Tag Archives: laughter

Why I don’t trust people who have no wrinkles on their faces…

Are lines on a face necessarily a good thing? (Photo: Pierrick Van-Troost via UnSplash)

Continuing on from yesterday’s blog about how you can seldom learn much from watching perfection but you can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own)…

I don’t trust people over a certain age who have totally wrinkle-free foreheads and no spidery skin wrinkles at the side of their eyes. This tends to go against the prevailing orthodoxy that everyone should look young and wrinkle-free.

But, if you don’t have any wrinkles, you haven’t experienced bad times. In fact, you haven’t experienced much at all. So you are likely (I am not saying certainly) to be less than averagely sympathetic to or understanding of other people’s problems.

A wrinkle isn’t just a one-off frown or a one-off laugh with the eyes.

It is the result of repeated somethings.

Of course, if you have had a shit time, you may have gone to the other extreme and have turned into a soul-less bastard with no empathy, sympathy or any other form of pathy except possibly psychopathy.

Mass murderers and evil incarnates tend, I think, to have quite lined faces too.

So a wrinkly face ain’t always a guarantee of anything. 

But at least it doesn’t mean the person is a shallow, inexperienced, inward-looking shell of a half-human who sees the world only by looking outward and not by trying to see the world from other people’s viewpoints.

Poet WH Auden – a man famous for his memorable lines…

I think this obsession with wrinkles came about when an English teacher at my school went on-and-on in awe-struck admiration at the look of poet WH Auden’s face, telling us something like: “Just look at all the experience in that face!”

I remember sitting in a tube train after that looking at my reflection in the window opposite and raising my eyebrows to create wrinkles in my forehead… then being disappointed when, lowering my eyebrows, the skin on my forehead returned to its virgin, furrow-free blandness.

Now the top half of my face, given the wrong type of side-lighting, can look like a cross between a furrowed field and the number of lines in Tolstoy’s War & Peace and it will only get worse.

On the other hand – or face – there is only a very thin dividing line between being experienced in a good way that may show admirable humanity and being a wrinkly old fucker, possibly psychopathic, sat in the corner mumbling into his own beard, beer or spittle.

I think I may go and have a lie-down now.

This is what an ageing app thinks I will look like when I am older, though it is pretty-much me now…

Leave a comment

Filed under Age, Psychology

How to perform a comedy show to an audience with dementia in a care home

Ben Targét (left) & Pope Lonergan are working on a project

So I chatted to comedy performers Pope Lonergan and Ben Targét…

“The two of you have this joint project,” I said. “Does it have a name?”

“At the moment,” Pope told me, “it just has the banner title of The Care Home Tour. One thing we are doing is a three-hour Alzheimer’s benefit Forgetting But Not Forgotten, organised with Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray in London on 2nd October. Lots of different comedians.”

“It’s a great line-up,” said Ben. “Richard Gadd, Lou Sanders, Robin Ince, Candy Gigi, lots more.”

“And,” said Pope, “we are doing two Work In Progress shows in the lead-up to that. We are doing those with Fight in the Dog, which is Liam Williams’ production company. The whole thing is being supported by NextUp and they’re partially funding it.”

“And these shows lead to?” I asked.

“A performance that is specifically tailored for an audience with dementia in a care home. I mean, anyone can enjoy it, but the feed line/punch line of a conventional joke is too complicated. They can’t follow the logic of it. Instead, they respond with a visceral, limbic response to visual comedy and physical comedy – the slapstick stuff.”

“What is limbic?” I asked.

Cross section of the human brain showing parts of the limbic system from below. (Illustration from Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, 1786)

“The limbic system,” Pope explained. “When we process music. It’s an emotional response, a visceral response; it’s like our primitive brain. It’s what develops early in children. There’s a correlation between child development and mental deterioration.”

“So the humour,” I said, “must not be too sophisticated.”

“A perfectly-structured joke is not gonna land,” said Pope.

“It’s got to be driven,” Ben added, “by the visual rather than by words. How the residents are stimulated is no longer through wordplay or story.”

