Itchy feet

Laura Lexx on the thin line between comedy and madness

I sat in the audience of a gig tonight and watched a comedian. Nothing special; I was just fulfilling about 30 per cent of my duties as an audience member.

The other 70 per cent I sadly wasn't fulfilling, that is listening and laughing, but the direction of causality here has yet to be determined. I think I stopped listening because I wasn't laughing, but, I'm willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume I couldn't have been laughing because I had stopped listening.

I was literally just watching him. I was totally spellbound watching him pace back and forwards, stepping from side to side, lifting his feet awkwardly and then putting them down in strange shapes. Turning, twisting the microphone in his hand and then stepping backwards again as he delivered his new material to an eager crowd.

He reminded me of a zoo animal in an advert trying to get you to give 50p a month to put them out of their misery, or a polar bear in a cage that was too small. I stopped listening completely as I tried to work out whether he was even particularly aware of the way he was moving and pacing. I didn't feel like he was.

It suddenly struck me, that sometimes performing live comedy is such an uncomfortable and ‘wrong’ experience that the comedian is literally trying to fight themself to continue to do it. It was as if, in the struggle to get all the words out in the right order, and calculate their effectiveness, he'd completely lost track of his limbs. A masochistic pursuit, surely, to have so little certainty that you display symptoms of insanity?

The fact is that comedy is a barmy game; some comedians write material fairly meticulously, word for word, structure it in a not book and yet, still, when faced with the audience, start chopping and changing it around on the fly. The pressure of a live presentation of their stream of consciousness suddenly opens the mind to the reality of a gag’s success - it creates a superior level of assessment.

Sometimes the mouth can reshuffle the mind’s joke; sometimes it's too late and it bombs. But, however many times this process is repeated with new material, some comedians simply cannot seem to do the final editing on paper, it needs to happen ‘in the moment’, when minds are melded and energy exchanged with the audience.

Are some comedians doomed to endure perpetual terror with new material as they beat the written word into a rhythm and a persona?  Or is there a level of experience that gains the comedian watertight evaluation of a joke concept? Is the established comedian a different beast to the open mic with new material... or have they just learned to keep their feet still?

Published: 14 Sep 2011

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