Photo Credit: Steve Best
Artillery Row Books

The game of laughter

A backstage look at stand-up comedy

Perhaps due to lockdown and the interruptions to normal service, but more likely due to autumnal intimations and a long dormant weakness for sentimentality, I now cherish the belief that the only flavour for which a grown-up should cultivate a taste is the bittersweet.

Tragedy, though intoxicating, is too grandiose. When warranted, it generates the greatest poetry. Mere failure, decline and death is not enough for tragedy, however. Few of us encounter the capacity for greatness that it demands — hence its focus on mythical figures from antiquity. 

There is sometimes hubris preceding the tragedies lamented in the tabloids — tragic stabbings, tragic busloads, tragic care home mismanagements. The audience senses that the word is misplaced, a mere courtesy. Nemesis will have been dispensed not by the gods but by some lowly administrative officer, from the Slough House foothills of Olympia. 

Tragedy is not for mortals like us, but pure comedy is also self-deluding. Life cannot be laughed off. Laughter may be the best medicine — at least, when adjusted for cost/benefit purposes by NICE. It certainly has its place. As Kingsley Amis observed, however, it is rarely self-administered with much gusto. He [or “The King” if you want to be really arch] deftly corrected Princess Diana’s favourite doggerel, to “Life is mostly fuss and bother; / Two things get you through / Laughing when it hits another / Whingeing when it’s you.”

Life, as tasted over any extended period is invariably bittersweet. Bittersweet is the glove that fits life’s hand. Triumphs flare up and are briefly deceptive, only later disclosing the cost at which they were purchased. Losses, meanwhile, liberate. Once the period of mourning is observed, the sun comes out in the afternoon. 

Such reflections are apt to be worrisome for someone who makes his living in stand-up. Stand-up comedy is traditionally regarded as being a pretty intensive tickle of the old funny bone. Nuance and blue notes are not generally regarded as core. At least so I thought, though I have found that my present tour show, Work of the Devil, has allowed me to explore some more muted tones.

Now my good friend Steve Best — the photographer laureate of the circuit — has produced a wonderful, luxuriously bound collection of his matchless onstage and backstage photographs from the world of stand-up comedy. This is the artefact his work has long deserved. It has generated in me an undeniable and quite possibly terminal sense of happy melancholy. It turns out comedy was bittersweet all along — but it took the frozen moment to see it. 

Why it eluded me I don’t know, but there are few things so overwhelmingly bittersweet as the pathos of the comedian, caught in the tragic act of trying to be funny. Transfixed by the photographic pin, the amber of light sensitive cells, the calculus of the shutter. 

Comedy is closer to nature than art. It dies

There are very few forms of expression quite as ephemeral as stand-up comedy. It is the mayfly of the creative arts. You can’t even wrap chips in it. 

It shares with music a dependency on rhythm — often referred to as timing, though this arguably evokes only the correct pause before the punchline arrives and really, there is a lot more to it than that. The punchline is the easiest bit to time — it should come after the amount of time it would have taken to draw on a cigarette before delivery. Even a twenty-minute set should have fast and slow movements, though, move smoothly from bolero to rhapsody to andante to crescendo all without alerting the audience to there being anything fishy going on. That’s why it’s a secret.

Picture credit: Steve Best

Unlike music, stand-up comedy’s time is short. It has a best-before date — one that can make pears look like an endurance fruit. 

We still enjoy music from the 18th and 19th century and regard the sixties as having had the best pop, or at least second best to whenever we were seventeen. Yet stand-up rarely outlives its decade. Any stand-up from more than ten years ago has the whiff of mortality about it. I’ve known perfectly good circuit stand-ups take a break for just a year or two, try something else then come back with their old set and sound almost offensively out of time, callously indifferent to the prevailing tempora and mores. 

See an old black and white photograph of Vladimir Horowitz bent over a keyboard, and you can immediately sense the artistry, the bone china strength, the exquisite colours the audience are seeing shimmer before them. See any contemporary comedian, from Max Miller to Lee Mack, coaxing the laughs over his mic stand and you sense the fragility, the imminent fragmentation, the immediate desiccation of the rose leaves drifting already into the bowl. 

The echoing laughter receding into silence as the circle and stalls mysteriously empty is the clichéd scene setter for everything from Osborne’s Entertainer to Inside No. 9. It is the natural fate of the jovial. 

This is what is captured so poetically, so painfully and joyfully in Steve’s best work.