“But they can,” I checked, “be stimulated through sound and music and audio effects?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Pope. “100%. Even when they have really advanced dementia, if you start singing something like Knees Up, Mother Brown, they all know the words.”

“Is there,” I asked, “a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Pope explained: “Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term. There’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s… My nan and David Baddiel’s dad both had Pick’s Disease – frontal lobe dementia – and that made my nan very libidinous. She was having sex with a lot of the men in the care home.”

“At what age?” I asked.

“About 85. She done well. Every time we went in, one of the carers would come over to my dad and say: Mark… A word? And my dad would come out pale, saying: Yer nan’s been at it again.”

“Is anyone going to be offended if I print that?” I asked.

Ben Targét & Pope Lonergan take afternoon tea

“No, no,” said Pope. “Good on her, you know? People with dementia obviously have diminished responsibility. They don’t really know what they’re consenting to etc, so there’s a line. But we have a husband and wife in the home who have been married 60 years. We have caught them in flagrante having sex and some people have said: We need to stop them. But that was not policy. It was just some people projecting their own discomfort. They are a married couple. They are adults. They are married. Why on earth would you stop them?”

“At a certain age,” said Ben, “we stop seeing people as adults and they become infantilised in our eyes. I don’t know if we are trained to or whether it is innate.”

“And that’s where it’s tricky,” Ben added. “Infantilised means dehumanised. The efficacy of their brain is not what it used to be but they are still adult, complex human beings.”

“I can say,” I checked with Pope, “that you work in the care industry?”

“Of course you can,” he told me.

“I am always wary,” I explained, “about saying comedians have a ‘proper’ daytime job because punters want to think of them as full-time professional comics.”

“Most of us have proper jobs,” said Ben.

“But sometimes don’t want to admit to it,” I suggested.

“We should, though,” said Ben. “I think it makes us way cooler. You get far more respect from people if you are grounded in reality.”

“Yeah,” said Pope. “Some comics think they are de-legitimised by it – Oh, my God, I’m actually part of the real world! I actually have a real job!”

“So you work in a care home,” I said to Pope, “but Ben, how did you get involved in this?”

“I used to work in care homes as well,” he told me, “as a teenager – when I was about 16 or 17. And recently Josie Long introduced me to Pope because he was looking to work with people who do physical and visual comedy. So I am trying to assemble a troupe who are willing to embrace the project.

October 2nd Benefit before the gig on 9th

“We are building to this first gig on October 9th in the care home and we do think of it as like the first exploration vessel that’s been sent out. We are hoping to reassess afterwards and then, in the New Year, do more gigs across the country in care homes.”

“There are,” Pope said, “loads of comedians who have expressed an interest. Sara Pascoe used to do theatre productions for people with dementia in care homes.”

“And there’s David Baddiel,” Ben added. “And Adam Riches – who has a lot of experience in his family of dementia and caring for people. And Phil Nichol. I’m interested to see Phil because, every time I have seen him, he’s got naked on stage and yelled at the audience!”

“Then,” said Pope, “there’s John Kearns. And Deborah Frances-White has been very supportive: she was the one who got David Baddiel interested. And Josie Long has been vital in putting it all together.

“I had done some of Josie’s gigs at the Black Heart. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my experiences in the care home into my stand-up act.

“Josie said: I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience of working in the home to your act. I told her: The problem is there’s a bit of dualism there. The way they act is not like the normal way ‘we’ behave. So you love the residents, you’re compassionate, you really care for them, but there is also a day-to-day blackly comic streak that you can’t put on stage because it would just sound horrible: that you are laughing at vulnerable people.

“The first time I done it, it was a bit too nasty, really. I didn’t intend it to be like that, but I hadn’t honed the material and it just came across as a bit mean-spirited. Afterwards, this woman who was apparently a High Court judge was shouting at me about it. It’s sort-of a tight-rope walk.”

“Even more so,” I suggested, “when performing to people with dementia?”

