I remember the exact moment I wanted to be a standup comedian. I was 13 years old and Robin Williams’ “Live at the Met.” was on the TV. He was talking about his family and experiences he’d had with his children, he was talking about things that were happening at the time and in the news but most of all he was talking about his struggle with addiction and how it affected his whole life.
I’d sat with my mum and (at the time) little brother while Victoria Wood and Jasper Carrott entertained audiences with stories and funny songs, most of the more adult references went right over my head but I could hear how the audience roared with laughter and see how my mum would laugh and look over at me to make sure I hadn’t got it.
(Can we find the clitoris mum? Is it in Wales?)
I loved watching these people entertain but I never wanted to be them, they were a distant celebrity who had a skill I couldn’t even dream of developing and really it looked like a lot of work. I didn’t know how to play the piano or guitar I knew how to play the trombone which is notoriously difficult to sing around solo. I also had no interest in making up stories, there was no difference between these entertainers and the Jackanory storytellers I’d watched while waiting for my mum to get home.
Then I saw Robin and it all changed.
(I just wanted to be the herald of Christmas!)
Here was someone talking about real things and making them hilarious, a skill I could relate to at that age. Humour and intelligence were the qualities I venerated the most in people. I’d look at sports personalities and I wouldn’t be able to see the skill and talent it took to achieve what they had I’d see the humiliation I faced at the hands of countless bullies through the years. I’d look at scientists and I’d see heroes who deserved worship. To this day I still can’t understand football but can explain why sunlight isn’t green.
(The trees suck up all the green, silly!)
Mostly though I was watching a man who’d gone through terrible tragedy and had turned it into a comedy show to entertain thousands. Writing this post I realise I’d watched more comedy than I could have imagined, everything from the Cosby show to Wackaday to Hangin’ with Mr Cooper, and it wasn’t until I saw Robin Williams talking about recovering from cocaine addiction that I wanted to be like him. I wanted to do the things he did, most of them anyway I didn’t think I could financially support a coke habit and I wasn’t emotionally strong enough to go through rehab. There was integrity in his performance, it wasn’t just jokes it was a story that could help other people get through the things he had. I wanted that. I got into all the other comics at the time and realised it wasn’t just Robin getting a message across. Comedians like Ben Elton, Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, Billy Connolly were all doing jokes about the way society was and the way they experienced life around them. It all meant something and they didn’t seem to care about offending anyone as long as that message was conveyed. I wanted to be a standup.
I read this article a couple of days ago from Alexi Sayle’s address at the Leicester Festival – Link – and it really hit home with a few ideas I’ve been bouncing around for a couple of years.
(Space hopper Hunger Games for example)
Comedy should have a strong message, change your perception and make you question the things you know. It should inspire your audience. In that speech Mr Sayle talks about the punk aspects of comedy and I completely agree though punk is about inspiring actual revolution and anarchy and comedy is more of an intellectual revolution so should be about inspiring positivity and challenging pre existing perceptions. I’m unlikely to ever incite a mosh pit at the Glee. The main reason for someone to be a comedian is not to be famous, it’s to be funny. There’s a lot of cookie cutter comics these days, young guys and girls hitting the circuit because they see it as a quick way to be on TV but don’t have enough originality to be anything more than a cut and paste of someone they saw on a panel show, and that’s the exact opposite of what comedy should inspire. Fame isn’t the goal, inspiration and originality is.
(I don’t know who this guy is but give him a writer and we got ourselves a tour!)
Another recent article about the musician Jake Bugg – Link – painted a nice picture of how performance artists still want to create something original rather than being a carbon copy of someone else in order to be famous. There’s a place for pop in this world, even in comedy, but it’s at the lower end of the creativity spectrum, produced specifically for the lowest common denominator, and by wanting to emulate a pop celebrity you’re lowering your own creative output. They’re already the McDonalds of artistic expressionism do you really want to be the copy?
(Artistically you’re the one on the left)
All of this has come up because I’m finishing off my first hour show in preparation for March 16th (it’s first preview). I didn’t just want it to be a series of jokes strung together with a loose theme. I wanted there to be a solid story, I wanted it to show personal growth, inspire others in similar situations and I wanted it to be hilarious but mostly I wanted it to have integrity. My show isn’t about winning a prize, it’s not a tribute act and it’s not my desperate attempt to get famous. My first solo show is a challenge to turn deep personal tragedy into inspirational hilarity. I’m pretty excited about it.