Laughter and forgetting

I almost never watch TV. I make the odd exception if something grabs my attention, like it did this week with the new series by stand-up Stuart Lee on BBC2.

It reminded me of a long talk of his I watched, on the relationship between writing and stand-up comedy. He explained that before the eighties there was no tradition in the UK of stand-up comedy being written at all. It was more a case of comedians drawing on a shared pool of jokes from an oral tradition fired out as disconnected salvoes. He talked about an old British TV show from the seventies called “The Comedians” which starred a number of such acts. Apparently they had a blackboard off stage with a running summary of the gags that had already been used, for the benefit of each new performer so things didn’t get repeated. They all had the same unoriginal material.

This all changed with the advent of Thatcher. A new generation of writers wanted to use satire as their comedy vehicle and they did so by generating original written material that formed a performance piece in its own right. The style was to write it as if it was not written, with a conversational style giving the illusion of improvisation. He told an anecdote about Al Murray, who once recited an entire monologue from Macbeth in a show simply to obliquely indicate to the audience that he had actually written, rehearsed and memorised the whole thing, rather than just being a drunk pub landlord spouting off on a stage.

Back then there were also things that made it economically possible. Stuart and most of his contemporaries were on the “Enterprise Investment Scheme”. In essence that meant that they could declare that they were working as writers, get paid a bit more than standard unemployment benefit, and not be hassled to get jobs. It was also easy and cheap to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and get some exposure and self-promotion. On top of that there was a network of local Arts Centres that provided spaces for new talent to flourish.

He worried that this was all changing back. The dominance of TV does not suit the writer-comic, but rather the one-liner short-burst comic backed by a team of writers. If you look at the typical bill of a regional theatre that comics use it generally consists of a) them b) dodgy fake mediums and c) tribute bands. The comedy is often the only original writing on show. The financial loopholes have closed, the Arts Centres have closed down and the average graduate leaves University with a £30k debt. An aspiring writer is probably better off not getting educated at all because it has become so pragmatic a process. The first casualty of austerity is often culture.

In the first episode of his new series he couldn’t resist tossing in a reminder to the audience that everything he was saying had been written. That he had even written that very reminder into the piece. He also mused mostly on the fact his relatively recent and large mortgage had necessarily monetarised the writing process, and skirted with the meme of “Don’t kids say the funniest things”, while pointing out his kids had not said those things at all but he had at least toyed with the concept of writing something on those lines because it is popular and potentially lucrative. He even openly doubted that what he was doing was even entertainment. Also written in, of course. He knows it’s not worth a damn if he is doing it for the money, and is caught in a contradiction. The way he plays with the form of something precisely written, but delivered in a way that appears not to be, is fabulous craft, really.

The question is, does it matter? I think so. In our culture the role of comic is that of someone who is prepared to express things that most people spend their lives bending over backwards to avoid expressing. We then make a show of forgiving them for breaking the taboos because they had the grace to be funny at the same time, while secretly feeling nothing but relief that someone else said it for us.

In a secular society, this is the kind of catharsis that replaces the traditional role of religion. The parents of Bill Hicks were deeply religious and surprisingly proud of their son. In their eyes he was more preacher than comedian, and the parallel makes sense to me. I would slot the new improved Simon Amstell into that role of prophet-comic too. Maybe the comedians we love say more about our values and world-view than the religions we espouse, these days.

Having said that, I find Peter Kay funny. I would happily pay for him to make me laugh. But that is all he does. I would not want him to officiate at my funeral.

Poets have also traditionally been the purveyors of uncomfortable truth that no-one else wants to bring up. Interestingly I read recently an observation that there is a modern trend toward the ironic in poetry that is so pervasive that if someone writes without irony, it gets flagged up on the sleeve notes as being unusual and different. It seems as if we can now only forgive our poets if they stand shoulder to shoulder with the comedians and shroud truths in a wry smile, at least. The confessional style of Addonizio and Bukowski is out of favour, seen as outright embarrassing in the modern aesthetic. God forbid that anyone should be simultaneously serious and intimate. How very dare you. Too uncomfortable. I have quoted Lucy Brock-Broido here before.

“I would venture to say most of us would not admit to trafficking in that trade or in that image of how we must lead our lives. It’s too painful.”

Nevertheless what I am suggesting is that poets and comedians alike (although the latter are both more accessible and more popular) serve a valuable role in a secular society not unlike their shamanic forebears. Or some of them, at least.

Laughter can be a great tool in forgetting, but perhaps is best utilised by those whose underlying purpose is to actually make us remember. I was sifting through my books recently and found my battered copy of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. The irony of the book is that the desperate attempts of the protagonists to forget only serve to accentuate what they wish to not remember.

My ideal dinner party might well consist of Stuart Lee, Simon Amstell, Charlie Brooker, Kim Addonizio, Charles Bukowski, Milan Kundera and Charlie Kaufman. Not to discuss anything serious. Just to hear the crackle of fresh bread being broken open. And to drink heavily. And forget.


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