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Saturday, 15 February 2014
You've got to laugh...haven't you?
A few weeks ago I went, with my daughter, to a stand-up comedy gig featuring Stewart Lee at Derby Assembly Rooms. I don't know if you recall who Stewart Lee is but this might help Stewart Lee Official Website If you do get chance to see him at some point, I would encourage you to go because it will certainly give your brain cells a work-out. There are no easy laughs in a Stewart Lee gig, you have to think! What I really found intriguing was that he would frequently pause his discussion to examine why something he had just said was 'funny' (or not, as the case may be). This is pretty daring for a stand-up comic. By and large, the received wisdom for anyone connected with humour is not to try and work out what makes it happen. Humour is seen as akin to one of those odd quantum particles which change their behaviour when observed (I may have got that wrong, but this is a piece on humour, not quantum physics). Tony Hancock famously started to analyse what made him funny in a televised interview and never really recovered from the experience.
The point of all of this is that I came across a sketch that I had written back in the mid 1980s the other day, and it reminded me of an occasion when I had to examine what was funny and what was not.
I've mentioned before that, for a long time, I considered myself a writer but this was on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. I had been an active writer in my late teens and had been quite involved in the local arts scene, but thereafter much of what I produced was simply doggerel for the birthday cards of friends and relatives and precious little else. During the 1980s, I was recommended to join a local writers' group that met just up the road from where I then lived. I went along to one of their meetings, with some trepidation, and found a really supportive and friendly group of people. There was a smattering of poets but most of the group were engaged in producing novels of some form or other. Remember, this was in those dark days before e-books when the lot of most writers was to travel hopefully, but never arrive.
When asked what sort of thing I wrote, I confidently stated that I produced short humorous articles and poems, because that is what I had done back in my teenage years. Accordingly, I promised to bring an example of my work to the next meeting - which was going to be a bit of a challenge as I didn't have anything to share. After a few beers (which was a mistake, as you'll see*) I settled down with a pen and a blank piece of paper and set about writing something funny. The end result had me chuckling (the 'few beers' effect) and I put the article in my pocket to take to the next meeting.
The day of the meeting came, and I was asked if I would like to share my writing with the group. I confidently retrieved my article from my pocket and began to read it. I don't know if you've ever been in the situation where, as you read something you've written, it begins to dawn on you what a total load of rubbish it is? Well, this was one of those occasions. My mind has thankfully blanked out the content of this article but I do vaguely remember that it concerned our local Toyota factory and was a somewhat xenophobic attack on Japanese culture and habits. I ploughed on with it, remorselessly but my heart wasn't in it. My audience sat in front of me with fixed smiles and a growing degree of discomfort. There were no laughs at all, not even a titter. I finished my reading, folded the paper up, returned it to my pocket and sat scarlet-faced with embarrassment. I think the host of the meeting thanked me for sharing and then the group moved swiftly on to something more entertaining. We had a poet who specialised in impenetrable works of deep paranoia and it is a measure of the quality of my work that he seemed like a light-hearted interlude compared to what had gone before.
I spent the rest of the meeting covered in confusion, shame and embarrassment and was glad when it was all over and I could escape. I determined that I would return the next week with something that was well-written and actually funny, or die in the attempt.
The next post on this blog, 'About Time' is what I came up with and it is the point at which, to my mind, I started to write properly again. I came across the original of this whilst I was cleaning out some cupboards the other day, which prompted my memories of that fateful meeting and the awful feeling of 'dying a death' with some rubbish dreamed up in an alcoholic haze. I hope you like it.
* Anything seems funny after a 'few beers', which is why comedy acts always do better in the second half, after the intermission. By and large, they could probably get a standing ovation by banging two tin trays together if the intermission was sufficiently long. Speaking of which, do you remember an act on 'Opportunity Knocks' some years ago which consisted of a bloke bashing himself over the head with a tin tray whilst singing 'Mule Train'? And they say variety is dead!