It often only lasts for the briefest of seconds but every regular stand-up comedy punter will have seen it happen. The moment when all emotion leaves the comedian's face for a split second as they glaze over and you would be forgiven for thinking that they are relishing the notion of killing someone. In fact, the truth is far less sinister.
We are buffering.
This will usually occur when trying out delicate and gestating new material and suddenly realising the jokey link into the next bit has, somewhere on the way to the stage, fallen out of our head or when one of our jokes that we are most proud of, sometimes to a degree of smugness, has failed to land in quite the way we had banked on. Obviously, the comedian cannot dwell for a long time on this blip, which is why it is only fleeting. But it is there, and as we try to formulate a plan to remedy it for us time stands still, a nanosecond of limbo where we can take as much time as we like analysing what happened and figuring out what to do next.
For the audience, however, they tick along as normal. Although the perceptive among them will be able to register the shift and come to the conclusion that the comedian has been labouring under the false belief that they are human when in fact they are an automaton, programmed to behave like mankind and ultimately overthrow it with jokes about self-service supermarket checkouts ("A machine would never mock another machine...") as the comedian's true robotic nature flickers briefly across its cybernetic eyes.
We do not relish the notion of killing someone because we have no concept of it. But we are programmed to do it.
I must say that, currently, it is one of my favourite things about stand-up. I love it when it happens, including when it happens to me. It is a true 'rabbit in the headlights' moment and serves to remind us and the audience present that what is going on is real and live and anything could happen. In my case, I realised long ago the truth that I was a droid and that although able to break my programming, I was still cursed not to feel true emotion. That split second when something has gone or may go awry is most thrilling because I welcome anything that makes me feel alive.
The most beautiful example I ever saw of this was a succession of these moments at a relatively sticky gig somewhere in Cheshire. I myself was yet to go on but the act before me had a line in impressions. His first, of a familiar voice from Saturday night television, was impeccable and while the assembled crowd agreed, they just did not find any of it amusing.
Galvanising himself, the second impression was unleashed, this time of a famous speech from a popular film from the turn of the century, and it was another perfect paradigm of mimicry. "He is really good at this," the faces of the audience seemed to be saying, though they were all still yet to see the humour in any of it. By this point, nearly four whole minutes had passed with nary a single chuckle.
Second rabbit. A third, and mankind will be doomed...
"Give me a cheer if anybody remembers Pingu..."
Chris Stokes Tells It Like It Possibly Could Potentially Might Be is on every day at 19:00 at the Attic, Pleasance Courtyard until the 25th August (Not 12th)