Our “post-truth, post-shame” world needs the comedian’s ruthless clarity and respect for the audience. This post is inspired by wise words from Nitin Sawhney, Whitney Cummings, Matt Stoller and Sean Jones QC.
What was the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?
Comedy is serious business. Laughter is the most wonderful release, the most immediate and honest reaction. You laugh before you have a chance to think about why you’re laughing. Laughter is truth.
Comedy is a tricky business. To get it right, it has to feel like the easiest thing in the world. This is by no means easy.
We have much to learn from comedians.
Like inviting people into my living room
In his lovely, gentle appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, composer Nitin Sawhney looks back on his youth. “I’d spent more time playing music than I had speaking in my life”, he says. Sawhney is thoughtful and reserved. I would hazard a guess that he might be a fellow introvert. Yet he is a confident and accomplished performer. He built these skills during his successful stint as a comedian, working with Sanjeev Bhaskar. He describes how he came to feel at ease in performance:
“[Learning to feel relaxed on stage] gave me a lot more confidence. It’s interesting, because getting this visceral reaction from an audience in response directly to something you’ve just done… I really enjoyed that kind of immediacy. You get a buzz from that and it can be quite addictive. To be in front of an audience and feel as if you are in control of what happens next was quite empowering. I used to get very nervous getting on stage, but now I think it’s like inviting people into my living room and just chatting to them. Whether you’re playing the Royal Albert Hall or playing a small venue.”
You are in my care, and I got this
It’s not just about creating this feeling of relaxed intimacy. For comedy to feel like the easiest thing in the world, the audience must trust the comedian.
RuPaul and Michelle Visage’s What’s the Tee? podcast is always a delight. The recent episode with comedian Whitney Cummings was especially delightful. Gleeful, hilarious and so full of insight. I love Cummings’ words on how she found her rhythm as a comic. She knew all along that clarity and intention in her words were vital. But it took her a few years to learn that what she didn’t say was equally important:
“To me, it’s about what level of pride do you have in your posture and in the energy that you’re emanating. You can say whatever you need to say so long as you have pride and you mean what you’re saying.”
Watching videos of her own performances proved invaluable. She realised that her body language was “apologetic”. Changing her stance worked wonders in letting her audience know that they are in safe hands:
“Me understanding my own body language and realising that if I do a joke with my shoulders curled over and crouched versus when I do a joke with my shoulders out. It’s such a small thing. You’ve had a whole conversation with the audience before you’ve opened your mouth. Also, when I stopped rushing when I got on stage. Giving them a tacit message of: ‘I am the boss, you are here to be entertained, you are in my care, and I got this.'”
“As an artist, you have an obligation to interact with society, to give you a sense of context,” Sawhney says. “I get frustrated when I see artists pray at the shrine of ourselves.”
Narcissism rather rules the roost right now. Satire is having a tough time of it in our “post-truth, post-shame” world (see Left in the dust?). Yet in these darkly absurd times, uncontrollable laughter is a natural response.
Are the comedian’s finely honed observation and communication skills the perfect way to make sense of our times?
I’ve been pondering this question following a fascinating thread of tweets from Matt Stoller*. He asks why Joe Rogan’s interview with Bernie Sanders*** got to the heart of things in a way that the televised debates with Sanders and his fellow 2020 Presidential hopefuls didn’t. Stoller argues that Rogan’s stand-up comedy background is the perfect training ground:
“The hardest way to communicate is through stand-up comedy. You just cannot be vague, at all. The medium demands ruthless clarity. And even the best comedian cannot get float on reputation.”
I think there’s a lot in this. “Ruthless clarity” is in perilously short supply right now.
The whiffwhaff paddle defence
Comedy demands not only ruthless clarity, but also an innate respect for the audience. The comedian lives and dies in the moment. The audience’s laugh is everything. The audience can instantly sniff out a fake.
Gentle reader: Fancy a little test of clarity, honesty and respect for the audience? Only Boris Johnson knows for sure how honest he was being in his recent claims that he makes and paints model buses for relaxation. Indeed, only he knows the true extent of the respect that he accords to the interviewer and, by extension, the wider audience. Does he make you laugh? Does he demonstrate clarity, honesty and respect for the audience?
A few months prior to the bus painting claims, Sean Jones QC*** tweeted that Johnson is “a Cross-examiner’s dream”. He explains:
“Why’s Boris Johnson a Cross-examiner’s dream? He’s prone to inconsistency and hyperbole which provide rich material for patient dissection. Cornered, he relies on deflection, bluster and humour and those are as much use in fending off precise questioning as a whiffwhaff paddle.”
There is a worldwide shortage of ruthless clarity and of respect for the audience right now.
We should expect and demand nothing less.
What was the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?
UPDATE (Monday 26 August 2019): Mission accomplished?
“Everyone thinks lying is a joke.” Just over a week on from the publication of this post, Paul Bernal has tweeted some words that seem to me to sum things up all-too-aptly. Bernal was responding to the controversy surrounding Boris Johnson’s comments about Melton Mowbray pork pies:****
“Everyone’s talking about pork pies.
Everyone thinks it’s funny.
Everyone thinks lying is a joke.
* Click here for Stoller’s full thread:
** Rogan’s interview with Sanders is well worth an hour of your time. I would love it if each of the 2020 Presidential nominees were to open themselves up to such an in-depth interview.
*** I believe it is the case that Sean has trodden the boards once or twice as an amateur stand-up comedian.
**** Almost too perfectly, “porky pies” means “lies” in cockney rhyming slang.
- Krusty the Clown image from the excellent Simpsons episode The Last Temptation of Krust. Sourced from the incredible Frinkiac.com website. I make no claim to the copyright for this image, and will remove it from this post immediately if required.
- Nitin Sawhney image via Wikimedia Commons.
- Whitney Cummings picture by Alex42West, via Wikimedia Commons.