I’ve started to write this blog many times. Generally, I try to stick to some kind of principles with these things: write something, and if it reads well, seems true and doesn’t make me sound like a twat, I’ll keep it. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know this is not a foolproof method. Well here goes, I hope this one isn’t the exception that proves the rule. It’s not about music, so I’m on thin ice.
I went to see Stewart Lee, and thought I’d write about how I felt. Then, a few days later, I went to see Ed Gaughan and had some other thoughts. On his recommendation I started re-watching “The Singing Detective”, which is for the most part not funny, and then got some kind of flu, not man flu, because I don’t believe in separating viruses by gender and we need nothing if not some kind of consistency concerning these things. The experience of these three events somehow got mangled in my head, and this is me kind of working it out to myself, with no real knowledge of the principles of comedy, or of pretty much anything else.
“The Singing Detective” is the story of a detective book writer who is hospitalised with some kind of debilitating skin disease, and his ways of living with it, mingled with real life memories of his past, are woven together via strangely poignant and surreal lip-synced songs of the 1930s. I mean it’s impossible to really sum it up, or even to say what it is, and in some ways the summing up, the “solving of the puzzle” takes away the need to watch it. So go and watch it and then come back, I’ll still be here.
Stewart Lee often comments, as himself, on the machinations and structural gameplays of the character “Stewart Lee”, getting ahead of the people who would try to “sum him up”, working as his own critic. He gets a lot of laughs out of breaking the fourth wall, and then placing what we thought was the real Stewart Lee back on the stage. In one striking section, he starts to talk about his early life, which feels a new and exposed strategy for him, before informing us that it’s a device, and one that always comes at that particular point in the narrative. (OK, but somehow the truth sticks with me…he’s too late, “Stewart Lee” that is). He reminds me of Ronnie Corbett and Frankie Howerd, putting off the end of a routine by analysing it as it happens, or enticing the audience into something we shouldn’t be laughing at (because a good comedian can make you laugh at anything, they have the power to make you un-PC). It’s virtuoso writing, not a wasted word, yet feels spontaneous…like any one of those Ellington band solos that crop up decade after decade, the same but tailored to fit a new player, Cootie Williams stepping straight into the shoes of Bubber Miley.
Ed Gaughan also has a personal story to tell, populated with characters, with voices in the literal sense. He keeps these going just long enough for you to believe in them all. Sometimes the words come out so fast, under thick accents, that it’s like listening to music, the meaning of the words melted into sound. There’s something cumulative about all these characters that makes you trust the narrator, even as he veers off into a surreal routine about the Inland Revenue and the discovery that he has traces of “primate” in his DNA. It feels real. This character would say this, it would happen to him, obviously, wouldn’t it? We are living on the edge of chaos, of fantasy and reality, and who’s to say where the line is? It occurs to me that laughter itself is a primitive state, and apparently some primates are capable of it…as a comedian, part primate might even be seen as a bit of a genetic leg up in the showbiz world, what what?
Potter’s detective writer remembers the past, but also hallucinates in the present, the line is blurred. Stewart Lee appears both as himself and as the character “Stewart Lee”, much as “Larry David” allows Larry David himself to say and think things audibly that he might not in real life. In that way, perhaps his character is more real. Being partly primate is shocking, but does it change anything (except your tax code)? Are we using the wrong blueprint of reality? This world where we are constantly putting on brave, happy or stoical faces to avoid offending other people with the same masks on…perhaps laughter is a kind of nervous reaction to a particular kind of truth, one that lets in fantastical stories, unreliable narrators and viewpoints lost in chronological time. It makes more sense than that sanitised world we are presented with when we look out of the window.
Laughter, according to Wikipedia (does anyone know anything outside of what Wikipedia says anymore?) “…might be thought of as an audible expression or appearance of excitement, an inward feeling of joy and happiness.” It’s a funny old noise to make, whether human or primate, but it’s one you can’t fake, at least not to yourself. You cannot make yourself find something funny, only convince some else that you do. The tragic circumstances of Potter’s hero are mirrored more or less in Ed’s chameleon-like narrator and Stewart Lee’s self reflecting persona, in each case we are looking at one person being somehow modulated by the presence of other characters, or versions of themselves. They are all looking for something, something that goes beyond or further in or wider…it’s hard to know which direction they are moving in. But in each case, there’s just them, the one person, and us, the audience, looking for a way out of a reality that isn’t fit for purpose.
We don’t get access to this enough. In the World Of The Phone, these numbers are reversed….an audience of one, clutching a rectangular virtual stage, scrolling through a world of performers, millions of them, with only ten seconds each to make their point. You can’t gain anyone’s trust if you can’t spend the time with them. It’s just noise, even with the sound off, which is my preferred means of engagement.
In the end, it’s all about the immersive experience for me. Stand up comedy is one story – believable, fantastical, absurd. In the case of “The Singing Detective”, it’s more like Sit Down Tragedy, but that’s splitting hairs, it’s all the same.
Immersion is a kind of super-silence. It’s better than silence, because into silence a million thoughts will flood. And it was in just such a silence, after watching Stewart Lee, walking home from Ed’s gig, closing the laptop in flu-induced fever after “The Singing Detective”, that I started thinking about comedy. If you’ve got this far, I salute you…and now that I think about it, this blog is about music too.
Musicians and comedians take sounds and get them moving, in our respective languages, hoping to induce sympathetic vibrations in the air and the audience. If that sounds a bit wanky, well, I did say it wasn’t a foolproof method, and I don’t have another ending.