I just finished reading a fantastic article in the New York about the brilliant Patrice O’Neal and what it means to be a comedian. The article talks about the Tragic death of Patrice last November; the reactions to his death by comedians; Patrice’s personal thought on his career, and what a comedian should be trying to achieve. To say this article had a profound effect on me would be a vast understatement: it’s changed the whole way I think about comedy.
I always believed comedy was an art form and an important part of culture. Comedy is not just about presenting jokes for an audience, it’s about presenting ideas to an audience. Patrice O’Neal was one of a current crop of comedians that understood that these ideas didn’t need to be something the audience agreed with. In fact he preferred the ideas if they didn’t, and he respected comedians who had a strong point of view. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t talk to them.
“he had plenty to say about comedians who cared more about being liked than committing to their particular point of view: “Do you have a life philosophy? Do you have anything that says goddamn ethic? Any ethic, you piece of shit? If you don’t, don’t talk to me. I don’t even have to say sheep.”
His desire to discuss things that made the audience uncomfortable defined him as a comedian, and in turn highlighted what comedy is supposed to be about: a strong point of view. O’Neal constantly examined the role of the comedian and “wondered if the desire to be liked onstage might be coming from the need to protect a belief in oneself as a nice guy offstage. What if you weren’t that guy at all?”
When he had that realisation he was able to break free, just as many of the greats before him had. For this discovery to be able to succeed though, there needs to be an audience that is willing to give something to the performance themselves, rather than simply being a passive viewer. That doesn’t mean heckles, what it does mean is forgiveness, willingness to disagree, and an understanding that it’s still okay to laugh if they do disagree.
In fact, all comedy needs that type of audience to thrive, not just comics like Patrice O’Neal. Sadly it doesn’t seem to exist as much as it should here in the UK. The main reasons for this (In my opinion) are TV, and Gong Shows.
I’m not going to say that the comedians on TV are talentless, awful, or rubbish hacks. They’re not; they’ve clearly worked their way to being on TV, put their time in, and been successful. They deserve the credit that they get. What I don’t like about comedy on TV is that it is covers a very small spectrum of Stand-up comedy that exists live. I don’t really know why this is, but I would probably hazard a guess that channels such as the BBC do not want to face a great deal of complaints.
I mean there are some channels that seem to take risks such as BBC3 (and Channel 4 to an extent) but they seem to feature content that has already been proven in the US, such as Family Guy, which I imagine they still receive complaints about. What I would like to see is at least one regular comedy showcase that features home grown talent that is risqué and niche, even if Points of View do receive a ton of letters asking for it to be taken off the air.
Complaints are natural too. Not everyone likes the same things, and some things that some people love, others will find offensive. It’s just the nature of creativity. If you are offended you have the right to say so, but the party that offended you also has the right to say “I don’t care”. Comedy is subjective and should be treated as such. Not judged objectively X-factor style, like at a Gong Show.
Gong Shows really are the worst. They take everything comedy should be, and they mutilate it without mercy. In a Gong Show, A comedian has to go on stage to make an audience laugh for a specific amount of time (usually five minutes); if the audience don’t find them funny they can vote them off, and they will be “gonged”. Five minutes doesn’t seem a long time to have to beat, and it isn’t. In fact it isn’t enough time. Five minutes is not enough time for a comic’s act to breathe, become playful, and build. In a gong show it must be laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, and if the comedian says ANYTHING the audience doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with, they’re off.
How much I hate Gong Shows is another Blog post entirely, one which will probably appear on my personal Blog at some point, for now what I will say is that they remove the power from the comedian who is supposed to manipulate an audience, into a reversed situation that is not good for the growth and development of comedy.
I recently read a quote by James Woroniecki owner of 99 Club on the matter:
“The nineties saw a shift in the live comedy scene and not necessarily one for the good. Comedy clubs gradually became more commercial, focusing in particular on stag nights and the kind of comedians whose jokes would service a massive group of drunken lads…it was becoming increasingly difficult to find comedy clubs that treated their acts as artists and gave them a positive, supportive environment in which to practice their craft.”
That quote is referring to NINETIES comedy, NINETIES. That’s two decades ago now. Why is this still happening? Why are comedians still letting it happen? That’s why the 99 Club was started. That’s why we started HOWL Comedy. To be a safe haven for the comics that are different and who often find themselves fighting with an audience who are too quick to dismiss them. Even traditional comics deserve this, not just “Alternative comics”. Comedians deserved to be treated as Artists not just entertainers, and we want to do just that, by providing the right audience so that comics can really be free to do what they want.