I am not averse to a good dramatic performance, love a powerful play, adore a musical and have even, on a rare occasion, not hated a one man show. I am a huge fan of a cleverly written script and can be captivated by a performance, appreciate creative lighting and be impressed by smart directorial ideas. In theatre, the collaboration is the thing. It is not just acknowledged but vaunted. The artifice is to be admired. The truths it clads are, arguably, amplified and highlighted.
I have a belief – just a belief – that stand up is a different beast. It is one comic, one audience, and nothing in between. Especially since the ‘alternative’ version changed the face of the craft fundamentally. It is pure and simple. To do it really well is incredibly difficult. It is comedy’s version of Erica Jong’s once internationally famed ‘zipless fuck’. (Ah, children of Generation Think Lovely Thoughts and Hold a Placard, have a look at her 1973 novel, Fear of Flying. But get someone to hold your hand).
Meanwhile, back at my sexual metaphor, and the Zipless Fuck : when it is good, it is The Best. What I find much less exciting is the idea of choreographed sex – even with a skilled professional. What it gains in finesse and interesting moves, it loses in viscerality. And I love me a bit of viscerality. In comedy, of course.
The aspirations of stand up comedy have changed over the years. Festivals, and, in particular, The Edinburgh Fringe have done that. Having a one hour show at the Edinburgh Fringe is to go through comedy puberty. Comedy balls drop, funny-fuzz covers the fanny. The Edinburgh Hour, spurred on by Big Prizes and the thoughts of television specials and star- chasing – is, most definitely, a ‘thing’. With ‘the hour’ we got narrative arcs, three acts and forty minutes of emotional depth- charges. Then, in 2003, Johnnie met Reg and the comedy world changed forever. “ Reg approached me. He wanted to collaborate with someone and what was interesting about Reg was that he wanted a serious collaborator, he didn’t want help with the jokes, it was more the eye, the perspective.
I definitely wanted to be a director at that time and I felt that I could help his work. At the very least, I had an idea of what he wasn’t doing and I was excited by who he was as a performer. Clearly he is someone with amazing presence and who was going to do very well. However, I found him frustratingly incoherent as a performer because I didn’t think he paid off what he promised.” John certainly sorted that out.
Promises were paid off in full when we got White Woman. White Woman is really, if I am honest, the reason I feel so strongly about this whole thing. I saw the show. My breath was taken away. It was a spellbinding, heart stopping, mind- opening hour. In terms of laughs per minute, ok, Reg is no Phyllis Diller but the experience was one I shall never forget. So I went to see it a second time and it was exactly the same. The pauses had their pregnancies in the same place. The finger-steepling and the looks that start on the floor and move slowly up to the audience’s eyeline. I felt so stupid, as though I had been the willing victim of a con trick.
Far be it from me to say that this should, or even might be everyone’s reaction, it was mine. The show was no less accomplished, no less intelligent, no less eye-opening in the truths it shared about the relationships between black men and white women. It was no less memorable and driven by the charisma and presence of Reg Hunter. However, I could not help the (admittedly 100% emotional) reaction I had, that I had been lied to.
Almost twenty years later, when the comedy director is the Spanx pants of so many flabby comic hours in Edinburgh, I cannot shake that feeling. However, as the excellent ( Kate Copstick, The Scotsman) Al Barrie tells me when I discuss this with him. “ I think, and I hope you’ll forgive me for this, you’re talking bollocks here.” This is, to be fair, never entirely out of the question with me. “One of my favourite acts to watch used to be a guy called Noel Britten,” says Al, “as it was old school wordplay, prop stuff, but done so expertly. Millisecond by millisecond, so identically, it was like watching a craftsman make the same piece over and over again. I found it utterly mesmerising, quite possibly because I could never do the same.” Faced with the prospect of being exposed as a talker of bollocks to the comedy community, I kicked off a conversation with a couple of people who know what they are on about.
Like Al Barrie, of course and John Gordillo. “It is interesting, comedy, because you are the brand.” says my 2003 co-nemesis “There is a particular weight on the shoulders of a solo performer. They are the show more than anyone else, even if you have co-written it and you’re performing it, it is yours, it has to be yours” Even though, in truth, it is not ? “Directors get woefully under-credited, and it is a weird thing because the kind of direction that you are doing is really construction, building and script editing. There is very little stage direction. You will direct beats and emotional moments that get you out of one bit and into another.
