Has anyone ever, in the history of language, uttered the phrase ‘I don’t like to laugh’? I guess there will have been someone, an irate old man whose teeth wobble like the ice cubes in his G&T every time his mouth opens. But aside from someone to whom laughing actually causes physical pain – and even then, true laughter is so intense that it hurts, and is that bad? – surely no one could actually claim to hate the idea of mirth?
Whilst there are many theories as to why laughter developed I agree with what Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves say in their excellent book The Naked Jape; it is most likely to be some sort of oral sign of relief at the realisation a bad situation has been diffused. Not that anything in the Stone Age needed fusing, or even defusing, and certainly no one wired a plug, although there is always one nutcase with a ring-binder full of evidence desperate to argue against established fact. These people usually dribble, and their eyes work independently.
As to why we still laugh nowadays, it is not so surprising. Like many things in human evolution, laughter has just been hijacked and repurposed as we have evolved. In the present day, and in fact for centuries, we laugh as a way of releasing tension built up by the massive list of taboos that society has created for us. We laugh as a coping mechanism, which is why we can make jokes about the darkest facets of human nature – murder, for example – and find them funny.
When the presenters of Top Gear joke about what car a serial killer drives, we all laugh, not because we like serial killers or the idea of bodies in car boots, but because it means we can release some of that deep, subconscious tension that we all hold to a greater or lesser degree, about the fact that it is a dangerous world, and there are dangerous people out there. It is why we can laugh at people being run over, or shot, or falling off cliffs (or any of the stuff that happens in Tom and Jerry), not because we approve, but because the only other option is to think ‘Christ, there’s so much bad stuff out there’, shut and lock all the windows and lie quivering on the floor in the foetal position.
Scary subconscious stuff aside, laughter is one of the few ‘clean’ drugs. Is it any surprise we’ve re-tasked something that floods the brain with endorphins to be applied in everyday life?
But this article is not focussing on laughter in general, it is focussing on the bizarre phenomenon that is people actively seeking laughter out; more importantly, the people who strive to give it to them. I myself am an aspiring stand-up comic. Whether I am any good or not is entirely irrelevant, as a rubbish stand-up comedian can just as easily ponder the topic as a great one. For the purpose of this article, I shall be looking at the unspoken promise that a comedian makes the moment they set foot on stage and the consequences of that promise being broken.
I believe a stand up gig begins with ‘The Contract’. By getting up on stage at a comedy night, by calling yourself a comedian, you are standing in front of a group of strangers and saying ‘I am going to make you laugh. I am funny.’ That may seem harmless, but considering GSOH is one of the things most valued in our society, it can be a dangerous thing to claim. To say in front of a group of strangers that you have one of the most-sought after of gifts is in many ways arrogance – until you prove yourself right. If there’s one thing our society hates, it’s arrogance.
I will take a minute before continuing to point out that with established comedians this is different. Dara O’Briain, for example, is a very, very funny man. When people turn up at the venue for one of his gigs, there is very little expectation that he won’t be funny. What might happen is people will come out going ‘He wasn’t as good as last time’ (which, having watched his latest DVD, would have to mean that his previous show was so funny half the audience died.) When an established comedian walks out on stage to rapturous applause, there is no Contract in the same terms of this article (there is still a promise of mirth, obviously). It is us, the audience, who have titled Dara O’Briain with the mantle of ‘funny man’, therefore there is no implied arrogance or need to prove himself involved in him walking on stage. We want him there, there he is. Let laughter commence.
The Contract is something that only happens between a new comedian and audience, where the audience have never seen you before, and know nothing about you or your material. If you get up on stage, and then turn out to be as funny as getting your leg bitten off, you have tricked the audience. You have broken your promise to them, and they will often not take it lightly. Bear in mind that most audiences are very supportive – it is very unusual for a stand up not to be welcomed to the stage by a round of applause, even in small pub gigs. This is, I guess, for two reasons. Tell people you are a stand-up comic, the most common response is ‘Gosh, you’re so brave.’ By being applauded onto the stage, the audience is not only acknowledging that what you’re doing is incredibly scary, but also doing what they can to put you at ease.
