To what Degree does stand-up comedy create change and what are the effects beyond the stage?
MA Dissertation by Matt Hoss - Published 26th August 2016.
On Tuesday 14th July 2015, just after 9am, I stood outside of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s (RBS) London Headquarters, near Liverpool Street station. Outside of this corporate building, I drew a 15 metre chalk line on the public pavement outside the entrance to the building. Whilst wearing a hi-visibility jacket with ‘Loitering’ spray-painted on the back and well-worn trainers, I started the stopwatch as I took the first steps walking the RBS Way Walk.
Pacing along the chalk line, I senselessly walked back and forth 666 times outside RBS’ office, accumulating weird looks from passers-by, supportive heckles and a nervously attentive security team. Two hours later, I finished the final lap of the RBS Way Walk: a walk of comedic activism created by political comedian Mark Thomas (Thomas,2016).
Why exactly did I do The RBS Way Walk? In 2015, Thomas created a stand-up show called Trespass. The purpose of the show was to get people to reclaim public spaces that have been taken over by private companies, focusing on London (Thomas,2015). The walk is an inane comic demonstration towards RBS, which purposefully plays with the notion of public and private property. The chalk line I marked on the public pavement was directly outside a triangle patch of land, outside the entrance to RBS’ building, which is technically ‘private property’ with no loitering is permitted. Thomas set out to reclaim public spaces by doing fun activism; acts which he would discuss in his show, with the RBS Way Walk being one. Thus the walk is of teasing dissent. Thomas’ aim, if enough people completed it, was to make it into an official national walk.
In many of his shows, Thomas encouraged his audience to take part and that is exactly what I did. After emails were exchanged, I signed up to be the first RBS Way walker after Thomas. A large part of Thomas’ comedy stems from getting his audience involved with his projects, as his comedy is about community. Thomas says: “The comedy I love…has always been in the world and of the world. And also to be positive and to be about change and to exist outside of the theatre” (Thomas,2015). The RBS Way Walk was my first taste in how stand-up comedy had the power to influence, manipulate and most importantly, had potential to create change. My role in the RBS Way Walk was proof that stand-up could exist “outside of the theatre” and showed change occurring from beyond the stage.
Thomas’ innovative stand-up is based around the community and unity of an audience and is about making change. In the 2015 Linda Smith Lecture, Thomas reveals a pre-show checklist to be completed before every gig. The first item on the checklist is:
“It is all about change. If it ain’t – quit. That’s a very very simple thing. Comedy is all about change. Every single bit about it is about change because, what happens is, someone comes onstage - you go from a state of not laughing to laughing. On the most basic level you have change. You have change from not laughing to laughing. So from the very beginning of comedy, the beginning of the cornerstone of comedy is about change”
Thomas’ philosophy is that comedy is centred on change, as can be seen within his material. He engages with politics, current British affairs, facing corrupt corporations and protesting against abuses and crimes. Academic Sophie Quirk writes articulately about Thomas’ work and discusses his varying projects and the results he has produced. Quirk shows the cause and effect of Thomas’ work, proving that people have left the theatre “thinking something else” and created moments of immersive change.
“Consensus is particularly vital in Mark Thomas’ work… much of Thomas’ material is potentially controversial, with past shows having encouraged audience members to participate in political protests including direct action and acts of civil disobedience. For example, Thomas has encouraged his audience to harass the police by creating excess paperwork, and to prank call a military airbase, RAF Fairford. He has also praised the efforts of campaigners who have broken the law with various acts of trespass and vandalism”
Thomas’ unique work demonstrates that stand-up is an art-form which can achieve goals other than creating laughter, illustrated by Quirk’s description.
The view, however, that comedy can create change is not generally accepted by the public, as the basis of mainstream television acts infer that stand-up is simply a tool for escapism and creating entertainment. In many ways, people would argue that stand-up has no effects and Thomas’ act is seen as an anomaly. As Thomas is ‘preaching to the converted’ he is able to demonstrate change, but is it only to his fan-base and not to anyone beyond? This poses the focus of my dissertation: can stand-up create change and what are the effects beyond the stage?
This dissertation will attempt to challenge whether stand-up can create change and analyse the effects stand-up has beyond the stage. I will first begin by determining the strength of a joke and see what powers and social functions jokes have. Following this, I am going to identify the different types of change which occur in stand-up and deeply examine each aspect of interchange, using theoretical support backing up my arguments. Whilst arguing for and against both aspects of change, Mark Thomas will be used as a central figure during the discussion: being an innovative practitioner, he gives insight into answering whether stand-up can create effects beyond the stage.
Power of a joke:
Jokes are the tools of the comedian which they use in order to make an audience laugh. Carr and Greaves define a ‘joke’ as a “formulaic verbal construction in order to elicit a response - laughter” (Carr/Greaves,2006;3). This is a good definition, however it confines a joke to being solely verbal, where a lot of punchlines comes from non-verbal gestures like rolling of eyes, pauses and physicality; a physical comedian like Trygve Wakenshaw proves this. Therefore I would open up the definition to being an action, gesture or line of communication which intends to create laughter.
So what exactly can jokes accomplish? Common thought suggests that jokes do not carry power but merely reflect society and contemporary thought. They can only hold a parodying glaze, holding no succinct powers beyond laughter. First, let us isolate jokes outside of the context of stand-up and analyse them on an individual basis.
