. There seems to be a wave of new acts making names for themselves on the open mic circuit who have shunned both the bland mainstream Jongleurs style of victim-based aggression but also the woolly snobbery of what whimsy has become.

This group seem concerned first and foremost with making audiences laugh, yet do so through a certain awkwardness, a true geekiness away from references to philosophers and knowingly worn horn-rimmed glasses. While they are unlikely to see themselves as either a group or a genre they share a common thread and through their choice of material, delivery, respect for the crowd and each other as acts, they stand out amongst other blanker faces trying to be remembered on the circuit. I’m talking about the likes of Henry Ginsberg, (pictured) Daniel Simonsen, Nick Hodder and others: The Awkward Little Boys of the comedy circuit.

Ginsberg, Simonsen and Hodder are arguably the most established of this new style/group. All share a deliberately disconnected yet eager mode of delivery. Ginsberg deals in edgy, dark subject matter; a typical routine of his will include paedophiles, the Holocaust and a fetish. Yet he does not just blurt out these topics to offend, rather he playfully gags around them, maladroitly trying to assimilate them into everyday scenarios, nearly always ending up with him as the butt of whatever nastiness the joke has unleashed. Ginsberg’s persona is bashful about his anger, as he reduces the extreme to the mundane.

Far lighter is this year’s SoYou Think You’re Funny Winner, Simonsen. The Norwegian comic tells how every personal interaction is for him a difficult maze to navigate. Any social situation he finds himself partaking in, even saying ‘Hello’, challenges him into an inherent stillness, which is channelled into his emotionally stunted onstage persona. He, Ginsberg’s and nearly all the others share a bedraggled look that seems to emphasise the wear of the world that slaps them back every time they prod its iffy bits. The only hate in their observations is a shared self-loathing at their own confusion with society.

Hodder is far more joke-orientated. Knowingly flagging up material as being exactly that. Hodder is the best representation of the Awkward Little Boys’ love of punchlines, puns and one-liners. Hodder’s purposely twitchy, nervous approach to his set slowly reels the audiences in, familiarizing them to his world where things with nuts in them will almost certainly contain nuts and weights from Argos are difficult to carry. He creates energy in the room with clean observations, sacrificed to surreal deconstructions. Like the others, he constantly riffs on the tension that he is a comedian onstage saying funny things. This awareness is not post-modern waffle, it approaches an artificial situation and makes it comfortable by highlighting the mechanics between the relationship of audience and comedian. Using tension and release seems to be the thread that unifies them all and Hodder is the most skilful performer at this.

Deconstruction and vocalised self-awareness are two of other the key aspects that unite this bunch. Newer acts Nick Helm and James Mason are poles apart if you look at their delivery. Helm is unbridled enthusiasm, whether ranting or celebrating something, it’s the big kid losing all restraint that makes him incredibly endearing. This dynamo’s biggest laughs often come when, mid-flow, all his physicality pauses into a moment of still disgust when an audiences member tries to chip in with whatever has got him so hyperactively riled up. One-liners are followed by a zesty ‘wallop’ or thrust of the hips for punctuation. If a silly pun creates awkward laughter, Helm will pause his set, then thank the audience member who noticeably enjoyed himself or herself politely, and then resume.

Mason, on the other hand, is 99 per cent restrained deadpan, low-energy humanised. Strip mining his own material until whatever he originally joked about has been folded into ten other laughs, mocking what was wrong about his initial gag. The only time he’ll break into a smile or break from the safety of the mic stand is if the audience has, in his mind, quite rightly given his material the same scorn with which he delivers it. He will often chide the audience for laughing at whatever simple joke he is about to further deconstruct.

What unites Hodder and Simonsen’s deliberate restlessness, Helm’s daft energy, Ginsberg and Mason’s arch miserablism et al is the fact that all of them seem primarily concerned with their failures as modern human beings. Helm almost schizophrenically talks about how difficult it is for him to bother with life, work or relationships with the same teddybear-on-a-sugar-rush gusto. Mason underlines his ‘why bother?’ persona by admissions of still living with his parents and failing to find a girlfriend. There is a biographical link to most of their routines, almost an emotional slapstick as they expose their own shortcomings. They all share this ill-at-ease, self-conscious association with the wider world, especially love and sex.

Unlike the whimsy crowd, their main reference points are not alienating; no cult authors nor defunct indie bands are name-checked to show off their cool. The metaphors nearly all these acts use on stage are comparisons to the cheesily popular. Many of these comedians have sets about their lives compared to action blockbusters. They are geeks but geeks who obsess about things every audience member has experienced. Chris Boyd, another act who fits this cracked mould, shares Mason’s knowing deadpan approach but equally will build to glorious puns about Battlestar Galactica or the Jason Bourne movies as he highlights the murky corners of his life.

Despite the Awkward Little Boys moniker I’ve given them, this ragtag group of comics are not solely male. The excellent Catie Wilkins’s sarcastic delivery onstage later unhinges her in the bedroom; a visit to the dentist makes her squirm guiltily as much as Simonsen or Hodder’s reactions to other ‘normal’ people would. Nat Luurtsema tries to understand the weirder fetishes and sensations in the world as Ginsberg does and comes to her uniquely fantastic conclusions. Joanne Lau shares the darker sensibilities of Mason or Boyd as she puts her own life through the wringer of her tactless grandmother and boyfriend. All three treat the audience with a distant respect, none need an air of superiority over the audience despite their wit and intelligence.

They don’t all conform to a cookie-cutter definition. Helm, Hodder and Simonsen generally avoid controversial material. The others though - Ginsberg, Lau and Luurtsema especially - revel in it. The main difference between the established shock comics and them is that taboo is a way to highlight their own inadequacies, not that of others. The style is not exactly introspective; it more tends towards suggesting it is universally OK to be depressed, single, overdrawn or weird. There’s an overarching message in all their sets, in all their deliveries, that it is actually quite normal to feel uncomfortable whether in bed with your partner, drinking in a Walkabout or trying to make rape and genocide funny in front of a room full of strangers.

None of these acts exclusively perform together or seem part of a clique, yet they stand out as up-and-coming performers that seem to be doing something intentionally different from the norm and doing it well. It has yet to be recognised as a movement but I’d wager that as these acts’ stock rises with promoters and critics, more and more wannabes will stop knitting and start assessing how ‘sub-standard’ their lifestyles are and make themselves the punchline.

They’ll probably all feel uncomfortable about the tag Awkward Little Boys - but at least they’ll get material out of it.

Published: 27 Feb 2009

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