Stand Up Shamanism Part 2: Shamanic Comedy vs. Fascist Comedy

Gotcha.

To be fair that title is deliberately provocative and designed for optimal attention-grabbing value. So lets say right off the bat that I am in now way suggesting that any of the comedians talked about here are actual fascists. This is just for fun and because I like being overly analytical about comedy. Also, there’s a built in double bind which means if you do get offended by my lighthearted assertion that certain forms of comedy and comedians are ‘fascist’ and think I shouldn’t be saying such things then that would indeed make you look like a fascist.

So I’m just going to start and if you are the kind of person who has an irony deficiency (seewhatIdidthere?) then you should probably look away now. Unfortunately, if you do suffer from an irony deficiency then the chances are you will not know this. That’s one of the symptoms. For the rest of you, what follows is an irritatingly contrived attempt to come up with a theory of comedy I will no doubt simply discard and disown as soon as I’ve written. For I am a multiplicity damn it!

Hopefully the writing won’t get too florid and the theory too abstract but it is me writing this, so you can’t say you weren’t prepared if it does. Luckily I’m going to whack a load of videos of comedians in there to illustrate the argument so that should take the edge off things. Basically, the question I want to ask here is, “what is the point of comedy”?

The answer seems obvious; to make people laugh. But that’s a deceptive answer isn’t it? Because Bernard Manning made loads of people laugh and the general consensus at this particular historical juncture is that he was a fat racist cunt. Albeit a fat racist cunt with good timing. So it can’t be that the role of comedy is simply to make people laugh. There seems to be what we could call a moral hierarchy.

Enter Micheal McIntyre.

That’s not an injunction by the way. Let me get that clear. Let me be very firm to all two readers of this blog and that I am not ordering you to enter Micheal McIntyre. That would be horrible. It was a theatrical flourish. That’s all. Please do not enter Micheal McIntyre.

Not without his permission anyway.

Back to the point: Micheal McIntyre makes people laugh. Lots of them, all at once. In stadiums and sitting rooms. McIntyre is more successful than I could ever hope to be and more successful than any of the comedians I most revere could hope to be. So he’s the perfect example of the comedian as entertainer. And an avowedly populist entertainer. You’re not likely, for example, to find Jerry Sadowitz as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent. Although, that would obviously be the single greatest thing that could ever happen on Britain’s Got Talent. My point is that McIntyre is arguably the most popular comedian in Britain simply because he makes people laugh. And he makes people laugh because he talks about things that people recognise in their everyday lives, right? Classic observational comedy.

Here’s McIntyre’s man-draw bit, which the comedian credits with being the routine that finally pushed him over the top in comedy terms. Every comedian has to have a classic ‘bit’. This is his:

So now then. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that there’s not much going on here beyond the observation. It’s not about politics or art of philosophy or darkness, it’s simply amusing because the audience recognises the reality of it but hasn’t yet articulated it that way:” yeah, a man drawer! men do have those, hahahahahahaha”. This is how one of the youtube commenters put it: “No matter how many times I watch this, I still get a sore tummy from laughing. xD maybe because my dad has a man drawer”.

So McIntyre is just making people laugh, yes? But we already decided (well, I did) that it can’t be good just because it makes people laugh because Bernard Manning made people laugh (his racist man-drawer bit is classic! “oh we’ve all got  a folded up Klan hood in the man drawer, haven’t we?”) but he made them laugh in a way that was exclusionary; a way that made them feel smug about how brilliant it is being white and not a paki or a pooftah or something like that. In short, made them laugh in a way that celebrated their own sense of being ‘normal’. of being the same a severyone else. it was other people who were ‘different’.

A short digression is needed at this point. A reductive history of comedy in Britain goes like this: Stand -up as we know it was from the 60s through the 70s dominated on the one hand by Northern club comics who told racist and sexist jokes cribbed from a book, and Southern Oxbridge educated intellectual types on the other who wrote jokes and sketches about philosophy and literary genres but with a pie in something. You know the sort of thing i mean, ‘oh look its jean paul sartre and he’s eating a really big pie”. Then, coinciding with punk, a new kind of alternative comedy arose where weirdo and freaks wrote their own material and told jokes about feminism and socialist politics. These alternative comedians smashed the old paradigms of what comedy was supposed to look like and what subject matter it could tackle. Stand up became  more than entertainment, it was also a form or personal expression. An art-form. A proper history would take up too much space but can be found here or here. The gist is that stand-up became radicalised, politically engaged and aesthetically experimental.

And before we start romanticising things too much it’s probably worth balancing things out with this sketch from Lee and Herring’s This morning with Richard not Judy about the early days of alternative comedy.