Firstly, it is clear that jokes certainly do reflect the current view of the world, as Tom Burns states: “The joke is the shortcut to the consensus” (Burns,1953;657). Andy Hamilton reiterates this by stating “comedy lies within the heart of civilisation. The freedom to laugh at things is a barometer of the mental health of a society” (Hamilton,2016). The comedian reflects the communal feeling and exploits it for laughter. This is how observational comedy works: there is a shared understanding within the community, which the comedian comments upon. This suggests jokes give the audience a reflection of world, but it does not mean they have power.
Jokes represent the world around them, meaning that all of comedy is technically ‘political’ and contemporary; every act is surrounded by socio-political context. For example Dick Gregory, an African-American comedian and black rights activist, performed in 1960s America, where racism was ripe and the civil rights movement was undergoing. The context to Gregory performing then would be significantly different if he were to perform in a modern context. The terms, taboos and political license of the comedian are significantly different.
However, Gregory’s example pushes the point further. Anthropologist Mary Douglas describes jokes as a “mode of expression” (Douglas,1993;90), meaning Gregory’s stand-up is a form of self-expression and conveys personal intricacies as well as reflecting society: proving that jokes reflect more than just society.
Jokes not only reflect, but also serve major sociological functions including engaging, ridiculing and challenging others in society. Jokes have functions therefore jokes must have power to carry out these functions. John Morreall demonstrates a joke’s social powers:
“We often exploit this incompatibility of humor with strong emotions to block emotions. We joke with people to inhibit or reduce their fear, to calm them down from an angry state, and to cheer them up when they are sad”
In this instance, jokes can cure other emotions and it makes people engage with one another. Radcliffe-Brown writes about “Joking relationships” and gives many examples of how joking can be used as a form of creating joviality between workers and also to control and discipline those within a community (Radcliffe-Brown,1940;195).
Jokes also have power to challenge authority, as Anton Zijderveld regards jokes to be a form of non-violent resistance and “urge us to laugh at the powerful figures of the political scene, showing them in totally different, not so powerful dimensions” (Zijderveld,1968;288). Freud shares this idea by saying “a joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy” (Freud,1991;147). An example of this can be found in Nazi Germany: cabarets clubs were closed by Nazi officers, as they feared they would mock Hitler. If they did mock Hitler, they would reduce his status and would be effective in reducing Nazi intimidation. This proves that jokes are more than just social refractors and provide powerful functions.
The final power of a joke is that it can create laughter. This seems obvious, however, this point is often overlooked; jokes are powerful as they can create elation and change someone’s mood, as Morreall stated. This also links to Thomas’ philosophy which we previously encountered: an audience walks in neutral and leaves laughing. This is a significant change showing the power of a joke. Thomas develops on this in an in-conversation event in Edinburgh:
“If you are a comic – you deal with the currency of change… you get a room full of individuals working as a community – that is a change. People come in as small groups, or individuals or groups of friends and they collect as an audience – that is change. To go from not laughing to laughing – that is change. The very act of what we do is built upon change”
This idea interprets laughter to be the basis of change. Audiences enter the theatre without laughing and they leave laughing; proving jokes have power to change. This is the significant first point of the dissertation: if a joke has enough power to make a community laugh in unison, what other change can it make? Can it create emotional shifts, monumental political change and everlasting detrimental effects?
We understand joking has potency and sociological value, but now we will look at joking specifically in the format of stand-up comedy and begin analysing the different ramifications of change.
Before going further, it is important to clarify the terminology of ‘change’. It is used regularly during the course of this discussion, thus it is crucial to identify what change means. Change is when something is altered. In the context of stand-up, this can mean a whole range of different things: it can be changing silence to laughter, it can be changing the way people feel and making people take a stand and create change in the real-world: There are many disparate ideas.
From my research I have identified four distinct groups of change which occur regularly in stand-up. The groups are:
- Political change: This is both internal and external changes in attitude, which affects the ideology held by the individual and therefore affecting their inner and outer world
- Emotional change: Comedy which transitions the audience’s emotions. Emotional change is engaging an audience to primarily make them laugh, but also to make them emotional; making them upset, angry or any other feeling which is atypical to an ordinary comedy gig.
- Change from within the comedian: Comedy affects the lives of comedians, as they are sometimes seen going to extreme lengths in order for their career. It affects their personal well-being for comedic purposes.
- Knowledge growth: Comedy that attempts to approach specific subjects and intends to inform the audience on the subject whilst entertaining them.
These four areas are the main points of change that comedy can affect and will be studied intensely. Some groups overlap with others, particularly with ‘knowledge growth’, as comedy dabbles with multiple effects.
Whilst identifying these groups, it poses the question: how does one measure change? Within this art form, change is near-impossible to measure cause and effect, particularly with individual experiences. However, I have developed a measurement scale of how severe the change can impact upon an individual.
The severity of change:
- Laughing at the act and being entertained.
- Thinking and discussing a subject highlighted by a comedian.
- The adoption of new ideas and knowledge/ bolstering of already held beliefs.
- Activation and direct action.
With both the ‘severity’ scale and the groups of change, we begin to understand and identify change within stand-up comedy. Each of these groups has different ranges of impact and influences audiences in different ways. Therefore, a deep analysis of each group of change is needed. Within this, there will be arguments for and against each group’s offstage effects, determining whether it creates change.
Political change, as expressed previously, is the act of changing people’s ideas and getting an audience to take action. This is not necessarily based around ‘politics’ per se, but about changing the contemporary attitudes to have an effect on people. An example: in Mark Watson’s Crap at the Environment, he convinced someone to give up L’Oreal products because of his routine (Watson,2008;4-5). This is what is meant by a fundamental political change. There are two different types of political change: internal and external change. Internal means changing the way that people think, adopting new views and changing the way you behave. External change also means adopting new ideas as well as applying them in the outside world, creating an offstage effect via direct action.
