Comedy is difficult because tragedy can be funny & jokes can sadden audiences

In the final week of the recent  Edinburgh Fringe, I staged five daily hour-long chat shows. In the third show, the guests were English eccentric adventurer Tim Fitzhigham and comedian Patrick Monahan. This is a brief extract:

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Tim Fitzhigham (left) and Patrick Monahan chat in Edinburgh

Tim Fitzhigham (left) & Patrick Monahan chat in Edinburgh

JOHN: Remind us what your background is, Patrick.

PATRICK: Me dad is Irish, me mum’s Iranian and I grew up in Teesside in North East England.

TIM: It’s almost the set-up for a joke… A Geordie, an Iranian and an Irish guy…

PATRICK: Well, I did a gig in Germany and they were laughing at the set-ups, not the punchlines. I would say Me dad’s from Ireland, me mum’s from Iran… and they’d go Ha ha! Oh yes!… and I’d think I’ve not done the joke yet. Then I’d add: We spent most of our family holidays in Customs and they wouldn’t laugh. They’d react Yes, that is true.

I did those jokes for a few years but I thought I don’t want to get pigeon-holed. One year, I’d like to just talk about the Irish-Iranian background stuff. But I don’t think I’ve matured enough as a comic yet to do that. It gets quite serious and you think Oh god, do people really want to hear about…

TIM: Well, the stuff you want to talk about in a serious way… I tried it and people were crying with laughter. I was going into what was, in my head, a very moving section of my show about when our family home sank and… (AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)… You see? It’s already started. I thought this was my confessional minute and I was explaining how, when I was a child, my father would just close off the doors and lock them because they’d gone under the water line. I thought it was a real, emotional tear-jerker and I said to the audience: Dad closed the kitchen door and he locked it and said Don’t play in there any more and then he turned to me and said Where’s the cat? I was really moved by that. The cat had gone under the water line. The cat had drowned. But the way I phrased it must have been a disaster, because the audience was weeping with laughter.

PATRICK: Once, about a year ago, I was playing a theatre in Didcot and thought I’d do some personal stuff. I had a joke about my grandparents – the Iranian and the Irish. There was one point where our families didn’t speak when I was growing up. I told the audience, as a kid, I loved old people, but our family never spoke – the Irish and the Iranians. So I said I used to go to old people’s homes with biscuits, just so old people would talk to me. And the whole audience just went Aaawwwwww….. I’m trying to do a joke here but, for a minute, they were just Aaawwwwwwing and I thought What have I done here? They were all really sad. So I thought OK, let’s talk about something different. So I never really touch on the personal stuff now.

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