So the audience has already done their bit – they’ve already been kind, they’ve already said ‘Don’t worry, we know it’s scary, but relax, you’re going to be funny.’ Very few people actively want the person on stage to not be any good. They have faith in you, and you’ve promised them you’ll be good. Now it’s time to prove you deserve their applause.
Any comedian will tell you, regardless of ability or experience, that the first laugh is everything. It doesn’t have to be a massive, fall-off-their-seats-clutching-their-sides laugh, even a titter will suffice. It breaks the ice. It shows the audience that you can be at least vaguely amusing, and the audience shows you that they aren’t there to stare in stony silence, and no one is waiting in the back row with a javelin. The first laugh will hardly ever be deserving of a standing ovation. Watch professional comedian’s DVD’s, and even their first minute or so on stage will probably be quite sedate (once all the fanatical screaming and cheering has subsided, naturally). Comedy takes time to warm up and work your way into. Every joke needs a set-up, and with stand-up routines, the set-up can often be quite long winded. But if you have got that first laugh, then the audience will be more inclined to go with you.
If you don’t get that first laugh, it’s very easy to start panicking, which is of course the worst thing to do. Apparently when towing a caravan that starts to wobble, drivers are advised to make small corrections, not to yank the steering wheel in the direction opposite to the wobble and hope to God that they don’t have to throw the driver door open and duck and roll. Similarly in comedy, there is no use in going ‘Help! My first joke didn’t work. Perhaps I should dive out of the window.’
Sometimes, for example the X-Factor auditions stages, we all want to see people fail, to satisfy that part of our psyche that makes us all feel hideously inferior when someone is better than us at something (or, in the case of an elite few, everything). With comedy, this is not the case. No audience member will enjoy the awkward silence that prevails through an unfunny comedian’s set. It will be just as uncomfortable for the audience as it is for the performer. Everyone is cringing all around. The only difference is, the audience will recover as soon as the next comedian comes on stage and, hopefully, turns out to be funny. The performer will usually take a long time to recover, if ever.
It’s because of the fact that being able to make people laugh is a skill so highly praised in society that someone who claims to be funny and then turns out not to be receives such a harsh backlash. As mentioned earlier, it’s tantamount to arrogance, unless you can prove yourself right. If you can’t, the audience (perhaps angry at having been robbed of potential endorphin-fuelled brain tingles) turns against you. I’d like to point out this is through observation, not personal experience. (Yet).
Essentially, there is a reason the audience are sitting in front of the stage and not standing upon it. Not everyone is funny, and this is ok. For someone to go on claiming to be a comedian, and then not deliver, essentially seems to us as an audience that they think they are better than us. What gives them the right to think they are very funny, when they aren’t? Everyone hates a fraud, and someone who thinks they are funny when they aren’t grates us all. Seeing a comedian on the television that we don’t find funny, who gets laughs (usually not that many, in our angry opinions) is like being the main character in one of those films where they know that Father Tuffet has actually killed seven virgins and sacrificed their organs to Satan, and then having to sit in church the next day and listen to everyone praising them. What finally makes us turn the television off, furious that that hated comedian is still on stage, is the part when we hear that in recognition for his services to the church and community, Father Tuffet has been invited to meet the Pope.
The Contract is not something that any performer would set out to break. The rewards of stand-up, when it goes well, are great. There is no better feeling than having a room full of people laughing at something you’ve said, then breaking into a round of applause. It’s electrifying, the best kind of high, unexplainable, God-like. It is what every performer strives for. Which is why The Contract exists. An audience wants to be made to laugh, a performer wants to make them. They enter into a pact, a mutually supportive pact. You support us, welcome us on to the stage, make us feel at ease. In return, we make you laugh for the duration of our set, and at the end you thank us again.
The Contract is invisible, intangible, yet comedy works for and around it. No one has to sell their soul to the devil to be part of it, but whatever you do, don’t break it, or you might wish that it was only the devil who was coming after you, rather than an angry audience who haven’t had a laugh for the past ten minutes.