An internal example is shown in Lucy Porter’s The Good Life, a show about trying to be ethical. She does a routine about vegetarianism, in which convinced some people to turn vegetarian (Porter;2008). Stand-up which affects people’s minds is internal change. External can be related to Al Murray’s campaign to win a parliamentary seat in Thanet with his parody party FUKP, in order to ridicule and compete against UKIP’s Nigel Farage (Murray,2015). Murray gained 318 votes, and since people acted on behalf of the comedian, it is defined as external change. We will start analysing internal change.
Demonstrator of internal change is Luisa Omielan. Omielan’s shows: What Would Beyonce Do?! and Am I Right Ladies?! primarily focus on body positivity, double standards and female self-esteem. Chortle reviewer Steve Bennett writes: “Empowering is the unavoidable word when discussing Luisa Omielan” (Bennett,2016), which highlights Omielan’s inspiring material, as shown with her clip at Melbourne gala:
“Luisa: Don’t give me issues I don’t need. Like now my issues are my thighs.
Overly-Anxious Luisa: Oh-my-god! My thighs! My things are touching each other. Oh-my-god everybody can see - Can you see it? Can you see it OH-MY-GOD! (Luisa pulls down trousers revealing her underwear and thighs) [Big Laughter]. (Thigh gesture) Oh my god! My thighs are touching each other – SO HUMILATING…
Luisa:…Yes my thighs might be touching each other (wobbles thighs)… But I’m sorry bitches, if you were this close to my vagina – wouldn’t you start touching yourself? [Big laughter]. AM I RIGHT LADIES?!
Omielan’s play on words is more than just aesthetically pleasing; as the joke directly attacks the notion that not having a ‘thigh gap’ is inherently negative. By making this joke she penetrates this societal thought and breaks a preconception with her visual point. Omielan triumphs: The audience do not exclusively cheer her jokes, but they applaud Omielan’s victory over the oppressing subject.
This connotes to the superiority theory, which argues we laugh because either the audience or the comedian ‘win’ in a battle of power and status. Theorist Thomas Hobbes describes laughter as “sudden glory” (Hobbes,1985;125) and Aristotle states comedy is “an imitation of inferior people” (Aristotle,1996;9;3.4). The audience may laugh at the fool onstage or may laugh at the comedian lowering the audience’s status (as seen aggressively with Frankie Boyle), as it determines a clear comic ‘victor’. Superiority can make people laugh. In this rare instance, however, the audience and comedian are connected and instead of battling one another, they work together to lower the status of a societal issue, which is unique. Francis Gray ties in the superiority theory with body politics (and therefore Omielan’s work) by saying: “The laughter which brings down the comic victim is an antibiotic for the body politic” (Gray,1994;27). The laughter arises at the comedian tackling the apprehensive subject, in Omielan’s case: tackling body politics. By overcoming this concept internal change is created, as Omielan’s stand-up enables the audience to raise their status above an oppressive force, which allows alterations to the audience’s thinking to occur.
Omielan proves that her work influences people. One example of internal change is proved by an email sent from an attendee (as portrayed in her book). The email states that the punter took his low self-esteemed partner to see Omielan’s show and left feeling “happy and inspired” (Omielan,2016;316). This demonstrates Omielan has affected one person’s mind for the better. Omielan’s influence works on an individual basis and a larger scale, as Omielan was voted as one of London’s top 1000 influential people, proving that she affected a large number of people (Standard,2015). This is vital because by declaring Omielan as ‘influential’ states a lot in case for this argument. It proves that particularly with Omielan’s empowering show, that it has affected people’s lives, making them happier about their appearance on a mass level, thus demonstrating how she creates internal change.
Omielan creates internal change in another way, by influencing feminism in her set. She discusses ‘slut-shaming’ within society in Am I Right Ladies?!. In her book she similarly writes: “Here is a narrative I am bored of, women getting slut-shamed. I like sucking dick, dudes love getting their dick sucked; why am I called the whore?” (Omielan,2016;43). Sara Pascoe writes scientifically about the subject and about female gender as a whole. Pascoe adds to feminist theory as she discusses a society which both “celebrates a woman’s sexiness as her most valuable achievement” (Pascoe,2016;99) but also condemns her if she has sex. This speaks at the heart of Omielan’s rhetoric as she discusses inequality to women, but with a more theoretical point of view. Though coming from different angles, both comedians are intending to influence the same feminist point upon their audience.
Omielan claims that she is not a feminist but does invoke a feminist message. This can be seen with the thigh-gap routine as it coincides with Susie Orbach’s Fat Is A Feminist Issue II. Orbach writes “Western obsession with slimness pushes women into a relentless struggle to press their own bodies into smaller and smaller sizes” (Orbach,2006;200). Orbach says that women follow a mind-set of “health=slimness=happiness=diet” meaning women can never be happy. Omielan tramples on this and says “happiness is not a privilege…it is the baseline…Bitches-Stop dieting!” (Omielan,2015), insinuating ‘self-positivity’ is happiness.
Christie discusses the comedic method which Omielan (and many comedians) utilises here: “They’ll take a political issue and humanise it. They’ll put themselves, and us, into the narrative, making it easier for us to understand” (Christie,2015;216). This shows that through using a relatable, honest persona, Omielan’s experience and thoughts blossom into a decorated and digestible feminist theory, which everyone can adopt through the accessibility of stand-up. From this effective tool, empowerment and learning occurs: direct action to inner-strength takes place, showing that internal change is created.
