To ease you into this, if you are so good as to read it, I should explain a little here about my influences and reasons. I recently went to watch the brilliant Stewart Lee in Buxton perform his ‘Much-a-Stew-about-nothing’ show (http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/) and it reconnected me to the notions of narrative in stand-up comedy and the power of comedy and narrative in general. I was very fortunate to follow this up with a chance encounter with a friend who lent me one of Lee’s books with transcripts of his previous live shows including foot-notes on his technique and inspirations. Now, I have no interest in doing stand-up comedy myself, and it’s only recently with my writing credits on Radio BBC4 Extra’s ‘Newsjack’ that I’ve written anything purposefully comedic at all. This blog, as I say in the ‘About Me’ section is intended for trying things out, for things that don’t slot easily anywhere else, and shameless self promotion. This specific blog therefore is totally the result of having immersed myself in alternative comedy for a month or so and wanting to try my hand at writing the kind of narrative that experts like Lee have so brilliantly crafted. I liked reading the transcribed shows, they worked on the page, so I figured, having no interest in actually standing up and saying these things into a microphone, I would try and write a brief narrative and put a ‘stand-up’ spin on it. I don’t really care if it smacks of influence or emulation – that’s why I’ve done it, to try and find out a bit of how this works for myself, even if it is only to conclude that it doesn’t work at all.
Not surprisingly, the very subject of not wanting to ever do stand-up and an embarrassing attempt I once made at making a joke on stage has formed the theme of this experiment. Also, like most comedy narratives, it is an exaggerated account of a true story, with some not true things thrown in.
With that said, I hope you can forgive me if you don’t either a) find it funny or b) even finish reading it. I also hope you can forgive me for my apologetic introduction. I would be interested to hear what you think so please leave a comment here or anywhere I might see it – but preferably not attached to a brick through my window.
So I was thinking about Stand-up comedy. Not actually doing it. No way. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. Actually I can, I can think of lots of things more terrifying, like crawling into a small hole under a tree and then realising I’m stuck there forever. What I mean is, I can’t think of anything more terrifying within the realm of public performance, except perhaps some kind of performance arts piece involving testicles and leeches. What I mean is, I just don’t like the idea of doing stand up comedy, which is interesting seeing as I’m no stranger to taking to the stage. I sing in a band, I sometimes even talk (a bit) between songs. Granted it is usually only to state the name of the next song and say thank you for the applause from the last (regardless if any actually happened), but it’s still talking into a microphone in front of other people all the same.
I think I may have shocked myself out of trying to riff funny back at my Dad’s wedding some years ago now. I was performing with my Brother and a make-shift band for the evening. It got to the point where my Dad and my Step Mum where trying to encourage dancing as most of the guests had spent much of the first half of our set in another room. Not coincidentally, the room with the buffet. Ah, the buffet, it always wins in the end. No manner of art can win against the lure of cheese & pineapple on sticks. Maybe that’s the ultimate aim of all art – to become a credible challenger to the dominating presence of a buffet?
Anyway, we had pretty much already played our set to the few people who could resist the lure of questionable coleslaw, and now the others had all filled their stomachs with cherry tomatoes and breaded bits of chicken, they were ready to be entertained (I like buffet’s, but am always suspicious now of anything in breadcrumbs having once accidentally eaten a miserable fish goujon thinking it was going to be chicken. It seems to me that in one sense, covering something with breadcrumbs is as good as disguising it in something neutral and bland for fear that its true identity will be discovered, a bit like when Jim Davidson hosted Big-Break). It didn’t seem to matter much to the quiche stuffed revellers that we had already been playing for an hour, but it was my Dad’s wedding, so we carried on.
About half way through the set, while the crowd of cold-chicken-leg fuelled party-goers sat watching and talking amongst themselves, my Dad and my Step Mum braved the dance floor. It wasn’t a ‘first dance’ kind of thing as I remember – well it was, in the sense that no one else was dancing, as they were all probably too full of limp salad and tiny sausages, but it wasn’t the first dance. It was just a dance, I think calculated by my Dad to try and encourage others to do the same. I picked up on this vibe in an almost Jedi like moment of mental connection, I knew what he was trying to do, and I liked it. By this time, my older brother (who has always had a more natural disposition on stage and a greater ability than I to say things coherently in general), had already cracked a joke to rapturous laughter at some earlier stage. I think it was about eating, drinking and being Mary… I can’t remember, or it was about three nuns in a boat. Either way, I had the notion that if there was ever a time to try my hand at saying something spontaneous though a microphone, it was now, in the bosom of my extended family and friends who would accept me out of (if nothing else) politeness to my Father.