This has other implications for comedy’s status. Among the more tiresome questions with which comedians are regularly faced when hoping to barter a little of their time and ear-oil for ticket sales is whether or not stand-up comedy is an “art form”. I always make a point of answering in the negative. Partly because many of the worst atrocities to which paying audiences have been subjected have been imposed by those aspiring to make art — and partly because, as when I lived in east Dulwich but always claimed Peckham, it’s best to under-promise and over-deliver. 

There is another reason — isn’t art supposed to endure? Isn’t that the point? To outlast our ever-rotting corporeal limitations? Ars — stop sniggering at the back — longa, vita brevis

Well, yes, I think it does settle the matter — and I don’t regret the conclusion for a moment. Nature I loved, and, next to nature, art, says the poet. Comedy is closer to nature than art. It dies. 

What, apart from its survival, is it that defines art? Art is that which is either “collected” — financialised, by scoundrels — or requires a subsidy. Sometimes both. The artier it is, the heartier the portion of the public’s largesse it demands — with, I imagine, Wagner’s vision of Opera as the supreme art well endorsed by this reckoning. 

Comedy is a candle. It will not last the night

Not comedy. Not stand-up. Among its proudest boasts, in my book, has been comedy’s refusal to attempt to pry a penny of the taxpayers hard-earned to fortify its precarious presence on the stage. No furlough for us. 

Not that all entertainment has such a short half-life of course, of course. Some entertainment survives its creator. Graham Greene notoriously divided his work into novels (art) and entertainments. No prize for guessing which now seem the most datedly — miserably contorted by Greene’s sterile struggles with his faith — and which played more productively with the foibles of human nature and the quirks of fate. Much the same could be said of Evelyn Waugh’s early, light-touch genius in Scoop and Vile Bodies not being much improved by the introduction of “bigger themes” in the Sword of Honour trilogy. 

Stand-up is a form of entertainment — and, I think, a craft. I think of craft as a thing done primarily to honour a tradition, but with just relaxed enough a grip that some of one’s own flaws will colour the final product, the way it’s the disease in the tree that makes the turned wood special. This is part of the difference between folk music and commercial pop, and I think that comedy is closer to the former. A good comedian doesn’t try too hard to make it all about him. He lets the flavour emerge naturally. 

Entertainment and craft both survive. Comedy also — to a degree perhaps not obvious to spectators — is a sport. It is intensely, if not visibly, competitive and rightly so. I think that’s healthy. The one thing that I miss most from the early days, when all my gigs were on shared bills, is the opportunity to win. Now that I tour and mainly perform alone, I pretty much always win, on paper at least. Though there are always corporates to remind you that even when performing alone, victory isn’t inevitable. 

What I am getting at, is that comedy is a gamea funny old game. That is what Steve’s book captures. His best black and white portraits are not, for me, of comedians on stage, but more tellingly in the wings, dressing rooms and other glamour-free nooks and crannies that cluster around the sacred space.

The shots on stage are comparable with the best sports photography — a striker rather than a ballerina suspended in mid-air. The shots backstage are the ones that capture the essence of it. Stress, laughs, tension and relief; camaraderie and isolation. These are dressing rooms, locker rooms, not of actors or musicians — not of artists — but lads and lasses up for a kickabout. Sunday or Premier leaguers, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the game. 

As with sport, the secret ingredient is not timing. It’s that something might happen. It very often does. 

Comedy is a candle. It will not last the night. But, ah, my foes and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light. There are very few who have ever captured it quite like Steve Best.

Picture credit: Steve Best

Whether the elegiac quality of the book (the all-black cover, the sparse presentation, the ruthless, austere monotone) reflects another suspicion I have — that stand-up in its present form may have run its course — is another question. No one could complain, were it so. Forty great years since the modern British game was forged by the likes of Alexei Sayle, Tony Allen and others in the first London Comedy Store? Kenneth Clark saw most artistic movements as being productive for no more than a single generation, and we might at least have that much in common with the serious stuff. 

Then I remember that I am 57, and I remember someone’s warning to Kingsley Amis, in the midst of his aforementioned dyspeptic versifying, that he was wont to mistake the state of the nation for that of his own digestion. 

There might be some odd mutations ahead, and some grudging economic adaptations to our new, rather agoraphobic world are likely. I do hope it finds a way to make it through this present tight squeeze. There are very few things in life more perfectly bittersweet than a night at a good comedy club. Sharing laughter — the shoulder-shaking, eye-watering realness of it — remains the single most life affirming sensation I know. When you are walking out afterwards into the perfect black and white photography streetscape, you might just be reassured to know that we feel it too. 

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