Another example is my experience with Mark Thomas’ work. He often attempts to challenge attitudes and bring comic justice and his affected my lifestyle. In Thomas’ show and book Belching Out The Devil, Thomas tackles the Coca-Cola industry and uncovered awful truths such as, funding Nazis, exploiting workers and capitalising on para-militaries murdering Columbian trade unionists (Thomas,2008;36). In Mark Thomas Comedy Show, he says:
“Mark: They don’t ask for a lifetime of struggle, they don’t ask us to come out and get in the way, they don’t ask us to take on the paramilitaries. They say this: ‘Please, if you want to help: DON’T. BUY. COCA-COLA. I think it’s the most reasonable request I’ve ever heard.”
As a result of seeing this, Thomas convinced me that Coca-Cola is morally impermissible and from that I decided to not buy Coca-Cola products. Thomas’ antagonism, arguments and rhetoric towards the Coca-Cola industry were enough for me to undergo internal political change: my views have been substantially changed since watching the piece. From my case, internal change exists as stand-up can change people’s attitudes.
External change poses a significant attitude change which affects the outside world and society. Ideology is still possessed within external change, but it is about changing environments. Comedian and PhD student Tory Gillespie states “if you make people laugh, they actually listen. Stand-up comedy is the perfect vehicle for democratic protest” (Cousins/Gillespie,2015).
The notion of grand, sweeping political change does not really occur, but change occurs in smaller yet substantial cases. It is usually a minor idea, like taking a badge at the end of a performance, signifying that one has experienced a particular show. This is external change, as one takes something from a performance and utilises it in the outside world. Often external change is not a takeaway memento but a concept, as seen with Tom Parry (from Pappy’s) performing Yellow T-Shirt. Parry playfully uses a neologism and urges people to use it post-performance. Parry uses the word “chirpsing” as a term of cheeky pre-flirting (Parry,2015). I began using this terminology in conversation. Bennett comments “‘Chirpsing’…should catch on, since it’s easily one of the best neologisms at this [Edinburgh] Fringe” (Bennett,2015), highlighting that stand-up can affect the way people speak. This incremental change is minor but important, as it demonstrates how comedians can create linguistic changes and how political external change can affect people.
Whilst rare, the big moments of external political change do occur and Mark Thomas has created mass change. In 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, he changed Amazon’s policy for putting subtitles on Lovefilm for deaf people (Thomas,2015;18-19). He succeeded in fighting the construction of the Ilisu Dam, saving many Kurdish lives (Thomas,2003). He exposed Nestle on Mark Thomas Comedy Product, forcing them to change their packaging for baby milk powder in several countries (trip2themoon,2011).
These are substantial changes to society, as they have impacted on the wellbeing of many people’s lives, and perhaps even saved lives, because of Thomas’ work. What is to note from Thomas’ process is a mixture of doing the activities himself and getting the audience get involved. This relates back to The RBS Way Walk: Thomas completed it first (for the purposes of the show), but encourages people, like myself, to take part. This is where change truly occurs. Thomas manipulates his audiences to play along with actions which are simple, fun and have a point. As Quirk mentioned earlier, he encouraged his audience to prank call a military airbase. In The Night War Broke Out, a performance filmed before the American invasion of Iraq. In this, he gives a prime example change.
“Mark: Every fucking bit counts…plane spotters down at [RAF] Fairford were given fucking numbers, by the U.S. security and they were told ‘If you see protesters coming down to the base – give us a call. Some of the plane-spotters passed on the phone numbers [titters followed by laughter]. And I’d give them out at gigs, for the last couple of weeks, I’d give them out. So get your mobiles out”
Thomas gives out the numbers and instructs them to make prank phone calls when the bombs start dropping. He tells an anecdote of someone calling up during an earlier gig:
“Phonecaller: Hello? Yeah. Is that American security? [Laughter] I’m a plane-spotter- yeah. [titter]. I’ve been given your number if I see protesters. Yeah- about 200 of them [big laugh] Climbing the wire at Fairford. With bolt-croppers and spray-cans and everything. Nah- It’s a pleasure. I’ll phone you again if I see ‘em. Bye. [chuckles]….
Mark: People were just phoning up just busking along.
Thomas delightfully asks his audience to take part and external change occurs by the fact that audience members make phone calls to the military base. Thomas gives license and permission to the audience call the base, thus convincing others to act on his behalf through the means of stand-up. Though the effects are not an everlasting change, but it gives his audience the power to conduct activism. It gives them opportunities to make offstage effects, which is a change to the outside world. The outside change is seen as Thomas intentionally inspires people to take direct action, as seen with phone-call anecdote above: People take part and leads to having effects beyond the stage. Because of Thomas’ performance, RAF Fairford will have had prank calls, thus proving that change occurs within a community environment and results with an offstage effect. Are there, however, any moments of unintentional change within stand-up?
Hannibal Buress versus Bill Cosby:
In Philadelphia 2014, Hannibal Buress accidently caused external political change. Buress, best known for his idiosyncratic laidback persona, created an incident which he comically accuses Bill Cosby of being a rapist.
“Hannibal: Bill Cosby- has the fucking smuggest, old black man public persona that I hate [Laughter]…
Cosby:…PULL YOUR PANTS UP BLACK PEOPLE – I WAS ON TV IN THE 80’s [Laughter] I CAN TALK DOWN TO YOU COS I HAD A SUCCESSFUL SITCOM [Laughter].
Hannibal: Yeah - but you rape women Bill Cosby –so [Shocked laughter, gasps and claps] that kinda takes you down a couple of notches.
Cosby: I DON’T CURSE ONSTAGE.
