My latest ‘Creative Minds’ interview is with stand-up comedian Samuel Ch Zernig!
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a talk at Inspire’d.
It was a really fun evening, and I had a great time both giving the talk – about the creative process – and watching the other speakers too.
Oh, and there was also wine, which is always a nice bonus.
Anyway, click the link above to take a look!
(And I don’t know why I look like I’m strangling someone in the video still either…)
‘This is Angelo. He’s a comedian. You know, stand up. Like Julian Clary.’
While I’m trying to work out whether or not to be offended, all three of them turn to look at me – the lawyer, the accountant and the admin clerk. None of them told me what they did for a living, but I heard them trade names and occupations a couple of minutes earlier by way of introduction. The party’s host (my soon-to-be-ex friend) decided that since I was standing near them she should probably tell them something about me.
By ‘them’ I mean a group of people having a perfectly nice time without me. And by ‘me’ I mean a person who didn’t want to come to this party, didn’t want to have to speak to anyone, and definitely didn’t want to have to be funny.
The lawyer speaks first. ‘Oh that’s interesting. Go on then.’
Three expectant faces, looking at me. I’m standing between a pot plant and a locked window (I tried it earlier) so running away isn’t an option, unless I barge through my three new friends , but I’m pretty sure that’d be considered assault, and as one of them is a lawyer I’m not keen to find out.
‘Um, I don’t really… I don’t really do jokes… I do like, observational things about… stuff. I do some material about things in the news but not… not jokes. As such.’
The group looks at me as if I’ve just soiled myself.
The admin clerk looks the most unimpressed. ‘You don’t tell jokes? You can’t be very good at stand-up then!’
Laughter all around at my expense: lawyer, admin clerk and accountant. United in their amusement of silly old me. I’m pretty sure the pot plant gave a little snigger in my direction too.
‘Sorry, what do you do? Admin wasn’t it?’
She gives me a suspicious look, like maybe I know too much.
I take out my phone.
‘Would you be able to sort my text messages into alphabetical order by author please?’
I was wrong earlier. Now she’s looking at me as if I’ve soiled myself.
The silence hangs in the air just long enough for me to put my phone away and feel pretty pleased with myself. Angelo 1, Strangers I’ve just met and will probably never see again 0.
The accountant tries to change the subject. ‘I used to do some acting when I was at uni. I love live performance but it can be pretty stressful can’t it? I bet stand-up can get pretty difficult?’
I’m quite taken aback by this. At last, I can have a real conversation about stand up with someone at a party! Maybe we can actually talk about the stresses of comedy life, the peaks and the troughs, the highs and the lo-
‘You wouldn’t want me in the audience I can tell you.’
And turn and see that this is the lawyer’s contribution to the discussion. I don’t think he was meaning to be rude, he was just being, well, a lawyer.
‘Why’s that?’ I ask good-naturedly, as though we’re all friends here.
‘Well, I can be pretty sharp when I want to be. I’d beat you if I was heckling from the audience. You wouldn’t know what hit you.’
He takes a sip from his drink as though that’s the last word on the subject. The admin clerk looks really happy.
Before responding, I try to find a tone to my voice that doesn’t sound aggressive.
“Well … you wouldn’t. Comedians respond to hecklers all the time, if you think about the practice that goes into doing stand-up, not to mention the fact that comedians are on stage full of adrenali- ”
‘Wouldn’t matter,’ he says, shaking his head dismissively, ‘I’d beat you.’
Me, trying not to sound aggressive again. Starting my sentence with one of those half-chuckles that tells everyone I’m taking this really good-naturedly, really, and just happen to be pointing something out that isn’t true, and we’re still all friends here and I’m a good person so nobody judge me harshly.
‘Heh, I think it would matter. Trust me, it’s very different in a comedy club. You might not even really want to shout anything out and draw attention to yourself. It’s quite differen-‘
‘No. I’d beat you. I’d definitely win. I’m a lawyer.’
Another head shake, another sip. I decide to make fun of him a little bit. Non-aggression, my arse.
‘Sorry, and what’s being a lawyer got to do with it exactly? You don’t heckle judges, do you? You don’t stand there making the jury laugh, surely? You’re basically just listing bad things about the other guy, or good things about your own. So it’s not the same, is it?! Unless you do actually just stand there making jokes the whole time, in which case you might have a point that you’d be good at heckling, but you’d be a crap lawyer . And you still wouldn’t beat me.’
I don’t say ‘you jumped up little prick!’ at the end of that sentence. My tone and general demeanour say it for me.
The silence following my little rant isn’t what you’d call ‘golden’.
I decide at this point there’s basically one of two ways to go – backtrack and keep some dignity, or keep digging. It takes me exactly a fifth of a millisecond to decide.