Direction in how to play a moment for a certain sort of impact, I suppose, “ Suddenly I am back in the room in 2003 watching Reg. “But you are not blocking out a scene, you don’t have a lot of plastic elements to play with and if you are any good you are meant to be invisible. Traditionally stand-up is seen as a one person thing with a lone editorial voice, but the image of the lonely stand up who is calling truth to power -that image has become sort of, broken, once you realise that a lot of these things are collaborations.”
Well, yes. And the director pretty much never gets any credit, unless you go looking for them somewhere in the small print in a PR blurb. “Ultimately, I think if you are a director and you want to tell stories then don’t direct stand ups because it is not really your field. You are more of a dramaturg. Most stand ups do not want to do inventive staging because those sort of things spoil the illusion of the sponteneity of the performance, don’t they?
Even working with a stand up who is in a complicated show, the whole point of it, is that it appear artless. The whole idea of a stand up performance has a different place in people’s minds, it has a different claim to individual, authorial power.” The man who was part of destroying my blind faith in stand up comedy understands my disappointment. I feel immediately a little less stupid and naive “. But I think a lot of performers just don’t want to give credit. They think it is a stressful life, they’ve done all the work, they’re the boss, and there is the worry that an audience might feel that you are not saying this because you thought of it but because you’re basically a hired actor.
So some people feel that it weakens their claim to be authentic.” My point, exactly and of course it does. Until you know there is a filter on pretty much every Insta selfie nowadays, a girl can spend a lot of time wondering why she is the wrinkliest person online … But I digress.
Back to comics not acknowledging their directors. “Some are just narcissists.” says John, “But it is not a directors’ medium – if you wanna direct, don’t direct stand up.” AL Barrie is unstinting in his praise for Gordillo. And follows up his accusation of my “talking bollocks” with a worryingly excellent – and indisputable – point : “I think you have reviewed me in Edinburgh four (possibly five?) times, starting with a three star review for a thoroughly three star show in 2007. It was not until 2018 that I received the hallowed five stars from The Scotsman, which also happened to be the first show I worked on with John.
So you have already answered your own question with absolutely no need to interview me whatsoever!” Not content with putting me embarrassingly in my place, Al continues “Performance is already artifice. I am a version of myself on stage – admittedly a lot closer to my own character than, say, a character act or a carefully crafted persona like MIlton Jones, but a construct nonetheless. That persona also changes. The new show seems to be involving me getting quite a lot angrier – I’ve always been partial to the odd rant, but a combination of Boris Johnson, Covid, parenthood and Vladimir Putin seems to have pushed me to a new level on stage, and frankly if I was that splenetic in real life I’d have blown several gaskets by now.
The performance itself is still ‘directed’ whether I have a ‘director’ or not. Pretty much all stand ups are directed by their audience, other people throwing them inspiration and by the fact that what they are doing is constantly evolving. In the final analysis, there is such a huge difference between directing stand up and directing theatre. A different term could well be required. But if I started calling John my ‘Dramaturge’ the pretension would be so overwhelming I think everyone would be well within their rights to refuse to watch me perform anything ever again.”
Now, the idea that we can look at a new terminology for all the various feedback points that go to create, shape, tweak and, okay, improve a comedy performance, that is a compromise I could get behind. A single “director” for a true stand up performer is still to my belief, antithetical to the craft.
I remember asking Jimmy Carr, whose one-liner style is the highest risk comedy, with no safety net, how he knew if his material was funny and he said “the audience tells me”. He used to work his shows in, night after night of trying out in comedy clubs. A joke was given three strikes and then, if it didn’t get the laughs, it was out. Because the audiences in the rooms told him so. I have the word “organic” creeping into in my mind now so I am going to stop writing and get back to Al Barrie.
“If you want to get really cynical, no one gives a f*ck about the comedy any more. Live at The Apollo is supposedly the biggest stand up showcase on the TV and it adheres very closely to a club format, but self-evidently does not use the best club acts. It values novelty, diversity and profile over comedy. And that’s unsurprising because there are many more factors in play than comedy purists (and club comics) would like. They are far more interested in acts with a large social media following whose clips they can stick online than they are by who is blowing the roof off the Comedy Store. Or The Edinburgh Festival, Or, to be frank, who has a director who knows what they’re talking about. Or a Dramaturge.”
Thank you Al. Now both these guys had so much more to say that didn’t fit in here. I would like to come back to them both in a couple of future visits. Maybe I am just putting off the terrible day where I will have to admit that I have been, in the words of Al Barrie, “talking bollocks” TBC.