Johann Hari takes in some comedy at the Edinburgh fringe:
Shapiro is a former prostitute and heroin addict who shambles on stage and snaps, “You guys are looking at me like a bunch of radiation victims.” He begins to mumble and flail for a few minutes, before pleading: “Stay with me because I am so desperate to snort cocaine and shoot heroin and crawl off the stage and die right now. Imagine if suicide was for you just eating lots of chocolate ice cream. That’s what it’s like in my head.” It sounds smooth on the page. Imagine it said with a stammer and a crazed flickering stare.
This isn’t stand-up – it’s crawl-across, with Shapiro dragging himself across the stage and twitching. He periodically yells, “Help me!” His director has to yell “Come on Rick!” from the back of the room from time to time, causing him to snap back, “You don’t know what it’s like to be off your medication when the voices in your head aren’t friendly.” It’s hard to separate the comedy from the disintegration...
Comedy? Oh I see....you're meant to laugh at the guy.
Really though - don't write about comedy, especially if, like Johann, you have a point to make. The jokes don't translate to the page, and the point's not worth making.
Josie takes her audiences skidding along great wide rainbows of whimsy. To give a small taster: says she loves rollercoasters because “it’s like somebody you don’t know coming up to you and saying, ‘If you give me £2 I will shake you.’ And you say, ‘Yes.’ Then they say, ‘If you give me £2.50, I will give you the chance to win a toy to the value of ten pence, along with the illusion that you are good at sports.”
I (quite) like rollercoasters too, but......well, maybe you had to be there.
Josie’s organic comedy style is spreading into something like a movement here, and it is an artistic cousin of the Mumblecore movement in American independent cinema. Both are stripped-down reactions to a crass commercial culture of pulp products and pulped minds. Both are trying to retrieve the personal and the intimate buried beneath the plastic and tinsel and wrapping paper of our corporate culture, and they are all frightened of being squeezed into a deadening 9-5 culture that smothers personal creativity.
This is terrible stuff. A crass commercial culture of pulp products and pulped minds? I'll take it over great wide rainbows of whimsy any day.
Issy Suttee’s show ‘Love in the Retail Industry’ is one of the most beautiful examples, consisting of nothing but a sweet, slight Northern girl, a guitar, and a voice you want to swim in. With this, Suttee creates a love story in a supermarket in Matlock that washes away all the bad taste left in your mouth from enduring foul rants about “chavs”.
Hers is a dreamy world, depicted with love, that reflects a forgotten chunk of Gordon Brown’s Britain – the one working on tills but dreaming of being in a band, who sings with a wry smile: “Somewhere over the rainbow/ There’s global warming./ And a black charcoal cloud slowly forming…/ If there’s a pot at the end of the rainbow/ It’s full of piss.” Yes, this is a school of comedy that makes you gurgle rather than belly-laugh – but it also offers a worldview that urges you, for all its sadness, to find happiness in the scattered moments of authenticity and tenderness between human beings. It’s not just a style of comedy; it’s a philosophy of life.
It didn't even make me gurgle - though there was, I think, a weary expelling of air through the lips at that "It’s full of piss".
But what is missing from this picture of British comedy?
Laughs, perhaps? Something funny?
There are only a few straggling political stand-ups left here: the always-dependable Andy Zaltzman made the best point of the festival when he said, “Next time scientists have a report on global warming they should issue it as a fuzzy video from a mountain lair in Afghanistan. Then we’ll be terrified.”
If that was the best point of the festival, then thank god I've stayed in London this last month.
The suspicion is beginning to form by now that perhaps Johann Hari doesn't, in fact, have a sense of humour.
Yet mostly, political stand-up has stood down. I think I know the root of the problem: George Bush has killed political comedy (and hundreds of thousands of people). The laughs in his strangulated English – and in a Vice-President who shoots an old man in the face, mistaking him for a quail – are so obvious they don’t need to be amplified by a guy with a microphone. The same goes for the Carry On Up the Jihad attacks on London and Glasgow last month.
George Bush has killed political comedy (and hundreds of thousands of people). Boom boom! [No - he doesn't have a sense of humour]
Instead, we are left with a softer, sadder picture of Britain from the clouds of laughter that hang over Edinburgh. It is of a country that is, in the main, wealthy - but oddly unsatisfied with our lives. We are uncomfortable talking to each other, not even sure of what language to use. We know there are terrible threats out there – global warming, jihadism – but don’t feel we can do anything about them. There is no grand national story here - just the scattered stories of depressive break-ups with our boyfriends, kebab shops in Chippenham, and an attempt to retrieve some reality from a mass-produced husk. I have found Britain’s funny-bone – and it’s black and fractured.
Seeing a few rubbish comedians at the Edinburgh festival is really no justification for inflicting this kind of writing on us.