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Laughter is no laughing matter
...on dabbling in comedy
If, as Monty Python claimed, life is a laugh, then on recent evidence, human life is very much the butt of the joke. The world today has lots to be gloomy about, but the biggest laughs often come out of dark phenomena and dark times. After all, the world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think.
The last major nuclear standoff was followed by Stanley Kubrick’s comedy masterpiece ‘Dr. Strangelove’. The last time an insane dictator invaded neighbouring European countries, he was spectacularly satirised by Charles Chaplin.
Like good football or good singing, good comedy is something everybody can appreciate, but very few can produce. Funny people may range from the serene Norm Macdonald to the shouty Gilbert Gottfried. They also have an unfortunate tendency to die young, Bill Hicks, Judy Toll, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, are among the many.
As Robert McKee pointed out in the influential essay ‘Story’, critics hate comedy, because it is so difficult to intellectualise. Making a science of it is neither achievable, nor desirable, but sometimes it is necessary to delve deep into the craft.
What is humour anyway?
Everybody has their favourite professional humourist, and everybody has encountered their share of unprofessional ones. But even the most seasoned comedy writers have a hard time understanding how humour works and why.
When a subject is exciting, the theory of it tends to be boring, and vice versa. For example, music is an exciting subject, but the study of music theory is a drag for most aspiring musicians. Law is a dry subject, but legal philosophy is hugely interesting. Any attempts at rationalising humour could be painfully unfunny, or worse still, unintentionally funny.
In a sense, telling a joke is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman. Really. Good jokes, like good sex, elicit involuntary noises from the other person. That was what the Marquis de Sade thought anyway.
Other theories about jokes include that they are waking dreams. Meanings are condensed and displaced. Things are replaced indirectly or by their opposites. Fallacious reasoning trumps logic. Jokes and dreams both tend to be swiftly forgotten, and both involve the subconscious outwitting the inner censor.
Freud offered the relief theory. That is, jokes free us of the bondage of logic and reality, and transport us back to childhood play.
Another is the incongruity theory, supported by Pascal, Kant and Schopenhauer. Humour works when the decorous and logical abruptly dissolves into the low and absurd.
Pratfalling into comedy
The biggest night of my creative life was set to be a gig on April 18th, 2020. On March 16th, when Italy and Spain were already in lockdown, and the UK was preparing for the inevitable, I posted a YouTube video, in the form of a bawdy song, confirming that the gig was cancelled.
The following day I received a phone call from Ted (not real name), a childhood neighbour who was a Facebook friend. I didn’t bother answering. He called again, maybe it was an emergency:
Ted: “I listened to your song on YouTube. And you can’t make it as a musician, because there’s too much swearing, and you can’t be a comedian, because you’re nowhere near funny enough… I’m funnier than you.”
Describing oneself as funny is a bit like describing oneself as sexy. That kind of thing is really for other people to decide, but this was a very typical phone call from Right Said Ted, and who was I to disagree?
My first attempts at comedy writing were as an undergraduate in 2004. I was determined to follow in the footsteps of my favourite novelists and screenwriters, so my thesis would focus as much as possible on creative writing.
The first draft just got red marks from the tutor with annotations to the effect of: “Is this funny?” ‘Is this supposed to be funny?” ‘Why is this funny?”.
I had just repeated various ‘banter’ that I had heard over the years. I didn’t think it was funny either, in fact I could never tell the difference between banter and verbal abuse, but I had assumed that I was just a miserable person.
Like most people whose calling is the arts, I spent my twenties wandering unconvincingly through the working world while seeking stealthy ways to be creative. In 2012, I finally started writing something that connected to people, and evoked the desired emotions from audiences. These were comedy songs, the last refuge of the artist who can’t be taken seriously.
It was a genre that I arrived at by process of elimination. Rightly or wrongly, musical comedy has a low status in both the music and comedy worlds, but this burst of creativity enabled me to bring the house down in front of countless audiences from all walks of life, and be the subject of features in China Daily and on Chinese television.
In 2013, things took a downturn professionally and mentally, and I spent a lot of time listening to my inner critic and associating with some of my most vocal naysayers. One of these was Ted, a once-blonde-haired blue-eyed cherub who had evolved into Bernard Manning so gradually it was barely noticeable.
Eager to consign that year to the past, from 2014 to 2018, I had the most ‘successful’ period of my life, enjoying a well-paid job in a massive company, working toward an MBA, and doing hardly any song-writing. Then at the end of 2018, I had a major professional setback, and with the extra time on my hands, vowed to spend some of 2019 delving into Manchester’s open mic scene.
I began to debut songs that I had written at least six years earlier, and the positive responses from audiences were a huge validation. These songs included ‘Self-Doubt’, a song inspired by the time I had spent with Ted.
Just as importantly, the music scene was full of my kinds of people, talented oddballs on the fringes of society. I realised that to thrive creatively, these were the kinds of people I should be around.
When Ted asked to come to one of my gigs, I shuddered at the thought of my old life colliding with the new one, so I deliberately chose a night when there would be hardly anyone there, and I would play gash. Eventually, I decided that to thrive creatively, I had to cut off all communication with Ted, which was upsetting. He was a knuckle-dragger, but he was my knuckle-dragger.
The Keys to Comedy
The April 2020 gig eventually happened in November 2021, and the performance was everything I hoped it would be. This was followed up in August 2022 by an even more magical night.
But these are not stepping stones to anything. From studying other performers and writers, I have learned that as soon as you think you have the keys to comedy, you realise some bugger has changed the lock. To write new material will require an entirely new direction.
Ways in which previous gigs have made audiences laugh include samples of the incongruity theory of humour - for example, a love song called ‘Romance Tonight’ that ends up being about murdering a homeless guy.
There is also the relief theory, in the form of a religious song about talking to God that descends into foul-mouthed rap. And the waking dream theory is there, with several songs turning out to be about the opposite of what they seem to be about.
The script for the next gig is just a blank page, but I cannot wait to perform it.