The Wrong Show is an independent and alternative comedy night in Leeds. This is our blog. Here you will find comedy reviews, features, and interviews. We were formally known as HOWL. Our home is The Fenton, Leeds.
By Michael Sterrett
I’m writing a new bit at the moment and I think it could be good. It’s potentially one of those big meaty bits that you pop into your set and it wraps around a bunch of tinier bits and makes the whole thing feel like a cohesive piece as opposed to a string of incoherent thoughts. But I don’t want to push it. It occurred to me whilst I was on a plane trying desperately to drown out the sound of a drunken eejit. I’ve got to let the idea sit in my subconscious for a bit longer before I tease it out and pummel it into submission with my comedy hammer. I’m fascinated by process; where comedians get their jokes, how they work them out and form them into delightful little truth bombs to make people laugh. I know quite a few comics who literally sit down with a pen and paper and write material, which I’m ambivalent about. On one hand I’m impressed and intimidated by the discipline and writerly approach but likewise I have a punk rock/uppity douchebag reaction because that’s not how I work at all. Not to dissect the butterfly but all my writing occurs in my head, the closest I get to physically writing my comedy down is in a little cheap notebook I have where you can see pages with lists of ideas. One page reads; Laser Eye Surgery, Daddy’s Love, Frigid, Barely Legal, Neck Tattoo, Batman, Enemy. Sort of like a band’s set list, just there to trigger the memory and get my ideas lined up and flowing.
In fact, the idea of having a perfectly scripted act sounds insanely boring to me, and to be honest when I see someone performing material that is rigidly scripted with no room for manoeuvre a bit of my brain shuts down. Don’t get me wrong, George Carlin’s material was delicately crafted and written to the letter but such was his way with words that to see him perform was to watch a master orator in his element as opposed to someone who has practiced a long winded anecdote in front of a mirror, complete with facial expressions and pauses for laughter. I think what I find so off putting about tightly scripted acts is that there is no real get out clause. I’ve watched comics bomb horribly for ten, fifteen minutes because they are simply too locked into their material to just get the fuck off stage. The audience are sat there with sad, blank expressions whilst the act is sweating and stuttering, and their eyes darting nervously about the room. It’s bloody awful, and as someone who has bombed A LOT I sympathise, but at some point the animal caught in the trap gnaws its own leg off and makes a quick exit – it’s best for all concerned.
So that begs the question, is there a happy medium between being a comic with beautifully written jokes and one who is a hilarious, shambling mess? Dave Attell springs to mind. There’s no doubt that he is very much a gag based comedian yet he manages to infuse a loose sense of freewheeling spontaneity into his act. He’s also one of the best comedians working today and a personal favourite of mine (I once bought a brown jacket purely because it looked like one I saw Attell wearing in a clip on Youtube). What sets him apart though is that despite the fact that he is delivering pretty straight forward jokes there is a nihilistic undercurrent that reveals a deeper truth about who he actually is. Recurring themes of sexual inadequacy, pornography, alcoholism and loneliness reveal the desperate sadness he clearly struggles with, elevating him above the ranks of mere gag-smith. As a fan of the more confessional side of stand-up comedy it was Attell’s Skanks for the Memories album that truly opened my eyes for the first time to material that wasn’t strictly autobiographical, but still kicked ass and connected with me on a visceral level.
So yeah, I think I’ve gotten away from my original point. Process. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently as the last gig I did was on a bill with a bunch of gag tellers. Good gag tellers but gag tellers none the less. Afterwards another comedian who had been watching told me that he overheard an audience member say something along the lines of “That guy didn’t even do any jokes”. This is completely accurate but indicative of a schism in approaches to comedy. I honestly don’t know if I could sit down and write jokes about 50 Shades of Grey, Wayne Rooney or the coalition government. All I know is that I have no passion about any of those topics and would consider it a waste of time to even bother thinking about them, let alone share my observations with an audience. My own life on the other hand is endlessly fascinating to me. The noxious combination of self-loathing and narcissism that makes me a comic fuels pretty much everything I talk about on stage. I give a shit about the fact that I went out with a girl with daddy issues who showed me a picture of her dead father holding a chimp because her damaged sexuality and downright insanity formed some basis for the way I think about women. This endless self-examination can make me feel vulnerable and I was actually warned by a friend who regularly attends a therapist that by using stand-up as a means of exorcising my personal problems I may in fact be exacerbating them, turning genuine issues into neat little stories that I can file away in my head and not properly address. To which I of course responded, “Fuck you, you’re not my real dad”. Oh Jesus…
Not to be pretentious, in fact fuck it I’m going be pretentious because I am pretentious, I see the disparity between these two approaches to comedy as the equivalent difference between say expressionist art and those nice calming pictures they sell in poster shops. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Jack Vettriano, plenty of people get immense pleasure from his paintings but give me Edvard Munch’s globs of bright red suicidal despair any day of the week because even if some of his work is far from perfect, I at least know there is an essential truth behind it, jumping out at me and forcing me to interact with his pain. I can’t hide behind nicely crafted one-liners, vajazzle jokes or, god forbid, a character act. I just wouldn’t see the point in doing that. As it stands my process is a long torturous excavation of my own personal failure, neuroses and insecurities. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mjsterrett