Today, I am on a 12-hour train journey back to London from Leipzig. I am posting this blog from Frankfurt.
Comedian Nick Revell left Leipzig yesterday morning.
Before he left, I asked him about his daily Tai Chi exercises.
“Any similarity with stand-up comedy?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose stand-up is like a dance,” he replied, “in that you’re interacting with the audience, ideally imposing your plan on them.
“In Tai Chi, you are learning the martial arts moves. If someone attacks, you deflect and defend and then you hit. In stand-up, you’re rolling with whatever comes your way and incorporating that into the act, whether it’s changes of direction or deflections of a heckle or whatever.”
“I suppose,” I said, “that, once you’ve done comedy for a fair bit of time, you’ve learnt a set of moves…”
“Yes,” agreed Nick, “In Tai Chi, you learn a set of moves and link them together in a standard way – a learnt sequence of appropriate responses. In comedy, once you’ve done it for a fair time, you have also learnt a sequence of appropriate responses which you can adapt to fit the situation. But then, when you’re in a real situation, of course, you do whatever is necessary in the moment. To get to the point where all those moves are natural to you and they’ve got into the muscle memory, it’s practice practice practice. Then you can bring one out at the right time and then change to something else.”
“Have you read William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade,” I asked, “where he says….”
“Yes,” said Nick, completing my sentence: “Nobody KNOWS anything.”
“Because creating things is not a science,” I said. “It’s an art… Also a performer cares what the audience thinks of them as a person.”
“Except I certainly don’t get worked up about an audience ‘liking’ me or not,” said Nick. “The idea of wanting to be ‘liked’ by the audience and doing it to be admired in some kind of pervy I wanna be your friend way… That just seems really odd to me.”
“For me it’s about having some vague sense of an instinct about how you want to communicate certain ideas and opinions through a particular medium which, for whatever reason, I have some kind of aptitude for. It’s not about using it in order to make friends that I’m never going to meet. That’s what Facebook is for.”
“So,” I said, why ARE you doing it? To force your ideas down other people’s throats?”
“No,” said Nick, “not to force ‘em at all. Absolutely not.”
“Isn’t it like going to Speakers’ Corner and getting paid?” I suggested.
“No it’s not,” argued Nick.”Because you have the rule to judge it by that it has to be funny or it has to get a laugh or, if it’s not getting a laugh at a certain point, it’s because you’re doing so deliberately. You can guarantee you’re not shoving anything down someone’s throat if you’re generating a laugh. I think mediating it through the generation of a laugh is what keeps it as Art rather that just a nutter yelling at people at Speakers’ Corner.”
“But there is the performer’s wild insecurity,” I said.
“Well,” said Nick, “when you see people starting off in comedy, very often the fundamental attitude that does come across is Please like me and that really has nothing to do with it at all. The more you do it, the more points you can go to anywhere from where you are and you don’t have to do things in a set order. The attitude should not be Please like me. It should be I’m here and I know what I’m doing. Whether it’s surrealist or polemical or satirical, it’s about a sense of authority.”
“But,” I said, “after 10 or 20 years, most comedians are still terrified, aren’t they? They have just learnt how to mask the Please like me face.”
“I don’t think it’s about masking it,” said Nick. “I think you find different ways of focussing.”
“You mean masking it from yourself,” I suggested.
“I don’t think you…” said Nick, “Well, maybe. But it’s more a case that once you know what you’re doing, the focus is at a different level. You’re always aware it could go tits-up. Like, in cricket, a batsman might get an incredible unplayable first ball so, to an extent, you have to accept what’s in the hands of Fate that you can’t control.
“In stand-up, you get a sense of what you can expect from the room and what’s possible or not possible. Sometimes playing an unplayable room is really relaxing because, if it’s unplayable, then you know you can’t succeed, so you might as well do it with no fear of failure.”
“But,” I said, “surely being a stand-up comedian is just masochism. If a comedian goes on stage and does the most brilliant gig of their career, they think I can never be that good again. If they do a shit gig, it just confirms they are as bad as they have always feared they might be.”
“Well, when I started again in stand-up around 2003 after ten years off,” replied Nick, “I was terrified because I had not done it for so long and I thought All I can do is lose my reputation. I knew I would inevitably lose my reputation before I regained it. I knew it would take time to get back into it. So I thought I’m not going to judge myself on every gig. I’m going to take it in stages and assess it every six months. I think to judge yourself gig by gig is silly but, again, maybe it relates to why you’re doing it.”
“You seem to be doing it,” I suggested, “because you want to show to yourself that you have a mastery of the technique.”
“No,” said Nick. “I do like the feeling of entertaining an audience. There’s nothing more delightful than feeling the audience in a room are, in some way, bonded in the same energy. I honestly don’t think it’s a case of Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. It’s just that on certain lucky, rare nights, you are the agency that generates something which exists in-between you and the audience and really feels fantastic. It has fuck-all to do with showing off; it’s about channeling that ‘thing’ and also about expressing your own ideas. I don’t see it as being liked. I see it as talking about ideas that interest me in a way that generates laughs or, at least, generates interest in other people.”
“The other way I try to goad comedians,” I pointed out, “is to say they’re all psychopaths. You want to control the audience to such an extent that they lose control over their basic bodily functions. They can’t stop themselves from laughing: you control their laughter.”
“For me, it’s not about controlling an audience,’ said Nick. “It’s the feeling that something I can do can put people into this mood. Do you see the distinction?”
“You get a kick out of your workmanlike ability,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Nick. “Absolutely. And sometimes it becomes so totally instinctive. Like in martial arts. Friends of mine who are really good martial artists tell me that, when they’re fighting and really in the zone, everything slows down and there’s some kind of sense you’re so in control of it you’re not aware of doing it.
“Through technical ability and practice practice practice you can get to a point where it’s so instinctive that, if you trust yourself far enough not to think about being in control of it, you can get to a place where all the instincts that have been tempered and put in place through practice practice practice take over.”
“That sounds like Luke Skywalker at the end of the first Star Wars,” I said, “learning he has to let The Force be with him.”
“Absolutely it is,” agreed Nick.