Ho Ho Bloody Ho

Bethany Black on the nightmare of Christmas gigs

Christmas gigs. To anyone outside the comedy industry, those words conjure up a fun night, having a laugh with work colleagues and friends, going out and enjoying themselves. As a comedian, however it’s a double-edged sword: they tend to pay quite well, but only in the way that being a rodeo clown pays well, or the person whose job it is to go out on to the battlefield and salvage all the metal would probably pay well.

Not that standing on stage and saying things to a crowd of often indifferent, sometimes hostile office workers is quite as life-threatening as that, but you get the idea.

I get a strange enjoyment from watching the audience at these tough Christmas gigs. I come from a social sciences background, I’ve got a degree in film, television and cultural studies from Manchester Metropolitan University (literally a Mickey Mouse degree) where my dissertation looked at how comedians control audience behaviour. And most of my family have an interest in human behaviour: My mother was a probation officer, my father a teacher, and my sister is an anthropologist.

My life has been spent watching people, looking at crowds, looking at primate behaviour and how it works in group situations, I love it. Christmas gigs provide a fantastic insight into this.

Typically, a Christmas gig will include about six groups of at least 20 people, all on office parties. None of them really want to be there; all would rather have pocketed the money the company’s spent forcing them to socialise at a comedy club with the people they already have to spend eight hours a day with. But why would any company want to take its employees to a comedy night? I’ve got a theory about this and it goes thus:

Every office up and down the land has a man in it who’s a bit socially awkward, who wears a tie with a cartoon character on it in lieu of an actual sense of humour and who parrots every catchphrase of the day in order to make everyone in the office laugh. The Fast Show recreated this character perfectly in Colin Hunt. He is always the person who tells everyone that they’re ‘a bit mad, a bit crazy’ and they’ll tell you they’ve got a fantastic sense of humour, often illustrating this point with an excessively long story involving accents which shows absolutely no signs of any understanding of what humour is or how it works. This person is so wacky, mad and crazy that he’s the person everyone trusts to look after the money when they’ve had a whip round when someone’s leaving.

There’s usually one woman in the office who through some maternal sense of protection sticks up for him when everyone ridicules him behind his back, and sometime around September the subject of what they should do for their Christmas do comes up. This woman, in an attempt to be nice to this guy, says: ‘Why don’t we go to a comedy night? Craig’d like that.’ [For Craig is his name]. They ask him and he says yes and then reels off catchphrases, caught up in the adrenaline of the moment. Only later does he get a slight feeling of dread.

His role within this group is of beta male. The alpha doesn’t care where they go, he’s secure in his position so he’ll turn up, gets drunk, snog Debbie the purchase ledger clerk and one sticky fumble later, that’ll be his Christmas sorted. At a comedy club, however, Craig will be in an odd situation, attention will be on him. Suddenly he’s got something to prove.

In normal company if you’re in a small group you’re acutely aware of the social situation that you’re in and try to fit in. Such groups are generally self-policing, you start being a bit too loud people will stare a until you feel the stultifying social embarrassment of the British middle classes and quieten down. But if you become so involved in your group, you don’t notice – or care for – those around you (and alcohol certainly plays a big factor in that), those norms break down.

So in December, suddenly there are eight self-contained groups, each with their own internal dynamic, like eight little sets of football fans. Thrown into this is a single comedian stood on a stage in an incredibly contrived social situation, where they are supposed to take the position of the funny friend performing to a bunch of people who already have a hierarchical social structure in place.

All eight Craigs see their colleagues laughing at this pretender on stage. Making people laugh is Craig’s role in their mini-social structure. What’s more, the comedian is making them laugh with stuff that he’s come up with himself – not relying on ‘How very dare you’, ‘garlic bread’ and the ‘man drawer’, which everyone knows is second-hand.

What was supposed to be a treat for Craig has become the worst place for his fragile ego, so he feels that his only way to assert his position within the group is to shout out and knock the comedian off their pedestal. If the comic dies because of something that Craig’s said it will be the office story of the year, the time that he managed to be better, funnier, faster than that comedian.

If you combine this with the fact that the rest of the audience are there not because they want to watch comedy, but to get so drunk they are able to stand the company of their workmates, it means that the usual social rules for this sort of gathering have gone. The comedian is then reduced crowd control. Like King Cnut telling the waves to stop, they’re in an impossible position. Which is why so often Christmas gigs can be awful.

Every year the majority of my weirdest gigs take place in December. This year I thought I’d got away with it. No gig was particularly nice, but at least they weren’t horrible.

My last Christmas gig was going to be lovely: an all-female line up, and an intimate pub gig on the edge of Newcastle’s gay district (ie where the men wear coats and the women wear, well, clothes) This should have been, a fun low key way to end the working year.

Twenty minutes after the gig started a couple of guys turned up late and were disruptive, a bit drunk, part of a group of workmates who’d been out for a drink beforehand. It later transpired they were friends of one of the acts, another thing given to lowering inhibitions.

One of them was very vocal and responded to questions in that way of an irritating uncle, who thinks that just saying the opposite of what he means is funny. The person who thinks that lying about their name or what they do for a living to a comedian is somehow showing the world that they’re on top; the person who deliberately tries to give answers that will be difficult as a comic to work with because they want to be the one who gets the laugh.

So when he was asked what he did, this bloke said ‘I’m a stripper.’ Thinking somehow that this answer would limit the comic potential later he said he ‘worked in cancer’ and finally said he was a radiologist.

He seemed playful, if annoying and very drunk, and I thought I’d have some fun with him, even though he kept coming up with bizarre, slurred answers unconnected with what I’d asked him. Teasingly, I asked in response to this: ‘Have you had a stroke or something?’ at which point his mate stood up and said: ‘I’m sorry, you’re not funny.’

And then the other one got up and explained: ‘His Dad’s just had a stroke.’ The other one added: ‘Yeah, and you’ve got shit shoes.’ Then I got a pint thrown over me. I took it to be the universe in balance, I upset someone whose dad had had a stroke, so he threw a pint over a recovering alcoholic. It was like the day I did a gig for the police which paid exactly the same amount I’d previously been fined by them.

Maybe there’s nothing intrinsic about human group behaviour, maybe it’s just that December makes everyone act a little crazy. Thankfully it’s another 11 months until we need worry about it again.

Published: 5 Jan 2010

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