Sunday, March 6, 2011

That Comedy Thing

I knew today wasn't going to be easy... with the impending gloom of the little sister leaving I awoke to a cold morning. Even the thin veil of warmth from her high praise of my cooking couldn't shift the raincloud of gloom that was hovering over my pillow. (She said, 'I could eat that all over again', about my prawn, pesto and lemon tagliatelle incidentally. This may be the closest I've ever come to one of those out of body experiences people talk about when they achieved feats of great strength.)

The little sister woke with a dirty cold, this scuppered our plans for a day of bustle somewhat and so we settled for a quick dash into Covent Garden to pick up some gifts for upcoming birthdays. Unfortunately, I chose to check my Facebook profile before I left... I can't say I've entirely recovered.

Recently, I wrote a blog entitled 'No Hint of a String' about my total lack of desire for a man at the moment despite a couple of decent offers. In my Facebook inbox today I found one man's angry response to my scrawlings... it wasn't a pleasant read. I don't want to go into details, I'm only really bringing it up because it got me thinking (very Carrie Bradshaw style) about where the line ends between professional performance time, and me time. This guy had sent a message via the medium of internet to request my presence at a casual coffee with he and me. I'd declined to respond.

I've made a point recently (since an extremely unpleasant encounter with a passionate ex-audience member) of not responding to Facebook messages from people I don't know unless they're about gigs or promotions. I feel justified in doing that - how many people do you know who regularly become penpals with strangers? It helps me keep it clear in my own head about what I owe people who've enjoyed me when I'm on stage.

But, is this wrong in terms of the person who's become a fan of the on-stage persona...?

How far does the comedian need to play the role when they're off stage in order to maintain the illusion? How much is it the comedian's responsibility to stop the audience feeling cheated by the discrepancy between them and their 'character of comedian'?

With actors and singers it's a lot simpler, I think - when the actor is no longer the character the change is obvious. If you saw Natalie Portman walking around you're unlikely to be looking for her duck costume, when you see Charlie Sheen you're not expecting him to be hung over walking home from a one night stand... hang on... bad example.

When the singer is no longer singing they are no longer providing the art. You're there in the audience for the sound coming out of their mouth and the talent they have. But where is the line there with the comedian? Is it OK to switch off with the jokes, or is part of the comedian's appeal the fact that you want to be their friend and you want them to be real for you?

Perhaps it depend on the nature of their comedy...

I don't mind if Jimmy Carr comes off the stage and is a nice man who gives to charities rather than mocking disabled children. But, would I be disappointed if Bill Hicks had left to an ovation and then started his night-shift working for an advertising agency... yes, I would. Is this double standards? How do you regulate an art that hasn't even confirmed its definition as an artform yet.

Is it OK to be miserable off stage and to not hide it, or does this mean that people watching you from the safety of the audience will be let down? Did you find it harder to take Jason Manford kindly after his Twitter incident? How have readers of Billy Connolly's biography integrated the abuse he suffered as a child into the man they see being frivolous and insightful on stage? Does knowing the personal details of a comedian change the mental processing of a joke? The words of the joke remain the same, the one liner still works on the same semantic or linguistic level... but does the clown's situation affect how you want to respond to it? Should the comedian address off stage factors to ease the tension on the stage, or should the audience be willing to enter a gig with the idea of the 'performance' in mind and be willing to forget external factors? Not all comedy would work in a vacuum - so is there a tangible agreement we need to come to?

The famously married comedian doesn't do stories about his single life. That, quite obviously wouldn't work - the audience wouldn't laugh because it's only funny if it's true apparently. But does he exaggerate the tiny row he and his wife had over the ironing for comic effect? Has anyone ever clarified where the comic's allegiances to truth and humour lie? You can't tell an entirely unfunny monologue because it's true, but can you tell a wholly fabricated piece because it's funny? Is it less funny if people find out? Or is it just disappointing? Is the comedian allowed to disappoint?

"I really liked Black Swan originally, but I've become disappointed since, as Natalie Portman is still alive and actually didn't turn into a duck. It was all a lie."

Say you're depressed off stage and you step on to the stage and have a breakdown in front of your eagerly assembled £15 per ticket Saturday night crowd. Unprofessional? Not cool? Totally.

So, if you're off stage what are the rules? Can you sit in the corner rocking backwards and forwards to the tune of your own tears so long as no one who might be disappointed sees?

