This book about stand-up has no idea what's funny | Tim Harding's comedy diary

This book about stand-up has no idea what's funny

Tim Harding's comedy diary

Tim Harding's comedy diaryReviewer Tim Harding gives a rundown of the best comedy he's been watching in London (and reading about in Corsica) this past fortnight... 

It’s an unusual edition this week because I’m on my holidays in Corsica, a country whose only comedic footprint is 1973’s Asterix in Corsica, in which Asterix and Obelix encounter pungent Corsican cheese and receive baleful glares from old mountain men. So I will catch you up on some pertinent beach reading (not Asterix in Corsica) in a moment, but first, two shows that I managed to catch at the Bill Murray before fleeing London

Kathy Maniura’s Objectified was a cult hit at last year’s Fringe, and was being filmed for its penultimate ever performance. It’s a series of short character pieces, with the gimmick being that the entities undergoing caricature are not people but objects – an expensive lamp, an AirPod, the middle seat in a car, the red briefcase that the budget goes in, etc and so forth. 

In a sense, she’s found a way to monetise the embarrassing improv exercises that they force you to do at drama school, and this is a showcase for Maniura’s exceptional comic acting more than an example of tight writing. There’s not always a great deal of structure to her jokes, and she has a tendency to lean on simple wordplay, but the accent work and arch performance carry it through smoothly, and I was tickled by the origin story of how she received the power to impersonate objects after a life-threatening bout of tonsillitis. As a first outing, it felt like a performer limbering up in anticipation of a true feat.

Amy Gledhill, workshopping her forthcoming show Make Me Look Fit On The Poster, is well past that stage and flying dreamily over hurdles. She’s hugely improved even since her very funny solo debut two years ago, for which she scooped a best newcomer nomination in Edinburgh. 

Her field of study is still her own humiliation, whether on disastrous dates or medical procedures gone wrong, and she brings the same irresistible solar energy to her stage performance, but the writing is becoming honed to a fine point, with punchlines to die for. I have no doubt she’ll be dominating Edinburgh again in a couple of months.

Back to the beach reading. The French novelist Camille Bordas started writing in English for her previous novel, 2017’s How To Behave In A Crowd, and her latest is The Material, which comes out on July 4 from the trailblazing UK indie publisher Serpent’s Tail. It’s set mostly over a single day on a stand-up comedy masters’ course, where aspiring comics with no real-world experience go to learn about the theoretics of their craft from jaded elder comedians who have been forced to reinvent themselves as academics.

In the real world, although you can take a short clowning course at Ecole Philippe Gaulier or get taught how to do stand-up in a pub basement, there is no academic structure that supports the study of stand-up, and that’s mostly because it’s generally agreed that you can only really learn stand-up by doing it. 

What Bordas is riffing on is the creative writing Master of Fine Arts – the now-widespread convention that first-time authors spend a year or two in workshops with their peers before shopping their debut novels out to agents. Nowadays, MFA programmes are essential to the survival of literary fiction, as no full-time author makes enough money to live without teaching on one, but they’re also often accused of exerting a homogenising effect on contemporary writing styles.

The same thing is happening in The Material, in which the teachers are notionally successful but have been academised or otherwise brought low by age or scandal. Much of the excitement centres around Manny Reinhardt, a rough analogue of figures like Bill Burr or Louis CK, who is stooping to teaching after his personal life publicly implodes. 

Meanwhile, the students work through their craft in laborious detail while worrying about romance, family, and an apparent active shooter event on campus that causes the day to unravel. You get a bit of a sense that Bordas really wanted to write about a creative writing course, but landed on comedians as more active and sexy protagonists than a bunch of shy, retiring writers.

From the perspective of a Chortle reader, it’s an interesting book, both for how it succeeds and how it fails. You might get the sense of someone poking their snout into an area you know too much about, trying to reveal things to you about your area of expertise and getting a lot of it slightly wrong. 

To a British audience, Bordas’ definition of comedy feels narrow – she’s only really interested in American stand-up as a mechanism via which comedians can reveal societal or personal truths on stage; the laughing or not-laughing is largely irrelevant and not really picked up on by the author, and the book has no space for forms of comedy like character, sketch, surrealism, clowning or anything formally transgressive. 

All of which, if I may say so, is an extension of the many issues with contemporary literary fiction, which include an obsession with manufacturing aphorisms and a general stylistic inertness, both of which are fully on display in The Material. 

It’s telling that, in the few glimpses Bordas gives us of comedians performing on stage, most are scenes in which the comic goes off-script and talks frankly about their life with no real attempt to engage with comedy. It reflects a frustrating popular preoccupation with the sad clown, or the moment that the comedian ‘drops the act’ and tells the audience what she really thinks. As one of the characters puts it, the function of a comedian here is to ‘think on stage’ – a position that’s tangential to my own definition of comedy but core to the American outlook: the comedian as philosopher.

In reality, comedy is more of a setting than a theme for Bordas, which is fine, but it’s a shame that a book about stand-up should have so little understanding or interest in what makes something funny. 

So for those bringing an appreciation of the diversity and innovation of comedic forms, The Material is likely to disappoint on those terms at least, but it holds up nonetheless as a breezy summer read – quick, readable, and with a pleasingly tangled core of interpersonal dynamics that play out efficiently. 

Bordas cleverly maps out the internal processes of the students as they wrangle with themselves about which routines work and which don’t, and there’s a compelling atmosphere of ego, cynicism and furtive one-upmanship that feels true to life for anyone who’s spent time around comedians – or any other type of artist for that matter. 

The first great novel about stand-up has yet to be written, but this is an intriguing placeholder that if nothing else will provoke some interesting thoughts about the relationship between comedy, truth and fiction.

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Published: 14 Jun 2024

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