To the Coach and Horses on Tuesday (or to a Coach and Horses, since there’s a whole myriad gang of them in London), where m’colleague Will Howells was one of 11 brave entrants in that night’s heat of the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year 2009 competition.
I hate having to stand up and speak in front of people, and thought being a writer would mean someone else would always do that bit. But part of the gig is flogging the product and I’ve developed a technique of talking too fast and about not very much and so generally sort of scrape through.
Which means I’m in awe of these brave ladies and gentlemen who dared try their comedy on people they don’t even know. There’s no grey area in telling a joke: people either laugh or sit in hollow silence. Even a slight titter or knowing smile can cut the teller apart. It’s excruciating enough with an audience already on your side.
Each turn got exactly five minutes before being dragged back into the darkness. Will was, I’m relieved to say, quite brilliant – and easily leapt through into the next round of the contest.
There were several very good other acts, too. And some that failed to ignite our cruel mob. When I should have been fighting to meet pressing deadlines, I’ve been trying to fathom just why.
1. Working the audience
Several acts started with a cheery, “How you doing, all right?” The smallish audience didn’t have the anonymity to call back, so met the comic with an uncomfortable murmur. You could see it the comics’ eyes: stood there in front of the microphone and it already not working.
2. Watch the opposition
That happening to one comic would have been bad enough, but it happened again and again. So, watch the other acts and don’t do what they didn’t make work. And if the audience doesn’t respond to your first cheery hello, don’t then spend the rest of your act asking the audience questions: “Who’s in love?”, “Who’s from London?”, “Who here has their own nose?” Answer came there none.
3. Why do women wear make-up and perfume?
There were a lot of jokes at the expense of women – about shopping and smear tests and sex. When these worked at all they were being told by women. It helps to get us on side if you’re mocking yourself rather than pointing at other people.
4. Rude ≠ funny
There were also a lot of jokes aimed at shocking us – about bowel movements or the evils of women. Shocks are like exclamation marks; they work if you use them with caution. Too much and you deaden their impact. You might as well write out your act in the Comic Sans typeface to show us how cray-zee it is.
5. Keep us busy
Some acts made observations that weren’t exactly funny. Others spent their allotted five minutes setting up one joke. We need a steady stream of funny bits; small woofs peppered between the big ones. Keep us engaged and surprised and we will be grateful.
A lot of acts tried to be topical – with mentions of Obama or the credit crunch. At worst, these just felt tacked-on to the pre-arranged act, or just obvious and lame. Every comic on the telly, every paper, every wag at work, is doing their spin on the news. So your joke has to be something amazing to stand above the crowd.
7. Funny = smart
There’s an important difference between silly and stupid. A lot of comedy seems to work on the basis of “Isn’t subject X stupid?” Which subject X is, especially when you wilfully distort it. The late Douglas Adams, who made his name fondly mocking science and philosophy, found himself falling out of love with comedy as a result of, in his own words:
“hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation. "These scientists eh? They're so stupid! You know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they're meant to be indestructible? It's always the thing that doesn't get smashed? So why don't they make the planes out of the same stuff?" The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn't think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn't really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they'd be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?”
Douglas Adams, “The hitchhiker's guide to the 21st century”, The Independent, 19 December 2000.