Hannibal: Well- yeah - you a rapist [Big laughter]…I don’t know why – but I’m telling you. But …I want to make it weird for you to watch Cosby show reruns [Big laughter]”
Buress annihilates Cosby’s family-friendly image with this, but Buress is not intending to condemn him per se, but simply uses it as material.
The video of this performance became widespread and people became aware of Cosby’s accusations thus gaining notoriety. A single performance of stand-up allowed people to become aware of Cosby’s rape accusations. This both shattered Cosby’s public image and the way people think of Cosby, showing the third level of severity. Because Buress delivered the accusation onstage, it legitimises Cosby’s injustices, as a stand-up commands authority onstage. Brian Logan writes “The rape allegations against Cosby didn’t stick until Hannibal Buress made the accusation on stage. Sometimes comedians are able to say what others can’t” (Logan,2014).
Logan reminds us that stand-ups have free speech and power to instigate dramatic social change, which Buress did. Within a year Business Insider reports: “Since the joke, more than 40 women have come forward to accuse Cosby of sexual abuse” (Lynch,2015), which shows a widespread external change.
From two minutes of stand-up, a mass amount of change occurred: Cosby gained serious allegations, Buress’ image warped into a “feminist hero” (Brodesser-Akner,2015) against his will and changed the lives of the victims, giving them incentive to come forward with this information. This is significant as it shows that stand-up can, in rare circumstances, utilise change onstage regardless of intention or motivation. Stand-up enables audiences to connect to everyone in the room: there is a unity. This unity allows discussions about Cosby to take place and allows victims to feel more comfortable to come forward. There is power within comedy’s community.
The impact is substantial, at the time of writing, Cosby is still undergoing prosecutions. The direct action of the audience members was caused by victims coming forward and people sharing the comedian’s material, thus showing that external political change can have a range of change.
Buress’ performance shows how much a stand-up can create positive change, however there are infamous cases where the comedian has created negative external change and has been rebuked by audiences. This reiterates that effects can occur without intention. Michael Richards, famous for playing ‘Kramer’ in Seinfeld, gained infamy in 2006 for abusing a heckling African-American.
“Michael: "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass! [Shocked, uneasy laughter]. You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherfucker. Throw his ass out. HE’S A NIGGER! HE'S A NIGGER! HE'S A NIGGER!”
The external political change in this incident is instigated by the comedian’s clumsy, disgusting attempts to manipulate the audience to attack the heckler. However his profanity incites the audience to turn on him for his racist comments. Audience members take direct action and create external change by leaving the club, alongside verbally challenging Richards and cussing his name afterwards. Richards’ slurs caused him to be vilified from society and comedy. Richards, speaking retrospectively says “It broke me down. It was a selfish response. I took it too personally” (Richards,2012). Richards is remorseful and wears wigs to hide his identity, showing his shame, which depicts the impact and the effectiveness of what external political change can do: it can vilify the unethical joker but also bolster the image of heroic comedian.
Stand-up has no outer effects
After examining external change within stand-up, we must scrutinise this and argue that stand-up has no effects. It may seem that stand-up creates change, but how genuine is it? Even if change does occur, it can only exist with that moment; an everlasting change can only be superficial, therefore, no profound effects occur beyond the stage.
The main argument against political change is ‘The Aristophanic Conundrum’, a term I coined myself. It is a historical example highlighting the futile impossibility of trying to measure change exuding from comedy.
In Athens in 405 BC, during a devastating war, Athens was dealing with many political issues and scandals. Dutta analyses: “[t]he political issue in Athens was fraught with danger and uncertainty” (Dutta,2007;127). The playwright, Aristophanes wrote the political comedy play ‘Frogs’.
This play was primarily to entertain, but had an ulterior motive. Douglas MacDowell writes “Aristophanes is not just trying to make the Athenians laugh but is making some serious points which is intended to influence them” (MacDowell,1995;6). Aristophanes wanted to encourage his audience to vote in favour of two democratic decisions which would affect the outcome of the war. The two choices were whether to reinstate the oligarchic supporters of the previous government and whether to bring back disgraced commander: Alcibiades. Athens was undecided on both. Aristophanes wanted to influence his audience to vote them both back.
Aristophanes demonstrates his arguments through an ‘agon’ in Frogs, between the traditionalist Aeschylus and modern-minded Euripides. Aristophanes’ views are represented by Aeschylus, by saying: “It is not very wise for city states, [t]o rear a lion club within their gates” (Aristophanes,2007;187). Aristophanes implies that to refuse potential help would be deadly. To highlight Aristophanes’ righteous point, Aeschylus wins the agon.
Soon after, the Athenian assembly called its citizens to vote on these issues and voted for the re-enfranchisement of the Oligarchic supporters. It seems Aristophanes influenced external political change through his play resulting in democratic change. It is, however, not as glorious as it may seem, as they also voted not to bring Alcibiades back, going against Frogs’ message. With the two issues discussed in Frogs, one was voted for, the other was voted against. There is no correlation between comedy and the effect, thus proving that Aristophanes’ external change did not occur and was merely a coincidence. Influence is all or nothing, it cannot influence half a decision ergo this negates most realms of political change, proving that stand-up creates no change.
The Aristophanic Conundrum is decisive way to disregard most aspects of change, with particular regard to political change, as there is no sure way of knowing the cause and effect within stand-up. There are many other factors in a political change, other than stand-up’s effects which could be more influential; ergo stand-up’s power is dismissible.
This brings Buress’ external change into question: Did he create change or would the women have come forward regardless? Perhaps Buress was simply a figurehead for the moment against Cosby which was already occurring? This explains Buress’ reluctance to the movement. We also must question the exact impact did phoning RAF Fairford have? Phone-calls may have occurred, but it did not create lasting changes, it may have just merely annoyed an operator. The conundrum shows there is no genuine change beyond the stage in stand-up.
