There is a line buried somewhere in Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories that makes an extraordinary claim. It says that our most private experiences are somehow most easily shared with strangers, from such public soapboxes as books or poems or songs. And herein perhaps lies a clue to the genesis of standup comedy: it is a conversation so damn serious you would be reluctant to have it with friends.
Ironic that. Or is it? To have others laugh at your gaffes – in an experiment of your making – might make life’s disappointments less real, or if not less real then at least less consequential. A problem shared is a problem halved after all, and so standup atones where few things can.
Not all Fringe comedy is like this of course, but much of it is. The confessions of Greg Davies, Tom Craine, Reggie Hunter, Dan Antopolski, Sarah Bennetto, Jack Whitehall, Luke Toulson, and clever inner voices of Terry Alderton are good examples. So is the poetry of Tim Key – beautiful in its own way but damaged – and Hans Teeuwen’s nihilistic vision of foxes and popes and incest, his imaginary world a clusterfuck with neither sense nor consequence.
So too are the lyrics of Bo Burnham with their echoes of that other American prodigy, David Foster Wallace, who hung himself at 46. Larkin put it well: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do/They fill you with faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.’
Or perhaps the joke is on us. Aren’t comedians after all pros in a world where practice makes perfect and angst is a commodity traded like any other in the marketplace for ideas? Where we, punters, are believers? And where authenticity and believability matter even as every element – spontaneity included – is likely to have been skillfully crafted, reviewed, and health-and-safety approved?
Then again, the world of stand-up is ripe for harvesting with its multitude of contradictions: splendor and vulgarity, anxiety and loyalty, perfectionism and paranoia, rivalry and yet so much camaraderie too. It is here that one is always ‘on’, with no reprieve bar one’s own performance, worried always that some day the world will wake up to the realsation that one is not what one’s cracked up to be. Then again, Bo, Sarah, Terry, Tom, Tim, Jack and Hans wouldn’t be as brilliant as they are if not for these existential dilemmas Life’s a bitch.
So do they give us the fictitious or the genuine? I’d put my money on the former but rather suspect it’s a bit of both. Does it matter? Probably not. So long as they help fill that comedy-shaped hole in our lives we need not care.
If at the final reckoning all should prove a sham, what are a few quid for 50 minutes of respite from boredom, or worry, or both? And if not, comedy is a magnificent mirror, reminding us who and what we are, and what we are here to do: to love that which is imperfect.
* PS: These are just some initial thoughts written from the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I am here as a guest of Pleasance to gather materials for a book on the lived experience of comedians ... needless to say a long term project. *
** PS: The more discerning of you will have recognized DFW in the title of this blog. What a stunning writer.