‘And Little Miss Admin over there. All this crap about me not being a good comedian cos I didn’t tell you a joke at a party. It’s not just about telling jokes is it?! Any moron can recite a joke they’ve read in a cracker. It’s about reading the audience, and honing one-liners and telling well-crafted stories! It’s about getting out there and perfecting your technique!’
A little audience seems to have built up now, with people looking over to see what’s going on.
The accountant opens his mouth as though he’s going to say something. I don’t let him.
‘No! Accountant! There’s more to it than that.’
I turn to the lawyer.
‘And all this stuff about beating me with a heckle, are you on crack? How is a lawyer going to beat a comedian at comedy? I didn’t tell you when I met you that I’d be better than you at chasing ambulances, did I?’
Some of the ‘audience’ have started laughing, I’m getting quite into this.
‘Ooohh, I’m a lawyer, I charge people a thousand quid a day to go into court dressed like a tranny.’
More laughter. Good crowd. Maybe it was the wiggle I did as I said it.
‘Then I try and get the old guy who sits in a big chair to agree with what I’m saying so that I win, which means I can then charge two thousand quid a day to the next loser who is getting divorced.’
Not as much laughter at that one, but still some. You’ve got to take what you can get sometimes.
Probably best to stop wiggling now though.
The accountant opens his mouth again.
‘Stop it! Accountant!’
This is my audience, get your own!
‘Ooohhh, admin clerk, oooh, I move paper from one filing cabinet to the other and that means I know about the state of British comedy!’
The accountant wants to say something again. I pause to let him speak this time, not to be courteous so much as to catch my breath.
‘It’s really going for it!’ he shouts excitedly.
Not quite the heckle I was expecting. Then I realise he’s looking behind me.
‘What? What’s really… going for…’
Then I realise everyone is looking behind me.
I follow their gazes and turn to look out of the window, very quickly seeing that my audience isn’t my audience at all. They’re laughing because two dogs are shagging behind me and they can see them through the glass.
I mumble something about being upstaged by a pair of ‘bloody dogs’ and escape.
I don’t go to parties anymore.
Gigs are much less stressful.
A version of this story appeared on the Chortle website in their Correspondents section. Written by me, obviously, I’m not plagiarising here. If you’d like to read essentially the same thing all over again but on a different website, you can find it at:
I’ve just spent 90 minutes watching Tom Hardy fight everybody, act like a pantomime character, pretend to be two people having a conversation with each other, and break the fourth wall by ranting down the camera at me.
And I thought it was incredible.
After watching Tom Hardy in Bronson, I started thinking about other performances that I’ve loved over the years, and realised that – generally speaking – the best, most daring work is done by actors early on in their careers. I’m talking about Gary Oldman in The Firm, Tim Roth in Made in Britain, Ray Winstone in Scum, Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park/anything in the 70s, Robert De Niro in Mean Streets/anything in the 70s, Angelina Jolie in Gia, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Carlisle in Trainspotting, and Leonardo Di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape…. The list goes on and on.
The more I think about it the less incidental it all seems to be – a disproportionate amount of performances that have stayed with me long after the film has ended have come from the beginning of an actor’s career, rather than the middle or end.
And this isn’t an insult to any of the actors I’ve mentioned above by the way, I’m not saying that any of these actors are past their prime (let’s just not mention the word ‘Focker’ at this point, yeah?), but why do so many actors do such great work – and as such extreme characters – when they start out?
I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, and probably most obviously, young actors are hungry to prove themselves and make a name. They want to show what they can do and how far they can go, and what better way to do that than by playing an incredibly complex character and make them believable?
Secondly, they’ve got nothing to lose. If you’re an established star with a persona to damage, you probably won’t really want to take the chance of playing a violent criminal who takes a hostage and forces him to smear Vaseline on his naked body. But if you’re a relative unknown, there’s no persona to damage.
Another point related to this is the ability of the audience buying into you as a completely different character, especially if you’re known in one particular genre. Some people can make the switch (Tom Hanks for instance), but others might have trouble because audiences want them to do what they’ve always done and don’t want to accept anything else (six words: Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy). So unknown actors are more likely to choose roles that would be considered too risky by more established performers. Twenty years of audience baggage will also make it that much more difficult for you as an actor to convince the current audience that you are that particular character (although this will always be a problem to an extent, and not just when playing ‘extreme’ roles).
Younger actors also don’t have the luxury of being able to phone a performance in if they feel like it, they’ve got dues to pay and a body of work to build. If you knew you could sleepwalk through a film and get paid £20 million for it, or knock yourself out reliving some childhood trauma in a small indie movie for equity minimum, which would you choose? Artistic integrity is all very well, but if you ‘went there and did that’ twenty years ago, you could be forgiven for wanting an easier, more lucrative deal in later years. And a huge star doing a small movie isn’t generally the ‘done’ thing either, audiences will think you’ve either fallen from grace or lost your mind. People generally don’t skip up and down the ladder of success and get away with it (although some do – Steve Buscemi, I’m looking at you…)
An interesting aside would be to look at comeback roles that people have had where they’ve been applauded for being ‘daring’. Although, if your career is in the toilet what have you got to lose, really? You’re at the same level as an unknown actor – in fact in some cases, regarded as even worse off – so you’ve only really got something to gain.
