The Possible Uses of Stand UpRobin Ince's Blog
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for the RSA magazine and I just found it. It is about the possible uses of stand up. I thought I would put it up on Cosmic Shambles for those that might never have seen it. I hope you enjoy it.
I have been a stand-up comic for my whole adult life.
As I reached 30, I was doing what I thought I needed to do to get to where I thought I wanted to be. Slots on late-night TV, writing links and gags for clip shows, sketch shows and chat shows, coming up with ideas that I thought fitted the bill of what mass media wanted. My passion was almost spent. Fortunately, like others before me, I got the boost I needed by experiencing an agonising public failure.
I had put off doing a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe for way too long. I was 35 before my first: ‘The Award-Winning Robin Ince, Star of The Office, Series One, Episode Five (First Bit)’ Night after night, audiences would leave the venue confused and fearful. They did not know what to make of the man they had just seen punching a melon and then breaking into Mustang Sally.
The sting of perpetual rejection meant that I was unable to talk socially. I could only communicate if I was on stage, so I found as many odd cellars where I could do that. I would go to late-night shows and melodramatically read out Mills and Boon romances such as Rash Intruder and Stormy Vigil, or lurid horror novels of sex, slime and evisceration involving vengeful crustaceans, while the music of Philip Glass played in the background. I would then silently walk through the streets swigging from a bottle like an arthouse hobo. Perpetually on the verge of confused tears, it was the making of me. While others boasted of five-star reviews and tentatively waited to be weighed down by love and awards, the melon pulp caked under my fingernails was a constant reminder of my nightly failures. While in the midst of this bracing experience, what I had not realised was that although many people did not get it or want to get it, those who did really liked it. It was this failure that led to the transition from doing what I thought I was meant to do to doing what I wanted to do, however stupid. If I had not spent one August punching a melon, I do not think I would have set off on an arena tour with Professor Brian Cox and or written any books.
Fifteen years ago, without any deliberate design or intention, I started to discover whatever it is that means your jokes and escapades mean more to the audience than just a laugh before a late-night pizza and home.
You’re not alone.
The great US comedian George Carlin talked of the difference between a comic and a comedian. A comic, he said, was someone like Bob Hope, who made you laugh for an hour but when he left the stage you knew nothing more about him than when he walked on. A comedian means what they say. This does not mean they are funnier but that your relationship with them is different. It can be unnerving. If someone hates your act, they do not just hate your act, they hate who you are. But the reward is when someone is affected by your act, when it has been useful as well as funny.
The most recent lauded example of this is Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette, an intense and disturbing (but often funny) hour that is about the danger of turning everything into a joke. As part of her set, Gadsby talks about the verbal and physical brutality she has experienced and the difference between the joke anecdote version and the reality of her experience. The show has become a worldwide hit. Richard Gadd won the Edinburgh award for a show which he performed while running on a treadmill. At first seemingly silly, it turns out to be about how he dealt with the aftermath of being drugged and abused.
Like Bowie singing “oh no love, you’re not alone”, both these shows, although very personal, let people see they are not as alone as they may have thought. In a culture so full of shame and shaming, many of us are so worried about the wrong reaction that we may keep something within, however much it is festering and eating away at us.
Some comedians and online warriors have criticised shows like these for not being funny enough, but they are enthralling. Sometimes it is worth sacrificing laughs per second rate if you are hitting a nerve instead. The comedy is the way in; once this honey trap has been set, you can risk fewer punchlines.
Joking to cope, or to hide?
Cariad Lloyd’s comedy career has grown out of combining improvisation with the works of Jane Austen, but she has gone on to win even more plaudits with her podcast Griefcast. In each episode, she discusses bereavement with a guest, who is usually from the comedy world. It is a much-needed show. It is not always packed with levity, but the comedian’s fear of being po-faced for too long means that there are always jokes interspersed with the more serious topics.
I talked about death, melancholy and humour (three of my favourite conversational topics, which is why I stay in the kitchen at parties) with therapist Philippa Perry. Her view is that if you are still making a joke about something, then you have not come to terms with it. Philippa once found herself in the front row of a revered show in which a comedian talked about their relationship with their deceased parent. She sat stony-faced, not because the comic was not funny, but because she believed that behind the bravado, they had not come to terms with any of the issues they were making light of. If she laughed, she believed she would be breaking her code as a therapist. She would be encouraging the comic to continue on their dissatisfied path. Noticing that they had a front-row audience member who did not seem to be appreciating their set, the comic mocked Philippa’s solemnity. She remained silent as to the real reason, not wishing to force them onto the therapist’s couch in front of all their fans.