Josie Long said: “I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience to your act.”

“There are so many different types of dementia,” said Pope. “With some, the language centre (in the brain) has really diminished. Some have still got linguistic capacity – really good – they can process it. But still the normal, conventional joke is a bit too convoluted for them. So I always do things like shit gymnastics or shit karate. Anything that’s a minor spectacle they really respond to and laugh at.”

“Surreal,” I said, “rather than verbal.”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Pope. “Anything that is a minor spectacle and visual and silly. If you do wry observational comedy about Donald Trump, it won’t work.”

“Will seeing comedy,” I asked, “actually help them or is it just passing the time?”

“It is definitely better for their welfare,” said Pope, “in that there is a deficit in certain types of stimulation. When it comes to interaction, they don’t want to get up and be physically active, but they do want to be engrossed in something. They do want to sit there and watch something.

“We have told the comedians who are involved that they will have to re-calibrate their idea of what a successful gig is. There ain’t gonna be uproarious laughter. There ain’t gonna be the energy of a comedy club. But, even if the audience are not outwardly laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not stimulated and enjoying what they are watching. They always feel better after they have experienced some kind of entertainment.”

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

Why audiences do not need to laugh for a live comedy show to be successful

.

Dumbing-down will never be an option for intelligent, increasingly-prestigious comedy commentators like us

This evening, I recorded the latest weekly Grouchy Club Podcast with comedy critic Kate Copstick.

We were possibly going to talk about the art of writing but, as usual, we got sidetracked. So we ended up talking, among other things, about great new UK comedy acts we had seen, the time when Copstick played Carnegie Hall, the abstract joy of listening to foreign-language comedy, why UK audiences laugh, why Chinese audiences do not necessarily react, why Copstick describes me as “the goldfish of comedy” and the death of US theatre producer Calvin Wynter.

We also talked about why audiences do not need to laugh for a comedy show to be successful. Here is a tiny part of that conversation:


JOHN
You can do a 60-minute comedy show and, if it’s intellectually stimulating and fascinating, it doesn’t really need three-laughs-a-minute.

COPSTICK
I think one of the things that comics need to remember is that the show is for the audience. If the audience are loving it quietly, that’s fine. Out-Loud laughter is really for the comic – to reassure him or her that they’re doing tremendously well and that the audience absolutely adore them and are hanging on their every word.

Some comics will say: Oh! Smiling’s no use to me… Well, I (the audience) am not here for you. I am here for me. I have paid money to sit and enjoy this show however I choose to enjoy this show.

JOHN
But it is difficult to react to an audience that you can’t ‘read’ – and you can’t read them very easily if they don’t laugh.

COPSTICK
Well, you should be able to – if you’re a professional performer.


The full 36-minute podcast is available HERE.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy

Comedians: humorous or humorless? Me: a terrible comedy audience member

Laugh oh laugh oh laugh

Laugh oh laugh oh… Are comedians humorous or humorless?

Last night, I went to a drinks party held by the comedy agency Mirth Control. Most of their acts were there plus a few non-performers like me.

I got talking to one of the other non-Mirth Control acts and they told me that one of their friends had – of course – said: “Oh, that’ll be fun! Lots of comedians in a room together! Lots of laughs!”

But, of course, when comedians get together, they are not their stage personas. And, with the friend’s comment in mind, this non-stand-up comedian asked me: “Are comedians humorous or humorless?”

I had and have no answer.

I always tend to say all comedians are barking mad. If I were more PC, I might say they were “psychologically interesting”. Which they certainly are.

Though there is, I think, a slight psychological difference between stand-ups, storytellers and actors-pretending-to-be-comedians (of which there are a depressing number).

The other cliché about comedians – in addition to being barking mad – would be Pagliacci – the sad clown who makes audiences laugh but who is sad inside.

So comedians… Neurotic, sometimes tortured schizos with social disorders.

So far so good.

But are they – in themselves – humorous or humorless?

