Yes, where do you get it from? People who ask this question should, along with lying politicians and nuclear attack bears, be shot. It’s like asking Picasso why he put that ear there. It’s irritating, impossible and downright infuriating some times. The problem is when you’re at my level (i.e. nowhere) the people who ask you it aren’t idiot journalists or annoying television interviewers, but family and friends. Which makes the ideal response of “sod off” a little unfair, and probably not worth deploying. The point of this article is to have a go at actually answering it so no one ever has to be asked it again. Who knows, maybe some time down the line if I get it right, when a performer is asked, they’ll just say ‘read Rewan’s article on the subject’.
Comedy is often described as an art form, and I think rightly so. For those who disagree, I’d suggest that surely art can be defined as something that elicits an emotional response? If this is the case, then laughter and by extension, mirth, makes comedy an art form. Like all art forms, comedy is created by personality, emotional balance/imbalance, and a certain perspective on the world that is not shared by everyone.
The reason we all laugh at jokes, but not everyone can tell them is because comedians think in a certain way. When Michael Macintyre asks ‘why is it that when someone asks you if you have a pen, and you know you don’t have a pen, you still frisk yourself anyway?’ he is pointing out something we all do, yet it takes someone with a slightly maverick mind to point it out in a humorous way. Surely when Lee Evans made the joke ‘of course it’s always in the last place you look, you’re not going to find it and keep looking,’ every comedian across the globe must have smacked themselves in the forehead and said ‘why the hell didn’t I notice that one?’
Terry Pratchett writes in his Discworld series that inspiration is a type of particle that flies through space at high speeds. On The Disc, when inspiration strikes, it really strikes – a genius idea is the result of someone being struck by a careening particle of inspiration that has travelled across the galaxy to connect with their minds. I always liked this; it just seems to make sense. When I make up my sets, I improvise them to an imaginary audience (only when alone in the house, I’d like to point out). It always seems from the way the jokes just make themselves and I rant on for ten or twenty minutes, that the set has already written itself. In a way it has – these jokes that come out fluently as though rehearsed have, I believe, been constructed by my subconscious a long time beforehand as a way of coping with and understanding the things happening around me.
Where any comedian gets their material from is their brain. Lee Mack gets his material from Lee Mack, Jo Brand from Jo Brand. Yes, they draw on certain topics – Lee Mack’s driving test routine and Jo Brand’s marriage material – but these topics go through a filtration system known as Lee Mack and Jo brand (separately; I’m sure they don’t share material). Not everyone can look at the bible and come out with nine two-hour stand up shows worth of material about it, as Eddie Izzard has. Not everyone can talk about their sexuality in such a frank and philosophical way as Russell Brand and make it funny.
It might sound arrogant to say that what makes comedians funny is that they think differently to other people. But then again, so do murderers. It’s not an admission of superiority, it’s just the way the world is. From utterly surreal comedians to mainstream, comedians have a certain outlook on life which other people share, yet are unable to express. A lot of people were angry at the Thatcher government, but Ben Elton was the man with just the right brain to turn his anger into comedy.
Anyone can play the right notes in the wrong order, but only Eric Morcambe could do it with such panache. That’s not got anything to do with where material comes from, but the point is we are all different. No one else could have played Mr Bean like Rowan Atkinson. Where we get our material from is ourselves.
Sometimes, the different way of thinking is very obvious. Noel Fielding, who has been mentioned before, or his partner in crime, Julian Barratt, very obviously think differently to other people. Watch either one of them doing stand-up on YouTube and you’ll find the difference is obvious. Noel Fielding’s piece on whispering is so strange, so weird that I think it is safe to say no one else would come up with it. Sometimes, comedians tell jokes and you think ‘that was very like an X joke’. You’ll never find Noel Fielding and Jason Manford in court fighting over who came up with a certain joke first, and who stole it from them.
Asking a stand-up comic where they get their material from is like asking who first decided to drink cows milk. It’s an invisible, incomprehensible process. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, like the sky, or babies (although women would probably, and quite rightly, argue that it matters a lot exactly where babies come from). The important thing is that it is there, and we appreciate it.