The idea of stand-up truly having no effect is also a contemporary thought. Advocating lack of comedic change is one-liner comic Jimmy Carr. Carr’s philosophy is that his comedy is simply to entertain:
“People talk about comedy as if it one thing... And people [ask] ‘What does your comedy mean?’ and you go ‘No-No – I’m just an entertainer. No-no – not trying to change anyone’s mind about anything. I don’t have any agenda, there’s no real politics in my act…I’m not trying to go: ‘Right- This is the reason the labour leader ought to be like this’. It’s just jokes”
The phrase of “It’s just jokes” is particularly important, as that unravels his mind-set, suggesting that jokes have no wealth and carry no change within them; they are disposable. “Just jokes” suggests that jokes are a low-art form, that they are the common denominator and perpetuates the ideology that stand-up comedy is only a mechanism for escapism. Carr is only looking to poke fun and jest and that is all.
Carr’s comedy pokes fun at a wide variety of people, based on sexuality, weight and nationality, which occasionally cause offence. Carr’s counter-argument is that since he is joking there is no cause for being upset, as there are no intentions other than being funny: it is ‘just jokes’. This significantly suggests that jokes occur only in the moment, gain the laughter, and then they cease to exist, showing jokes have no effect and no weight. This shows stand-up has no effects.
To riposte this, Double’s article discusses impacts of emotional comedy:
“It is easy to forget that there is a second layer of response which remains unknown and invisible: the images that have particular resonance, the less tangible emotional responses and the memories each audience member carries away from the show in his or her head”
The idea of a “second layer” and an unidentified model of change suggest change can occur, but it is often undocumented as it occurs the individual’s mind. Meaning that some people saw Frogs may have been heavily influenced, but some may have not. On the measurement of change, they may have reacted to a level two or three, but may not have got to direct action. There are many hidden effects. Therefore we must not dismiss stand-up’s alternative capacitates to influence.
This leads onto Quirk’s thought that “all comedians participate in a process which challenges and renegotiates societal norms, whether or not they, themselves, intend or acknowledge it” (Quirk,2015;207). This is paramount as it defies both counterpoints. Quirk is saying that comedy can create change, seen with the fact that all stand-up persuades people, even if only to make people laugh. As mentioned earlier- everyone is a product of society; technically Carr’s material is politically charged meaning his routines have socio-political contexts, hence why audiences laugh. We can also see Carr creating political change as people complain about his jokes, ergo Carr’s audience can be offended, meaning that there is an offstage effect to his material. This links back to Thomas’ philosophy which means change occurs by creating laughter, by making the audience go “from a state of not laughing to laughing”. This shows that arguments for political change, and other factors of change, are still valid.
Focusing back on Buress and Thomas: their slants of external political change vary massively. Buress has a singular yet gigantic case of external change and was largely accidental. Whereas Thomas’ comedy relies on smaller acts, therefore he creates incremental yet vast changes. What can be noted from both, however, is that both comedians have created effects beyond the stage, which have had aftershocks of change. Even something as minor as Parry’s ‘chirpsing’ neologism indicates that external political change does exist. Moments like Cosby’s incarceration, a military airbase being prank-called and extending lexicon proves that stand-up performances can exist beyond the realms of the stage and to include internal political change, the mind as well. Change occurs in the outside world, creating a permanent landmark for a solitary stand-up performance. These moments are rare but they prove that both internal and external political change can occur, triggered by a stand-up performance.
The second group of change within stand-up comedy can be seen with emotional change. This argues that stand-up has the potency to make the audience emotional; arguing that stand-up can make the audience cry, angry and as well as creating laughter.
It is a deeply held belief that stand-up is exclusively meant to be funny; however stand-up (particularly with Edinburgh Fringe shows) has moments of pathos and drama which encapsulates the audience with emotion. These moments of sadness can only be achieved when the audience has gotten to know the person onstage. Double elaborates on this “The comic takes the audience on a journey, which can allow tonal shifts, quieter passages, raw emotion, exploration of ideas and a sense of building to a satisfying ending” (Double,2014;88). The audience anchors their feelings onto the person onstage. With that the comedian is able to manipulate their emotions and their laughter. To give an example what is meant by emotional change, is Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast.
This example, though technically not stand-up comedy, is still a comedy performance and instead of a conversation between the comedian and performance, it is between two comedians as well as the audience, with the intention of laughter. This is a form of stand-up. My example is with Ray Peacock, which features constant laughs and jovial discussions but eventually Peacock solemnly talks about his frail mental state and his alarming attempts at suicide. Peacock and Herring articulately discuss the tentative subject and when Peacock tells a story about his close encounter with suicide, it is packed with emotion, empathy and, shockingly, a big laugh. Peacock reveals that he tried to suffocate from carbon monoxide poisoning in his bathroom, but forgot that turning on the light also turns the extractor fan on (Herring/Peacock,2016). This intense moment had people both laughing with relief and crying at the upsetting nature of it. They care about the person onstage. This demonstrates a giant change within the audience in terms of joviality, tone and engagement; Bruce Dessau states: “Who says stand-up can’t be moving?” (Dessau,2016).