I put that sketch in to avoid being overly sentimental about the days of alternative comedy. Obviously there was a lot of shit, and a lot of pretension and painful ‘right-on’-ness.  But at one of the Malcolm Hardee debates at last year’s festival Janey Godley pointed out the wierd irony of the current state of mainstream stand-up comedy, noticing that although the material was no longer sexist or racist as it was in the seventies, a brief glance  at the comedians dominated chat and panel shows would reveal a succession of middle aged wite men in suits with neat haircuts not a million miles away from the days before alternative comedy. And the reason these besuited merry-makers are doing so well is because they make people laugh in a way that reminds people of their own sense of being normal. This is the very essence of most observational comedy-to say, “I see the things that you see, this is something that well do”. We are all the same and we can all laugh about this same thing together. This is why someone like The Grauniad’s Paul Macinnes argues that:

McIntyre’s humour is more conservative than most comics you’ll see on the circuit. He’s not offensive – not in a Frankie Boyle or Bernard Manning sense – but he observes that Man United sounds like a gay club, before mincing around the stage. He’s not sexist – but men and women always assume traditional roles (and he’s never shy of reminding the audience he’s married). He’s not racist, but he wonders why Scottish Asians have Scottish accents. He’s not a southern snob, but he can milk a good two minutes out of the way Geordies (don’t really) pronounce their vowels. In the end, if I had to point at just one thing that might explain his huge success right now, I would suggest it’s his conservatism. Michael McIntyre, you see, is a comic for the Cameron age.

Now. I’m going to suggest something slightly contentious here. Feeling normal and like we all see the world the same way is rubbish. It’s an evolutionary dead-end. Its safe and its dull. Nothing changes with it. Things can’t change, because then we might be different.It celebrates sameness over difference. And the celebration of sameness over difference is the seed of fascism. Hence my hyprebolic title. Now before everyone gets annoyed with me and thinks I’m calling McIntyre a fascist (I warned you at the start!) let’s consider the career trajectories of two of the greats, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

Here’s Pryor in 1964, still in his early being-a-bit-like Bill Cosby phase:

Note the suit and tie, skits on advertising. This is well-written, well-performed but essentially middle-brow stuff. A few years later Pryor had a career defining insight. From Wikipedia:

In September 1967, Pryor had what he called in his autobiography Pryor Convictions an “epiphany” when he walked onto the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (with Dean Martin in the audience), looked at the sold-out crowd, exclaimed over the microphone “What the f@#k am I doing here!?”, and walked off the stage.

Pryor’s Live and Smokin was filmed four years later. The clothes, the attitude, the language and the material couldn’t be more different. This is definitely not the work of a Bill Cosby knock-off; not the respectable face of Black America. Pryor had found his own voice, if that’s not too arty-farty for you. If it is, well tough, because that’s what happened. Here’s a clip:

The whole thing is up on Youtube here. It’s worth watching. The audience quite seems to have been expecting the Cosby-Pryor and seem kind of freaked out by the metamorphosis.

A similar story from around about the same time is the career of George Carlin. here’s a video of early Carlin on the quiz show, Whats my Line? Skip ahead to 2.15 if you can’t spare four precious minutes of your rapidly depleting life-force.

Over at WMFU’s Beware of the Blog there’s a neat history of the early Carlin years and the description of Carlin’s move away from the style he presents in the clip above towards a more countercultural philosophy and dress sense.

This Carlin veneer was phony then and it’s phony now. Carlin conceded later that it was making him money, making him recognized and making him sick. “The hardest years of my life were the three or four years when I was doing straight, mainstream, bullshit television shows,” he remembered, “I didn’t know my head was different. I didn’t understand that. If I thought about it at nine years of age [the dream of being on television] must still be valid at twenty-one, but it wasn’t – that clicked in… from the acid. Thank God for acid.” 

In George Carlin’s introduction to the book Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities by Paul Krassner (Barricade Books, 2002) he wrote, “As America entered the Magic Decade, I was leading a double life … My affection for pot continued and my disregard for standard values increased, but they lagged behind my need to succeed. The Playboy Club, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan and the Copacabana were all part of a path I found uncomfortable but necessary during the early 1960s. But as the decade churned along and the country changed, I did too. Despite working in ‘establishment’ settings, as a veteran malcontent I found myself hanging out in coffee houses and folk clubs with others who were out-of-step people who fell somewhere between beatnik and hippie. Hair got longer, clothes got stranger, music got better. It became more of a strain for me to work for straight audiences. I took acid and mescaline. My sense of being on the outside intensified. I changed.” Again with Larry Wilde he elaborated, “I began to change in sixty-nine, seventy … That’s when I began to experiment with acid. I had been a pot smoker most of my life … what the acid did was to spring me past the frontier, to artificially get me to the next step … [LSD] pushed me over to see that ‘Hey, I’m wasting my time with these people, I don’t really like them, I’m sort of entertaining the enemy. They’re kind of a safe, play it safe, middle-class audience and I’m playing it safe with them – and I feel differently inside, let me get it out of me!”

