What Does Stand-Up Comedy Stand Up For?

While I salute the bravery of anyone who's prepared to face an unruly crowd and be funny, I believe most of the stand-ups currently performing in the UK lack moral courage, engagement with the real world, and experience of life.

The last time I did stand-up comedy the audience voted with their feet. They kicked my head in. I probably deserved it, but not as much as some of the stand-ups working today deserve a kicking.

I'm speaking metaphorically. Which was also the problem with my act. However, I have been physically attacked while performing comedy, but it wasn't strictly speaking stand-up. Several years ago I opened for The Stranglers a few times. I came onstage pretending to be a roadie, whose microphone checks evolved into an increasingly surreal monologue that ended when I appeared, by means of a cunningly constructed wig, to remove the top of my head and expose my brain. Stranglers fans could get boisterous, and as well as throwing bottles or chairs they would sometimes pick up the smallest guy available and throw him, too. It's unnerving to perform while a gob-drenched punk, arms flailing and teeth bared, hurtles towards you, but as the band judged the success of their gigs on the severity of the riots they provoked, it was all part of the fun. I've also been chased by Turkish butchers wielding meat cleavers while doing street theatre in Rotterdam, but that's another story. And I have no idea why the butchers were doing street theatre.

These reflections are prompted by the Edinburgh Festival fringe, which has mutated, over the years, from a forum for theatrical innovation to a trade fair for the comedy industry. The transformation began in earnest in the late 1980s, (about half way between my first Edinburgh performance, in 1979, and my most recent, in 2001). It was partly in protest at this process that in 1989 I took an uncompromisingly experimental show to the festival, called Slave Clowns of the Third Reich, on the principle that if you can't perform fucking fringe theatre at the Edinburgh fucking fringe then where the fuck can you perform it? If I seem bitter about all this it's only partly because I deplore the ubiquity and dominance of stand-up comedy on cultural grounds. It's also because I'm no good at it. Which makes me quite unusual, in a perverse way.

The world is full of stand-ups and most of them are pretty good. The comedy business has undergone a radical improvement in the quality and standard of its goods and services, just like many other businesses. Thirty years ago it was quite easy to purchase a crappy stereo system or an abysmal car if you weren't careful. In the motor trade, for example, two words spring to mind and those words are Princess and Austin, but not necessarily in that order. But these days it takes real dedication to find a truly execrable car or a rotten sound system. I don't miss those lousy products at all, but I do rather miss some of the hopeless performers from the early days of the comedy boom, and what was quaintly called 'alternative comedy'. And there's a simple reason for that: they may have been bad but at least they meant it. In other words, they weren't products like stereos or cars.

I'm full of admiration for comedians who've worked hard to become good at what they do, especially when it includes gruelling years on the circuit, learning and perfecting their craft. Sure, certain people have a natural ability to make other people laugh, but to become a good stand-up, like a good painter or a good concert pianist, takes fortitude, commitment and skill, as well as talent. People say stand-ups need to be supremely confident, even arrogant. But I think stand-ups also need humility, and that's another quality I'm short of. However, there's more to my disillusionment with the current state of stand-up comedy than my own personal failings. (If you're a stand-up and you don't want to know why I think most of you aren't fulfilling your potential, don't read further.)

While I salute the bravery of anyone who's prepared to face an unruly crowd and be funny, I believe most of the stand-ups currently performing in the UK lack moral courage, engagement with the real world, and experience of life.

Not long ago I was at a storytelling gig. There are some wonderful storytellers out there, but aspiring comedians also like storytelling because it gives them an opportunity to be onstage without a relentless need to get laughs. The pressure is off, and they can explore who they are as a performer. Fine. But what struck me at this gig was that the stories the younger performers told were excruciatingly boring. If the only experiences you've had are: childhood, school, university, a few relationships, and the dangerous, risky thrill of being late with the rent once or twice, what have you got? A pilot on BBC3, probably. However, my point is that if you only have a very limited life-experience, you need to be an exceptional performer to make up for it.

I'm not saying that to be good a stand-up you need to become a lumberjack, pull off a jewel heist, work with lepers or spend time in prison - although I can think of several comedians whose incarceration would give the public some relief from them, quite apart from those who deserve it for various unsavoury sexual offences. However, you don't have to experience something to get an angle on it. Shakespeare didn't need to be a murderer to write about murder. But he was Shakespeare, and you're not. Better start planning that jewel heist. (Don't forget to film it for YouTube.)

But lack of life experience doesn't necessarily disqualify a comedian from being funny or from engaging with the audience. Sometimes insight is enough, and powerful insight isn't broad but deep. The most mundane lives can yield profound truths; you don't have to travel the world to investigate the heart you carry with you wherever you go, and all you need to illuminate the fundamental comedy of human relationships is the nerve and determination to interrogate the subject even (or especially) if it's painful. But that's not what most stand up comedians want to do. For many of them, their subject is simply themselves. But if your subject is you, and you haven't done anything, what else have you got to offer? The self can be fertile ground if you want to dig deep and deal with the manure. But if all you want to do is talk about the consequences of leaving the toilet seat up, tell us what happened when you went to IKEA, or pose as an edgy social commentator by flirting 'ironically' with misogyny or bigotry, it's not going to happen. Somehow, you need to engage with the world we all live in with enough passion, imagination and originality to say something about it that's meaningful to the rest of us.

Which leads us to politics. Many comedians aren't now interested in politics. Why not? Probably because it's not about them, and how fascinating they are. There are some honourable exceptions but they tend to be among the older generation. I'm not demanding that all stand-ups should be political, although I'd love to see more of the younger performers using their exceptional talents to address political issues, and I'm depressed by the lack of political engagement on the part of contemporary comedy, especially at a time when targets for anger, scorn and satire are so egregious. But what I really miss is a whole approach that explores and celebrates our shared humanity, rather than the narcissism of an individual. I can't help feeling that an entire generation is growing up with a belief that comedy has no power to impinge upon how anyone thinks or feels and is simply a spectator sport in which competitors deploy their own ironic self-absorption to score points against each other. Is it too much to ask for material that is deeper than glib observation, and a mode of performance that is more moving than mere cleverness? How about some discourse on the fucking zeitgeist here?

Stand-ups work very hard and need great devotion to their craft in order to excel. But for the most part, if you ask them what challenges they want to tackle, they talk about the challenges facing them in their career. These are, indeed, formidable, as it's a highly competitive, stressful business. But for me it would be far more interesting, and potentially inspiring, if comedians were to tackle a bigger challenge, one that seems to have become so unfashionable that it's almost treated as an embarrassment. I'm talking about changing the world.

You know you want to.

By overwhelming public demand, I continue to refrain from doing stand-up, and I confine myself to writing. You can assess my latest efforts when my new sitcom 'Reception' is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, beginning on Monday September 2nd at 11:30am; and you can read my next book 'Dead Writers in Rehab' some time soon.


Before You Go