Today’s Metro newspaper contains a feature on The Giants of Comedy to which I was asked to contribute a piece on “the weirder acts to look out for”. Metro describes me as an “alternative comedy champion”.
In this blog, I try to tell short stories with a rounded ending about interesting people doing interesting (mostly creative) things. Very often they are comedians. Very rarely do I write about myself although regular readers might be able to make up a patchwork impressionistic picture of my life.
You might wonder why am I interested in weird comedy acts.
Or you might not.
I have mentioned in past, dimly remembered blogs that I tried to commit suicide when I was newly 18 and that I was briefly in a mental hospital.
So why do I enjoy watching comedy?
Throughout my life, most of my income came from the promotion departments of TV companies. I was employed to write words and edit trailers which would persuade people to watch TV programmes – trying to manipulate their perception so that the ratings would be higher.
I am interested in the use of words and the manipulation of perception. So I am interested in how sentences and performances can be structured to make audiences laugh and the different reasons why people laugh – or, indeed, cry – timing, surprise, unexpected twists, incongruity, recognition, whatever.
Occasionally but rarely, in random spurts, I have kept diaries.
This morning, because of the Dave Lee Travis court verdict yesterday, I looked up my diary for around the suicide attempt/mental home time. The reason – possibly pompous – was connected to two quotes which came to my mind:
1) “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” (L.P.Hartley)
2) “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (Lots of French people)
These are some edited extracts from my diary. The first is when I was in hospital after my failed suicide attempt. I tried to kill myself with tablets on a Friday.
“My parents visited me every day in hospital. On the Sunday, they brought me fruit. And, to cut it, one highly-polished, silver-shining, sharply serrated-edged knife. And, after they had gone, I looked at that knife and looked and looked and picked it up and looked. I ran my finger along the serrated edge and looked and ran the edge along my wrist and looked. And felt the point against my finger and against my wrist. And I only just managed to give it to a nurse.
“Which is why, when I got out of hospital, I panicked and my insides were like kitchen crockery in a house above a tube-train tunnel. And it was very difficult to keep a straight face. I could not think straight and my mental reactions were so slow. That horrified me. It was like being in Death Valley with the noonday sun three times closer than it should be.”
At that time, if you tried to commit suicide – especially aged 18 – I think there was a tendency to suggest you might want to go into a mental home.
And I did want to rest, to be away from people, because I was so nervy and because I was afraid of what I might do if I did not go in.
When I went in, a doctor ‘interviewed’ me and suggested I could talk to his students when he gave a lecture later in the week. But I just wanted to be alone.
They gave me ‘happy pills’ and sleeping pills that first night and I went from deep depression to a sky-high high before I went to sleep. But I did not want to be high.
In the mental hospital, I wrote this:
“The Mad Hatter pops in: a James Joyce with a blue Embassy cigarette coupon stuck in his greased hair. The lights go on at a quarter to four and then go off again. No-one has entered the room. The mad room.
“My Little Lady by The Tremeloes plays at quarter volume on the wartime radio. When I came in last night, it was violins and classical music on the radio, like a TV play about old people dying, dead in seaside boarding houses in the off-season.
“My right side throbs. It is Visiting Hour. Or something. People talk in whispers. It is late afternoon and the afternoon has gone to greyness.
“This morning, an enormous pigeon threw itself against the windowpane of the door, saw where it was and fled away. Before I arrived here, the clear-skinned 23-year-old boy threw the red vinyl table through the window and was caught by a nurse. The friendly, backward boy gets violent occasionally. He throws teacups and saucers, matchboxes and plastic orange juice bottles.
“When he talks to me, he keeps wanting me to be the active, adventurous type. He keeps saying how active he was and how he liked exploring, finding ruins and exploring remote bogs. He and his family – his three sisters and one brother – were nomads around Europe in the last, hard decade.
“He tells me his mother is such an incredible mixture. His girlfriend Evie is from Chelmsford. He tells me he met her in Occupational Therapy. But now she has gone to OT in Exeter. She used to visit him.
“He sings the song Me My Friend as Be My Friend. With gusto. He says he misses Evie. He tells other people I am his friend and keeps telling me to tell him if he talks too much. He sits there in his wheelchair with his eyes of water. Sparkling. Nothing else. Just water.”
There is a clip on YouTube of Family singing Me My Friend.
“The male nurse in the ward tells me he has a strong right hand. He says he ‘does it’ twice a day or twice a week. Depending on how he feels. He asks have I ever let anyone else do it. He goes on and on. He tells all the patients this and talks about going to out-buildings with them.”
I discharged myself from the mental home after a day but nothing that happened there seemed strange.
Several years later, I went back to Claybury Asylum to interview a doctor for a piece I was writing. As I sat waiting in the corridor, the only way you could tell patients from staff as they passed by was the speed at which they walked: the patients walked slower, because they were sedated and had no purpose.
Yesterday, DJ Dave Lee Travis was found guilty of groping the breasts of a woman – then a TV researcher, now a ‘TV personality’ – for around 15 seconds in 1995. On TV last night, a Sunday Times reporter (who never brought charges and was not involved in the court case) said he groped her too. It seemed a very 1960s or 1970s thing to do. But it happened in 1995.
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
So why do I like comedy?
Because I am laughing at life, not with life.
I like dark humour. I am fascinated that ‘unacceptable’ and non-funny subjects like rape, murder, death, drug addiction and madness and all the rest can be made to be funny. And I like surrealism : the twisting/manipulation of reality into meaninglessness. For example, in this morning’s Metro, I mentioned that The Human Loire says he is the only French river playing the UK comedy circuit and that his act includes enunciating passages in Middle English from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales while pouring milk onto Corn Flakes inside his trousers. It also includes using a hammer to nail grapes onto a large cut-out of Justin Bieber’s face while gargling Sophocles’ Ode To Man using Listerene antiseptic mouthwash.
When he does this, the surrealism makes me laugh.
When other people TRY to be surreal by doing equally meaningless things, I do not laugh.
I do not know but I would like to know.
So I watch comedy.
At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, there was one show where I laughed out loud (a rare thing) throughout. It was Johnny Sorrow performing as part of the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society. A couple sitting to my left sat mostly stone-faced throughout.
When Johnny imitated the sadly mostly-forgotten comedy act Bernie Clifton prancing around in an ostrich costume I laughed out loud. When he said Don’t talk to me!… Don’t talk to me! I laughed out loud.
I do not know. I just found it overwhelmingly funny.
The other factor in being interested in comedy, of course, is that people who perform it well – who have true originality and who are not just copying what they have seen on TV as part of a business plan – are mostly, in some way, damaged.
Damaged people are interesting people.
But then, when you get to know them, most people are damaged.