To further look inward on Dessau’s terminology of the word ‘moving’ conveys a transition: in tone, in atmosphere and content. In the case of stand-up it means a taking a journey alongside the comedian: you start with one place and end up in a different state with the comedian. It means that the performance transitions your emotion, your beliefs and your ideology in the space of a couple of hours and Thomas shares a similar idea:
“Take the audience on a journey… the thing which is the great thing about performance... It has the capacity to take you to a place you never thought you would go. To empathise and see something from someone else’s viewpoint and be able to reflect it upon your own experience”
Emotional change can be proven immediately from fact that the comedian makes the audience laugh; ergo there is already an emotional change taken place. This develops on Thomas’ philosophy: instead of making the audience leaving the theatre laughing, Thomas takes them on a journey, from laughing to sadness, proving that there is an emotional transition to sadness.
Theoretical arguments to emotion in comedy
Theorists argue that emotion cannot be intertwined with comedy, as they discuss how laughter is separated from other emotions: laughter cannot occur with emotions present, as an emotional state demands a different mind-set to a hilarious state. Henri Bergson famously argued that comedy is “like a momentary anesthesia of the heart” (Bergson,2008;11), which implies, that comedy is intended to mock people and comedy exists from a lack of empathy. This is supported by the previously explored superiority theory: suggesting that within the realms of comedy, the comedian can verbally attack a person to gain superiority and would receive laughter. Lash suggests that this laughter has to be exclusively funny, as any other emotions would shatter the comedy:
“On the part of the observer, any emotion other than one expressive of pleasure will obviate laughter. If viewed sympathetically, the clown’s pratfalls; his terribly strenuous efforts to arouse laughter, piteous. A minor misfortune is not funny until its effects are dissipated, until time has detached us from our angry emotional reactions to the incident. To perceive the comic element given moment, emotional neutrality towards the comic object is demanded”
This connects with Mary Douglas’ theory. Douglas states that comedy has a “temporary suspension of the social structure” (Douglas,1993;107), meaning that comedy creates an environmentin which social boundaries and moralities are relaxed in order for comedy to be consumed. The comedian creates a bubble in which the real-world logic is not applied. What Lash says, however, is that if any other penetrating emotions are allowed to seep through a comedians set, it makes the comedian’s logic feel far too real, thus the bubble pops and the comedy ceases to work. This is like seeing self-deprecating acts mocking themselves too harshly: it lacks comic value if it is painfully true. Pity is the downfall of comedy. These theorists argue that there needs to be cognitive dissonance between the comedians’ routines and their genuine feelings and emotions. Morreall develops why emotions may inflict on the comedy experience.
“An emotion involves our practical concern…Amusement by contrast, involves a non-practical attitude toward some present or non-present (often even non-real) situation that need have no relation at all to us.
Morreall argues that amusement, because of its jovial nature, cannot be presumed to have serious points, as it is too flippant and non-serious; re-involving the preconception that comedy is entirely for escapism. Morreall goes on to discuss that how he believes we become “slaves” unto our emotions, whereas amusement cannot captivate us in the same way (Morreall,1987;220). This, states that stand-up cannot enrapture an audience with emotions, as comedy’s context is far too relaxed and joyous to have emotional significance.
This is where the theorists’ ideas become stagnant. Stand-up obviously enraptures us through our emotions. Comedy is a symptom of all emotion. This can be proved from an evolutionally stand-point, as comedy actually involves our ‘practical concern’ and is a fundamental reason why laughter amongst humans exists. Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran discusses a theory on how laughter grew in humans. He states that laughter was necessary as a “false alarm” assuring that there is no danger present. He introduces a case in where an onlooker sees a portly man slip on a banana peel and fall over. Ramachandran suggests that if the onlooker sees that the portly man has been severely injured, this would be a cause for severe concern and would call for help. However, if the onlooker sees the portly man stand up, dusts himself off and wipes the banana away, this would instigate laughter. Laughter would represent immediately to others that a situation there is no cause for concern (Ramachandran,2003). John Wright reinforces this by saying laughter is “to assure that there is no cause for alarm” (Wright,2006;7).
Contrary to the Bergson, Lash and Morreal, I argue that when the onlooker watches the portly man fall over, there is an inner tension. There is an empathetic connection to the falling man, one which is filled with concern: this stays with the onlooker. This concern either develops further into a call for help, or the tension can be eradicated with laughter. This tension is paramount to stand-up and is fundamental in the way that comedy works.
The danger element can be seen in the foundation of jokes, as Carr and Greaves describe Jerry Seinfeld’s joke metaphor: ‘the set-up’ is one cliff, ‘the punchline’ is the other cliff and the joke is the leap between the two. If the cliffs are too close together, it is not fun and if the cliffs are too far apart, the joke will fall flat. For a joke to be successful, it has make an “exhilarating leap”, which encompasses the thrill of danger for the audience (Carr/Greaves,2006;132). This shows that there is a dangerous element within jokes relating to Ramachandran’s theory. It shows comedy making false danger to create tension. When the punchline is delivered, the contorted tension is relieved; the dangerous situation is remedied, resulting in laughter. Steve Martin experiments with tension. In his book he examines the relief which a punchline delivers, then denies the audience a punchline for a bigger pay-off:
“What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anti-climax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punchline, the audience would pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation”
This relates to Koestler’s theory. Both tragedy and comedy follow the same patterns and build of tension. The outcome is vastly different, but both have the same starting point. Koestler argues the difference between a tragic and a comic moment is that the climax of tragedy, which comes through the means of catharsis. The tension astronomically peaks and drama occurs: leaving the tension to ebb away into catharsis.