A Freudian of my acquaintance, Josh Coen, disagrees with Philippa’s diagnosis. He does not feel that comedy is always a displacement activity, a laugh to hide your pain. Since our first conversation, I have found out that Philippa does not think all humour must be rejected. There are jokes that conceal, but also jokes that reveal. The very minor gag I made at my first gig after my mother’s death was acceptable, as it did not run from reality. I merely opened by commenting that there were pluses and minuses to losing your mother. On the minus side, your mum’s dead. On the plus side, you can now have your hair cut any way you want and she cannot express her disappointment (trust me, it’s in the delivery and the situation).
I first came to really notice the use of stand-up beyond laughter when performing in Belfast, one of my favourite places to play. Like other once industrial cities, such as Glasgow and Liverpool, Belfast does not take well to the whiff of fakery. After a show where I had spoken about the death to my five-year-old son, a woman of about my age came up to me wanting to talk about the recent loss of her dad. It had been her first night out since his funeral and, fortunately, my set had touched her. I often stay around after gigs, not merely to ruthlessly sell my merchandise (books are available in the foyer after you have finished this article), but because sometimes people have something they want to share with you. Sometimes, a seemingly avuncular stranger can be more approachable than a partner or friend. If I have been attempting any tricky subjects, it also allows me to take it on the chin if someone was upset or appalled, or just disappointed, to listen to personal stories that have been brought to the surface by a poem or punchline.
While touring Australia alone, I would often end up in hotel bars being regaled with stories. One night, a woman who had been my tour guide and chauffeur for my few nights in Adelaide told me that I should do material on suicide. Her daughter had killed herself and she believed that if the subject was out in the open, not just in the official and hygienic environments of hospitals, documentaries and institutions, but in grubbier places like comedy clubs, it would help to show people that suicidal thoughts and urges may be more common than they imagined, and might encourage conversations. It might even save lives. This conversation occurred just before I retired from stand-up for a while so that I could write, parent and, most importantly, interrupt Professor Brian Cox with silly voices on his arena tours when his equations were beginning to hurt the heads of the audience. But after a year, I knew I was going back to stand-up, and I had made a promise.
It was not easy. My approach to performance is not very structured. I do not write a show, I build it from going on stage and talking nonsense until the nonsense seems to have life in it. I made it public that I was attempting to write something useful, but also funny, about suicide and suicidal thoughts. Some told me to stop immediately, but more people, including therapists, people who had attempted suicide and people who had lost friends or family to suicide encouraged me to give it a go. It was the most worrying part of each performance. When I brought the subject up, the audience tightened a little. There was enough trust to allow me about a minute without a punchline. A friend who had attempted suicide told me a story that was funny and pertinent about this harrowing experience. It was his story, his punchline, and the relief from that point was palpable.
The set concluded with the story of my attempt to kill myself. I was nine years old and had been so savagely petrified by the public information films warning us that rabies was on the way and we would all have to have very painful injections in our belly buttons if we patted a beagle that I decided I could not go on. I went to our local church, sat in a pew, and attempted to end it all by holding my breath. It appears that humans have evolved to a point where such an easy get out is not available.
Hopefully, no one was offended or upset by the 10-minute piece. If they were, I was never informed. Instead, quite a few people came up to me to tell their stories..Tackling what are seen as taboo subjects using humour seems to make those topics more approachable, and to remove some of the fear around them.
Stand-up can actually be useful. It can exist for longer than the length of the laugh after the punchline. It can, if you want it to, have very little artifice. It creates a very immediate, intimate relationship between artist and audience. If I am ever helpful, it is not a selfless act, as it gives me purpose; and is that not what we are all after? Anyway, that is enough of that. if I take myself too seriously for too long, I may forget how absurd I am. I better depart this article immediately and walk directly into a lamppost.
Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster. As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Brian Cox. For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His new book, The Importance of Being Interested, is out in October.