Below, just so we can see the difference, is Carlin a few years later in 1978, doing his classic 7 dirty words bit.

Both Carlin and Pryor go from simply making people laugh, which they were already very good at, to making people laugh ‘and more’.  a process which involves ditching the suits and the slick haircuts. Simply entertaining was, as Carlin puts it, ‘playing it safe’. Comedy was a medium which could do so much more. This line of reasoning has a long history in other art forms. Films, literature and painting all have their canons; works are distinguished not just by their capacity to entertain by their thematic complexity, perfection of form or pushing forward of artistic barriers. No one in their right mind claims that a souvenir plate of the royal wedding is as fine a piece of art as a Picasso. And while it might be true that there is a spectrum of taste,  who really want to be the Da Vinci Code or Battleship of stand-up?

Part one of this series (it’s here!) presented the idea that comedy can serve a shamanic function. I summed up by saying:

The historical role of the comedian is both noble and stupid, with a lineage that goes back through jesters and fools to an even older, more mystical, shamanic tradition.  It reminds us that we are dirty, human meat-sacks, but it also reminds us that it is not for those with power to decide what dirty, human meat-sacks are capable of being and doing because even those with authority are also dirty, human meat-sacks. Comedy can reveal the lies and stupidities that keep us small and stunted, it can heal perception and enhance physical functioning. It can do all those things, but that doesn’t mean it always does.

And ended with this quote from Stewart Lee:

“Modern culture doesn’t so much devalue the role of the comedian… comedians have done it to themselves. What are you? Inheritors of the shaman-clown tradition, or people that sell beer and shoes?” 

Fascist is a strong word. I know that, I just like taking the piss. But there is something in the idea that any art, any great art, is only great in as much as it allows us to see the world differently. Comedians like Carlin, Pryor and Bill Hicks use comedy as a means to reveal ugly truths, and to point out the absurdities of our beliefs and social structures. But not everyone has to be a satirist or political with a big P. Modern clowns like Harry Hill do it by being not of this world. They are funny precisely because they are not like the audience, they see the world from a different angle. They make the world strange by virtue of their difference. Which is political with a small p in that anything that takes us out of the 9 to 5, out of the system of thinking that demands that we be the same as others, that we shut up, ignore the worlds troubles because well, ‘you can’t change it can you?’ and instead go happily to work the next day chuckling about the man-drawer; anything that does that is opening new horizons. Of course observational comedy can make the world strange as well though. Think of Sean Lock or this video below of Eddie Izzard talking about supermarkets and fruit:

This is observational comedy but it has moved far beyond simply observing something, or even ringing laughs from the minutiae of it and gone into a surreal flight of fancy. Plus, lest we forget, Izzard’s clothes and make-up put him outside the audience. The shamn’s ritual dress. He is not a man like them who has observed something they have also observed. Some of it is the laughter of recognition, but most of it is delight in the flight of imagination. We can all observe the world. What’s interesting is not what we agree on but how we see things differently.  Laughter is a radical force, ‘man’. So why not use it that way? Being entertained and being stimulated to think aren’t mutually exclusive categories.

I’m sure Micheal McIntyre is a very nice man. And no-one could he deny that he’s not a technically proficient comedian. But I have a dream, and maybe this is a  madman’s dream, that McIntyre follows in the footsteps of Carlin and Pryor before him. That he takes all the comedic skills he has honed these last few years and suddenly becomes radicalized and politically engaged! That the next series of Live at the Appollo culminates in McIntyre delivering a blistering and hilarious riff on the total fucking moral bankruptcy of the monarchy and the sickening modern legacy of the British class system. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

As such, I’d like to end this blog in the only appropriate way. By making an offer to Micheal McIntyre. If you are reading this, come round to my house, and we can take LSD together and read the whole of Das Kapital while Crass play full volume on a constant loop for 8 hours.

You could change the world, dude.

And to end, for no particular reason at all other than its brilliance, the genius that is Charlie Chuck. Bye bye for now.

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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at sjzenarchy@gmail.com. View all posts by Scott Jeffery

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