So something was sparking in my mind, my Dad was dancing (a rare and unwieldy sight) and in the ether, from somewhere beyond, I could hear a voice saying, “It’s ok son, it’s ok, this is the time to make a joke about my bad dancing in order to get the other people dancing, even though they are struggling against the weight of many, many mini sausage rolls, now is the time. Look, I am your Father.” (That last joke only works if you pronounce ‘look’ in the same way as ‘fluke’ – which people in Staffordshire do, even though none of my family are actually from Staffordshire, but that doesn’t matter, as this disembodied voice of my Father encouraging me to talk on the microphone didn’t actually happen, and if it did, only I could hear it, so I would have got the Star Wars / Stokey accent reference anyway, so there.)
And I thought, yes! Yes, there is a joke in there somewhere… There is some vague notion of my Dad dancing and not being very good at it, and other people not dancing, who presumably can only be as bad, but probably better. I admit, I hadn’t really nailed it at this stage, but sweating, drunk and exhausted from being nearly two hours into a live set, I walked up to the microphone and looked out at the expectant faces in the large function room, my Father and my new Step Mum still standing alone in the centre of the dance floor, looking at me as if to say “now is the time! You can do it! Improvise!” and I said something along the lines of:
“They say that before people decide whether to dance or not they judge this by the least ability of the people already on the dance floor and so if my Dad is dancing, then you all should be too…”
It was a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday speech in the Lord of the Rings where he declares “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” and the crowd looks on in confusion while they try and deconstruct the meaning and whether or not it was an insult. I say it was reminiscent of that, because in another way, it was nothing like that all, having none of the wit, charm or craftsmanship that Tolkien possessed in unfair quantities. The only bit that was similar, was the crowd looking back at me in confused indifference, trying to work out what I’d just said, and if it made any sense. Which, it didn’t.
I mean it could have done. In hindsight. Oh yes, in hindsight, given the 15 years or so since this happened and my development as a writer, I can look at this sentence and edit it down to the following: “If my Dad’s dancing, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have a dance.” Which isn’t really that funny either, but as light banter, would have been more succinct and may have raised a titter. It also has the added benefit of letting the audience fill in the blanks for themselves. It is implied that it is about ability, rather than force-fed, showing respect to their intelligence. To give credit to my Dad, he seemed to get the intent behind my garbled declaration and gave a pantomime look to the crowd as if to say “he’s right you know!”, although this may have actually been to say “I don’t know either… Maybe if you just come up and dance he won’t try and speak again.”
I was lucky really that no one took me to task on my comment. Thank God there were no hecklers at my Dad’s wedding. It wouldn’t have taken much. The first comment that springs to mind is, “Who says that?” as in, “Who says that before people decide to dance they judge the least ability of other people on the dance floor?” To which I would have had to reply, “I don’t know, just people, old wise people on a mountain somewhere…” and they may have said, “Why do they say that?” to which I could retort, “because I asked them – I anticipated that you would all spend more time inhaling bread sticks and tiramisu then you would listening to my band play for several hours at my own Dad’s wedding, and then come in here and sit watching us play it all again without even attempting to dance, and as such, I travelled to a wise man in Mongolia, yeah, Mongolia because it sounds mysterious and that’s where wise men on mountains live, and I found the wisest man, on the highest mountain, and I said to him – why is that people don’t dance sometimes? And he told me why. But to be sure, I went to the next highest mountain and found the next wisest man, and asked him the same, and he gave me the same answer. I repeated this exercise several times to make sure I had a consensus of opinion from multiple sources, hence why I referred to the plural ‘they’ in my rendering of this Eastern wisdom. It wasn’t just my panicking mind reaching desperately for an elusive third party with which to frame my witticism, it was the result of many months of hard travel and research.”
Of course, the next rebuke may have been, “but what does it mean? The order of the words you chose to speak, doesn’t really make sense does it Garry? They ‘judge the least ability’? Did you mean, they judge the ability of others dancing, and if they deem themselves to be similar or better, they may feel more comfortable and participate in the awkward social situation without fear of embarrassment?” to wit I would have to concede, “Yes, that’s basically what I meant, but as demonstrated by your lengthy interpretation of my intended observation, that doesn’t make for much of a snappy one liner to say between songs does it? So all I knew, was that I wanted to say something that meant the same as what you just said, but had to be shorter, which in my current heightened, adrenalin and alcohol fuelled mindset, I couldn’t quite achieve. I only hope that this protracted conversation with you, the imaginary heckler, has clarified this point to all the other guests here and we can move on from this unfortunate and ill conceived attempt at spontaneity and enjoy the rest of the evening…”
And I looked up from this exchange, feeling I had vindicated myself from any embarrassment or misunderstanding only to find that the room was now empty, the crowd, impatient as they were for me to stop talking to myself retrospectively from the future, had slinked off back to the next room, because a waiter had just brought out some more, hot, unidentifiable breaded goods that someone suspected was garlic mushrooms… And we all like garlic mushrooms don’t we? Except for those people who don’t. In fact, they say that those people who aren’t sure about breaded goods on a buffet judge themselves by the least ability of others to decide whether or not to eat them, don’t they? Yeah they do. That’s what ‘they’ say, and I know that because I went to Mongolia to ask them.