I don’t know the reason, and I’m not pretending to. But what I do know is that some of the most incredible, memorable performances that I’ve enjoyed time and again have been from actors who are young, hungry and – most importantly – talented.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and burn every copy of ‘Meet the Fockers’ that I can find.
At a gig the other day I was asked why so many comedians seem to be getting in trouble with jokes that “go too far”. (The fact I was having this conversation with an audience member either says a lot about my set or a lot about that particular audience member, but that’s a post for another time)
Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more one word kept coming to mind – disconnect.
The way I see it, a big problem is the disconnect between the idea of the subject of a joke, and the reality of it. For instance, legend has it that watching someone slip on a banana skin is the height of comedy. Doesn’t do much for me to be honest, but let’s say you find it hilarious. You’d probably find it less hilarious if you watched someone slip on a banana skin, then fall and crack their skull open as their traumatised kids scream that they just want Daddy to wake up.
And that’s what I mean by disconnect – the idea of [insert ‘bad’ subject here] is not intended by the comedian to be the reality of it. So the comedian intends a joke to be a (possibly extreme) idea played for a laugh – whereas some of the audience may focus on the reality of it, which will more than likely end the humour right there.
In short, the comedian wants the audience to laugh at the idea of slipping on a banana skin, but the audience can’t stop thinking about the poor victim of it.
This might also be why certain subjects are generally considered no-go areas – because the effects of them are so horrific that the audience has no choice but to think about the consequences of them. Look at, for instance, terminal diseases – do a joke about some disease that nobody’s ever heard of and you might get a laugh, but mention a terminal illness that is common, and it’s more likely to evoke memories of traumatic personal experiences that people have had, which is going to kill any humour immediately.
This is one of the reasons that comedy itself is subjective too – everybody’s life experience is different and so everybody finds absurdity, frustration, difficulties, etc in different areas of life.
I think this is why the language used in stand up has to be so carefully selected, and anyone who writes their own material (and I think most of us do) will spend hours both on and offstage trying to perfect every phrase. The language must keep the potentially offensive subject as an absurd or abstract idea, so it isn’t made ‘real’ to the audience, which is likely to make it less funny or acceptable to laugh at.
There are of course exceptions to this, and there have also been times when I’ve been describing something horrible onstage, and the more realistic it is, the funnier it becomes. This is generally when I’m telling a story about something that happened to me however, so I’m essentially laughing at myself. And there is a huge difference (or ‘disconnect’ if you want to stay with the theme) between making yourself the butt of the joke, and feeling like someone else is getting a cheap laugh at your expense.
Another disconnect can exist between contexts – specifically, a joke being made in the context of a comedy club, and a joke being reported in a ‘we are not amused’ newspaper article. Now, I don’t want to shock anybody here, but there’s been a lot of research to suggest that a newspaper isn’t the same as a comedy club. The thing is, as performers we tailor our material to that particular audience at that particular time on that particular day. Onstage, we’re constantly evaluating our material – gauging what’s working and what isn’t, in order to decide which material to use next, and whether to rearrange/abandon our set. So sometimes we might say things that in any other context could well be shocking or extreme, but that works for that particular audience at that particular time (don’t worry, I’ll stop saying particular in a minute).
This isn’t to say that anything goes in the context of a comedy club as long as it gets a laugh by the way, just that it’s an aspect of performance that needs to be borne in mind here.
In short, comedians get paid to entertain the audience in front of them, using material they think will work and tweaking and changing things that probably won’t. Those same tweaks and changes might not work for another comedy audience, and chances are they definitely won’t work when taken out of context and quoted in a newspaper. So a near-the-knuckle one-liner about bestiality might be hilarious on a Saturday night in the comedy club you were in and with the audience who attended, but probably won’t work so well when read about on the way to work on Monday morning.
Lastly, there can sometimes be a gulf (I’m bored of saying ‘disconnect’) between the comedian’s perception of their ability and the reality of it. To put it less kindly, sometimes a comedian misreads the audience completely and/or isn’t good enough to be doing jokes about such difficult material, and they end up offending pretty much everybody.
I’m not saying that all these issues have contributed to all of the ‘scandals’ that have happened, but some of them haven’t exactly helped. Equally, I’m not trying to excuse anybody’s behaviour – some people are just intentionally offensive for the sake of it – I’m just trying to put into context why every so often we get a flurry of these ‘incidents’ in the press, and half the world agrees the joke was bad and the other half can’t understand why anybody is complaining.
Ok, I’ve dissected this frog and pretty much killed it so I guess I should end on a joke.
Um, how does that Aristocrats one go again?