Well…

They are obviously interested in jokes and humorous situations but, in a sense, why on earth would they make jokes or try to make other people laugh socially when they can make money by filing away anything humorous and using it on stage?

I think that is sensible.

What’s with all the comedy gags on Twitter?

What’s with giving all these comedy gags on Twitter for free?

But, then, I do not understand Twitter, which is awash with comedians giving away one-liners for free. I have no idea what logic is at work here.

Also, in the humorous-humorless question/answer there is the analytical factor at play.

I am a terrible audience member partly (I think) because my background was in television and you tended to keep quiet during recordings, even if they were performances by comedians.

And also partly because I am often listening to the style in which they say something rather than just what they say. So, though internally appreciative, I don’t react externally.

I remember standing with comedian/compere Malcolm Hardee at opposite sides of a pillar in his Up The Creek comedy club during an early performance by comic Charlie Chuck. I looked at Malcolm and he looked at me and both of us were crying with laughter. I think it may have been the only time I ever saw Malcolm cry with laughter.

But Charlie Chuck was not doing standard gag-based stand-up. It was the surrealism and the passionate physical performance mixed with the surrealism that pushed both Malcolm et moi over the edge.

Malcolm, like most comics, tended to watch other comedians’ stand-up acts without laughing at them; but then might say: “That was brilliant” or “That was very funny”. And he would mean it. Because he had been analysing the content and delivery at the same time he was appreciating the act.

I attempt to demonstrate an appreciative smile

I attempt to demonstrate an appropriately appreciative smile

I tend to do the same thing. My redeeming feature, apparently, is that I smile appreciatively if I think I can be seen by the performer, which is slightly reassuring.

I had my comeuppance a few weeks ago when I was four rows back, enjoying a particular comedian who did not know me but, apparently, I was sitting there stoney-faced with my arms folded. So the comic made it his mission to turn by taciturn humorlessness into laugh-out-loud enjoyment. I could not manage the laugh-out-loud bit believably, but I manage to chortle enough to deflect his attention away from me.

None of which answers the question Are comedians humorous or humorless? but, like comedy performances, blogs cannot always be golden pinnacles of orgasmic success.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy

Why comedy club owner Vivienne Soan wants me to fake laughter & happiness

Vivienne’s ABC Laughter Club flyer

I was lured into this by masking the yogic element in  laughter

“It’s a unique concept where everybody can laugh without having to rely on humour or comedy or jokes,” Vivienne Soan told me.

“That could be very useful for some comedy acts I’ve sat through at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

Vivienne and her husband Martin Soan run the bizarre and always entertaining monthly comedy club Pull The Other One in South East London and in Leipzig.

Yesterday, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to the first of Vivienne’s laughter workshops at The Old Nun’s Head in Nunhead, South East London, the same venue as Pull The Other One. She is holding another free ABC Laughter Club tonight and on Wednesday & Thursday for the next two weeks to see if it is viable to set up a regular club.

As we got out of the car, my eternally-un-named friend said: “I don’t know if I can do yoga any more.”

“It’s not yoga,” I said. “It’s just lots of people laughing.”

“No,” she insisted. “It’s yoga. It’s called Laughter Yoga.”

“I must have missed the yoga word,” I said, “I can’t stand on my head. My stomach would stop me. I would be top heavy and fall over. I will claim I can’t do it because of my time in ’Nam.”

“That was only a holiday,” said my eternally-un-named friend.

“I still have flashbacks to Vietnam,” I said. “I may never get over it.”

“You went ten years after the War finished!”

“Post-traumatic sympathy symptoms,” I suggested. “I still wear black pyjamas.”

“What has that got to do with it?” she asked.

“You had to be there,” I said.

But she was right about the new club. Yoga was involved.

Vivienne at her Laughter Club yesterday

Vivienne (right) at Laughter Club yesterday (Photo by my eternally-un-named friend)

“Laughter Yoga is a combination of laughter as an exercise and yogic breathing,” explained Vivienne. “It oxygenates the whole body and makes you feel more healthy and energetic.

“I have a cough,” I said.