How much truth do you have to tell? My mother asked me why on earth I wanted the whole world to know everything about me by writing a blog... she couldn't fathom why I would do it. But, I carefully moderate what I write about here. I keep anything I'm not OK about firmly locked away if it's not for throwing out into the Googlesphere willy nilly. (Any excuse to use willy nilly and I will. You could say I use it willy nilly.)

When I first starting doing material about my ex-boyfriend, my friends said it took a long time before I looked comfortable with the material, before I'd got it into a patter that felt like material - was it unprofessional of me to use it? Possibly... but the outcome has been a solid 10 minute set that rarely fails.

So were a few rough and ready performances of it alright if the outcome has been some therapy for me and a good set for audiences? I'd say yes...

...but what about the ex? If he ever found out that I performed the material, do I owe him an apology? For getting laughs out of our misery during the break up? Do I owe him more than if I'd written the debacle into a measured screenplay that was both emotional and illuminating? Have I cheapened us by using it for laughs?

Or is making laughter out of pain the greatest thing you could ever hope to do? Does comedy ever really hurt anyone who wasn't looking for an an excuse to be hurt?

What happens when the audience's desire for more outstrips what the comedian is willing to give on the stage?

Do novice comedians owe a little bit more - should the jokes be more honest, a little bit more giving? Proof that there's no team of writers behind you yet? Can you invent a fictional mother in law for the sake of a good punchline?

People often ask me if I really have IBS after a gig and I used to wonder why on earth they think I would make that up if I didn't! Surely as a 24 yr old girl I would choose a more glamorous subject to create a persona around...?! But actually, it's entirely flattering and intelligent of them to recognise that stand-up comedy isn't necessarily a monologue of soul baring from the comedian. It is jokes.

And yet, having been sought out today, and made to feel cheap and scared for not living up to my on-stage persona, I don't really know how any of the things I think about where the line is stand up in real life.

The internet's made the world a very easy place to intimidate people without meaning to, I think. This is the first day I've ever not wanted to write a blog - not that I didn't know what to write about (that happens with alarming frequency!) - but actually didn't want to write, I didn't know how to write something glib when all of this was on my mind. And didn't know whether to write this in case it exacerbated the situation... perhaps it will. But, I think I know I'd rather deal with the consequences of that, than stop being both the people that I am.

Me will always be me, and on stage I will always be a different me. But both me. And the audience can only have access to one unless I change my mind. I suppose that's all I know for right now.

Before I go though, I would like to address one point from the rant in my inbox that set off this meander into essay territory... He accused me of being a 7/10 woman aiming too high for a 9/10 man.

Well, fuck you ass hole, I'm a 10/10 woman and I will aim for whoever the fuck I want.


  1. You're 20 out of ten hun, Never settle!!! xxx

  2. Your musings are very interesting. I think the comic is expected to be more honest but I think thats a convention born of necessity. I think only comics that are honest are funny, so the convention remains. I think possibly its because humour is about taking a side on view at life, and you can't do that when you are one stepped removed.

    Yes, I am mixing metaphors to say what I want to say with little or no grounding. I think my point is valid even if I can't justify it. Who can in this realm?

    Having re-read your string blog I can't possibly imagine what this fellow objected to. You didn't say "I got asked out and didn't go because he's ugly and I'm brilliant mwa ha ha..." you said, quite reasonably, that you're not interested in dating at that moment.

    Also, I want to see where he builds his scale of 10 from. From a full spread? What does he do with statistical outliers? If he excludes them does that mean some people are so attractive they go up to 11?

    Also I can imagine the composition going thus: "Well, I need to say I'm a great guy. But 10 is just arrogant. I'll say I'm a 9. Yeah. Also, she needs to get she's not that attractive, but no need to be harsh yeah big guy, call her a 7. Yeah, that'll teach her. Huh... yeah. Send."

    We all think you're a 10 anyway.

    5.67775 (with statistical outliers removed)

  3. Me, I've got a thing for Stephen Fry and it's only my persistent heterosexuality that's saved him from a similar experience.

    Most stand-ups bring something of themselves to their material, but it's not a therapy session. If you build your routine around your life, the audience expects it to be honest. But that's not the same as being true. If you start with: "I went to Oxford with my boyfriend last week," then the most the audience has a right to expect is that you've been to Oxford and have had a boyfriend at some time in the past. Or you could go the other way and create an entirely fictional on-stage character, like Al Murray.

    Don't worry about the ex-boyfriend. Comics are like journalists: nothing you say to them is off the record. So long as you're not giving out his surname or phone number, you've got nothing to worry about (and nor has he). Who knows, maybe there's an ex-girlfriend of mine doing a routine about me…