I have a confession to make: a few years ago, I flirted with stand-up comedy. Theatremaking is collaboration; I love that in the job, but part of me was ready to speak in my voice for a while, unmediated.
I had a few routines I was proud of – I remember one about Sigmund Freud publishing his Oedipus theory and going home for family Christmas to find that his dad has hidden all the knives and forks for fear of being killed, so the family eats their turkey with plastic cutlery. It always got laughs: it had defined characters and a tight structure, but after performing it even five times, I was bored. Beyond the mechanics of the joke and the fun of riding its rhythm, there was little going on under the surface.
In one of his more grandiose moments, the late Steve Jobs said that, whatever we put our minds to, we should mean to “put a dent in the universe”. I stopped doing stand-up is because ultimately I had little to say through comedy about the world. Even if the audience laughed, all I could manage was a shrug. The comedian Daniel Kitson has talked about this on stage. In his 2006 show, Weltanschauung, he says that if an audience laughs for the wrong reasons, such as taking a piece of irony at face value, then its laughter is “as piercing to him as thrown fruit”.
I saw Kitson a couple of weeks ago at Battersea Arts Centre, workshopping a new set, After the Beginning, Before the End. He starts an international tour in a few weeks’ time, and last month he junked the entire set he’d been working on. On stage, he sat at a desk and read from notes. Parts of the show had an assured rhythm, other parts were tentative. A few times he repeated bits, playing with the composition of individual sentences, trying to find “the comedic key to a locked door”. At the end, he talked about what he wants the show to be, and what it isn’t yet. I can’t say any more about that because he asked the audience not to, but he wanted his show to be more than just gags. He wanted to find the danger again. On his website, he goes into more detail: “I’ve been waiting to have the idea for this show for weeks, for months. A space held open in my head waiting for the idea. For months. I’ve done previews and I’ve booked the tour and I’ve stared at the internet and I’ve made chicken and I’ve tried not to worry. But the idea has not come and I have worried. I’ve worried and doubted and waited more and more and more. But then today, having dropped my dad off at the train station and met my friends for some coffee, whilst driving home to write this (very overdue) brochure copy – dreading the thought of heaving half lies and optimistic promises into something vaguely intriguing but not developmentally restrictive – halfway home, it happened. Somewhere between East London and South London – It arrived. The Idea. Just like that. Like a child, late home from school, oblivious to the worry and the panic and the phone calls. It just walked in and sat down like it wasn’t even a big deal. So now I’m typing this in my bedroom because the boy who lives next door is playing the James Bond theme on what I assume to be a trumpet. And you have to trust me. Two hours ago I didn’t have the idea. Now I do. And it’s going to be good.”
I’m fascinated by this idea of the turn in the road, the moment that you commit as an artist to putting yourself in danger every time you make something, and not putting anything into the world that you don’t love or that hasn’t scared you.
In a few weeks, I’m seeing another comedian I admire, Louis CK, perform in London. After years of stringing together jokes about tourists and the weather, the second stage of his career has been one of the most remarkable in the history of stand-up comedy. Each year, CK writes and tours an 80-minute set, and at the end of the year, he records it, releases it on his website for $5, and retires the entire set, except for its strongest joke, which he’ll use to start next year’s set, so that everything that follows has to be even better. Explaining his approach a few years ago, CK said that, for him: “…the goal of comedy is to just laugh, which is a really high-hearted thing, [a] visceral connection and reaction. And any time I take laughs away… I have to replace it with something at least that high… it can’t just be interesting. It has to be ‘holy shit!’ one way or the other: ‘holy shit, that’s funny!’ or ‘holy shit, that kind of scared me’. I’ve been interested in scaring people too because it sort of runs by some of the same rules as laughing. Or ‘oh my God, I really feel that’. Or ‘what the fuck is this? I don’t understand this’. These are all heightened responses and I have to be getting one of those.”
Watching Daniel Kitson perform stand-up is the reason Johnny Vegas stopped performing. And watching Louis CK, I realise that I wrote maybe one joke that came close to what he’s talking about. In many ways, a life in the theatre is an insane choice for an adult to make. Humans have always told stories, but there are faster ways to respond to the world than writing and rehearsing a play, mediums that reach wider audiences and economic models that make more sense.
You can’t know what artistic directors want: there are always trends and ‘me too’ productions, but what anyone really wants is to be blown away by something new, and there’s no map for that. The only way to make that dent is to accept that you’re rolling the dice with your career and go all in: scare yourself.
If you’re going to go down, it will have been fighting.
Image: Felipe Avello Presenta