“You can breathe in and out of any orifice you are capable of using,” Vivienne told me.

“I might fart,” I said.

“We have whoopee cushions on the chairs,” said Vivienne. “You could just pretend you’re sitting down.”

“Why is it called the ABC Laughter Club?” I asked.

“Because,” said Vivienne, “ my mother died about five days after I went to my Laughter Yoga leadership course with the Laughter Yoga University and my mother was very well known for her extraordinary laughter and sneezing. So I’ve named my Laughter Club after my mother and her initials were ABC – Alison Bazille-Corbin. So it’s in recognition of her laugh and the tremendous happiness she gave to anybody she had anything to do with.”

“So how did this whole Laughter Yoga thing start?” I asked.

Some of yesterday’s group laughing horizontally

Yesterday: London people laugh horizontally (Photograph by Vivienne Soan)

“There was a Dr Madan Kataria in India,” Vivienne told me. “He started in a park in Mumbai with just five people. They began by just telling jokes to each other and laughing. Then they got bored or people started telling bad jokes.

“But they’d all felt much better after laughing, so he set up a scientific study and found laughter makes people feel, behave and act differently if they start off the day just by simulating laughter and happiness even if they don’t feel it. There’s maybe not many reasons for people to laugh in India, but there was a huge response in terms of people’s feeling of wellbeing. Their immune systems were boosted and their stress levels were lowered.”

“Do you want to talk about your own physical problems?” I asked. “Or is that too personal?”

“Well,” said Vivienne, “I have bronchiectasis in the two bottom lobes of my lungs. The right and left hand sides are actually dead. If you think of a piece of broccoli with plastic bags over the bushy broccoli heads, that’s what the bottom part of my lobes look like. They don’t function. They’re supposed to move the air and liquid around. All lungs have got some liquid in them, which is part of the lungs’ function.

“About five years ago, I was suffering from this chronic wheeze and whistle and general lung breathlessness. There was a fear it might be emphysema. Bronchiectasis is a form of emphysema, but it’s not as pervasive. As long as you don’t allow any more scar tissue to develop through infection, you’re OK.

“Every day, I have to do exercises to move the fluid up through my lungs. I used to play the saxophone a lot, which did that – and that meant the function of my lungs has kept at a very good capacity. But I’m not able to play so much any more because, if I did it a lot, every time I played a solo I would end up coughing, which doesn’t look that good on the stage.

“I don’t like much physical exertion – I don’t like running, I don’t actually like yoga or aerobic exercises. I’m a bit like you, John. I quite like sitting round eating lots of biscuits and chocolate.”

“So, instead,” I said, “you’re starting this Laughter Club.”

“Yes and I already participated in conference laughter calls. At 7 o’clock every morning, I phone a conference line of laughter. It costs £5 a month and, every morning, between 7.00am and 7.10am, everyone laughs constantly for ten minutes. It’s fabulous exercise. It clears the lungs, oxygenates the body, puts you in a good mood, sets off the seratonin and the happy hormones and keeps your husband awake. It’s a Win-Win situation for me.”

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Health, Yoga

Jewish comic Sol Bernstein soars while Lewis Schaffer frets about good news

“Ah! You’re John Fleming. You don’t like character comedy,” said character comic Sol Bernstein when he saw me leaving Vivienne and Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One comedy club in SE London last night.

“I generally don’t,” I replied. “But you were brilliant tonight. Utterly brilliant.”

And he was.

In fact, there was not an even remotely duff act on the show.

PTOO's Silver Peevil last night

PTOO’s Silver Peevil last night

Character act Barbara Nice had the entire audience on its feet singing and dancing along. Oram & Meeten were as crowd-pleasing as always (that’s a compliment); Danish comedian Sofie Hagen, in only a three-minute spot, appeared to successfully go way off script in highly-confident and highly-successful audience interaction; and there was what was claimed to be the world premiere of extraordinary character act The Silver Peevil – very funny – a scantily-clad retro visitor from Venus circa 1935.

All this plus the Greatest Show on Legs in a pre-show-start act which involved Martin Soan  with a Campbell’s soup can round his neck a la The Producers and a post-show event in which he literally carried his wife Vivienne off stage.

I think the word “variety” springs to mind.

That has been the word of the week.

The previous night I saw the penultimate Mat Ricardo’s London Varieties at the Leicester Square Theatre (last show this year and possibly forever is next month). That managed to smoothly blend admirably foul-mouthed Jenny Eclair, an extraordinary ping-pong act by Rod Laver (not the tennis champion), a So and So Circus dance acrobat duo and veteran comic Jimmy Cricket.

Susan Harrison’s  Cabarera audience

Susan Harrison’s Cabarera audience might be new alternative

The previous day, I had chatted to Susan Harrison about her Cabarera Club (more on that in a future blog) and been interviewed by Si Hawkins for an upcoming piece in Fest magazine about what may or may not follow ‘alternative comedy’.

It feels as if Variety/Cabaret may be the answer, though who knows? Not me.

‘Alternative Comedy’ at the late Malcolm Hardee’s clubs – and many others in the days when it really was alternative – meant shows where you saw some stand-up comedians and perhaps a music act, a juggler, a possibly psychotic indescribable act and perhaps a man torturing teddy bears (bring back that act!)

Possibly the most bizarre two things in a very odd evening last night, though, happened outside the venue after Pull The Other One had finished.

Vivienne Soan told me she had stumbled on what was, to both of us, an unknown sub-culture of Laughter Clubs scattered around the country.

“I’ve never heard of them,” I said.

“Neither had I,” said Vivienne. “They’re all over the country.”

“Maybe they are like Fight Clubs,” I suggested. “You must never talk about them.”

“They have £175 lessons,” Vivienne told me, “where they teach you how to laugh. And they give you a certificate afterwards. I think they really ARE having a laugh.”

Shortly afterwards, I had a chat with comedian Lewis Schaffer, who does not normally go to other people’s shows but had been bullied into going to Pull The Other One by his tenant. (He has tenants; he’s Jewish; what can I say?)

“I’m depressed,” he told me.

“Great,” I said. “You’re at your best when you’re depressed. What has happened?”

“My Leicester Square show has been extended again,” he said, glumly.

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Lewis Schaffer, with no shoes

His weekly show Lewis Schaffer’s American Guide To England started in March this year, for an 8-week run. It was then extended for a few weeks. Then extended to the end of July. And now it has been extended again until next March (with a break for the Edinburgh Fringe in August).

“It’s a disaster,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“You mean it sounds too successful and Lewis Schaffer does not ‘do’ success?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It will all end in tears.”

“You could always start torturing teddy bears on stage,” I said.

Lewis Schaffer looked at me. There was a pause.

“You’re just trying to make me feel better,” he said. “It’s going to be a disaster.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m Lewis Schaffer,” he said.

“You have a point there,” I agreed. “But don’t worry. Look on the bright side. Maybe it will never happen. Success.”

Despite my attempt at reassurance, Lewis Schaffer walked into the night, his brow furrowed, fretting about the unwelcome possibility of success.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour

“What are we laughing at?”

I got an e-mail from a friend who has a four-year-old son. It reads:

LettuceLeaf

“What are we laughing at?” he asked.

Yesterday afternoon he was naughty and I sat him down to have a serious tête-à-tête, speaking to him very sombrely about how important it is to be nice to mummies etc and how big boys don’t shout and scream etc.

At the end of this long monologue he’d sat through straight-faced, I asked him: “What have you got to say to me?”

He reached across and picked a small piece of lettuce leaf off my cheek that had apparently got stuck there and replied : “Mummy’s got a lettuce leaf on her face”.

Oh, great. So all he heard was blah-blah-blah for half an hour and all he saw was lettuce.

This struck me as so funny I literally fell off my chair (further ruining my serious talk) in a fit of giggles that he joined me in, only to ask five minutes in: “What are we laughing at?”

Leave a comment

Filed under Children