Comedy, however, instead of having a constantly rising tension, frequently relieves this tension: climax is achieved through the sudden explosion of laughter. Koestler aptly describes this explosion: “when the channel is punctured the emotion gushes out like a liquid through a burst pipe; the tension is suddenly relieved and exploded in laughter” (Koestler,1975;33). This is similar to Freud’s work, as his ‘Relief theory’ connotes that one laughs to relieve a repressed tension in a socially sanctioned way. However in this case, there is no repression or hidden meanings; it is simply laughter which relieves collected tension. This build-up of tension can be seen with Koestler’s image:
The point is that tension is an important part of comedy, as it is in tragedy. This contradicts Morreal’s arguments as it proves that comedy has emotional attachment to the audience in an active role, shown through the fact that tension occurs in any performative case. Comedy is within the same branch as tragedy. They are not so far apart meaning that a piece of comedy, whilst primarily it is there to tickle an audience, is perfectly capable of creating an emotional moment, by simply utilising tension in a different way. The greatest subversion in comedy is to touch on tragedy. It makes the performance relatable, real and honest. Omielan writes about confessing her life problems at a particular gig and the audience erupted with laughter, as they significantly related to her (Omielan,2016;159-160). This shows that emotional capabilities are possible within comedy: “[w]e share big laughs in a way that’s spontaneous and empathetic” (Wright,2006;7). Wright therefore is insinuating that this honest, vulnerable comedy reflects lots of recognisable human traits and these moments of hardships resonate with the audience, making an engagement, both empathetic and comedic.
This shows that comedy is about understanding and empathising with others: without understanding, comedy is quite puerile and meaningless, ergo emotional change is massively significant within comedy. Instead of Bergson’s “anesthesia of the heart”; comedy is the exploration of the heart, it magnifies moments of joy and allows empathy and occasionally it inspires moment of adoration and awe.
As analysed, tension build-up is crucial to how these emotional twists within comedy works. By placing a moment within the comedy show which is deliberately saddening or serious, it increases the tension; the following punchline will often create an explosion of laughter. As I will demonstrate below, comedians are able to utilise a whole range of serious messages, heartfelt speeches and upsetting moments. These moments do not obstruct the realms of comedy, but enhance the comic moments.
In Double’s essay on intense personal experience in comedy, he identifies that that there are two main envelopes of emotional change within the audience. The show can either have “big political themes” or a “personal experience” (Double,2007;6). These both create heartfelt moments which constitute emotional change.
Mark Thomas displays this emotive change upon the audience through political themes. Within his live shows, Thomas often switches succinctly between gears from hysterical laughter to the utmost seriousness. This change of mood, tone and dynamic resonates with the audience.
In Thomas’ 2001 show Dambusters, he discusses fighting against the construction of the Ilisu Dam. He fought against construction companies like Balfour Beatty in order to preserve the habitats and lives of thousands of Kurdish Turks.
After an evening of laughter, the final part of the show Thomas does a hard-hitting monologue about the utterly horrifying terrors of the Kurdish plight which goes on for several minutes. The audience are deathly silent. They walk out of the theatre, utterly devastated at Thomas’ powerful statements and heart-breaking imagery. Thomas vividly details the atrocities witnessed. The trigger for this is seeing the golfing men who are responsible for the crimes.
“Mark: I’m looking at the people responsible for murder. And I can’t say – If I say anything, the people I’m with are FUCKED. I can’t do a thing. And I begin to remember each and every person we spoke to. Each and every Kurd… From the mothers of the disappeared, who sit there in Ankara. Women, who, all their crime is just to stand on the street with photographs of their loved ones who have been disappeared; as in Chile, as in Argentina, as in El Salvador. And they’d tell you how the police would beat them: EACH AND EVERY WEEK… they lift the shawl and you can see: their necks and their shoulders are black and blue. And you LISTEN and you HEAR and you listen and remember every fucking person.
The monologue continues for a several minutes, vividly detailing massacres, war crimes, rape, forced incest, murder, torture, electrocution and a whole range of horrendous abuse, which is delivered by a raging Thomas.
“I WANTED TO KILL THE GOLFERS. I AM A PACIFIST BUT I WANTED TO TAKE THEIR WORTHLESS LIVES…The woman comes back from the fountain and this time she says what every single person we met says, she says: “When you get home you tell them everything. You tell them everything”. (Long beat) And I haven’t really even touched the surface.
This speech, sufficed to say, is immensely powerful and is evidence for emotional change within the audience. In this instance this follows Koestler’s tragedy model as there is no punchline to eradicate tension. This is difficult for the audience to swallow, creating a deeply upsetting moment for the audience.
There are similar moments earlier in the show, which do have punchlines and Thomas plays with this emotional tension. He details hard-hitting stories about the clients of Kerim Yildiz, who have had their human rights abused and women who have been raped by the Turkish military. Thomas, in these sections, would always have some form of punchline to counteract these moments of brutal truth, for example Thomas gives the audience a funny story of Yildiz at customs when he was mistaken from Saddam Hussien. This is the tension building up and exploding as discussed earlier; this laugh about Hussein is a particularly big laugh as Yildiz’s previous story ramped up the tension, leading to a bigger laughter, as a value of relief. In the final section, however, there is purposefully nothing funny. Thomas comments why he uses these emotional powerful moments.
“The reason to include it was it would be a disservice not to. Because it was true. Because I want people to know… They’ve had nearly two hours of fairly decent comedy… I’ve earned the right”
This transition is sudden, which is the biggest shock to the audience; moments earlier Thomas is jovial but then the monologue ensues, which immensely ramps the tension up. Quirk comments “the sudden lack of joking emphasizes the accuracy of the report an creates a strong emotional response” (Quirk,2015;44). This demonstrates that this bold, emotive performance from Thomas is incredibly important as it can create an emotional change. Because of the throttling truth, it makes people audible upset, as in one moment towards the end of the speech, a couple of audience members can be heard sobbing.
This is a demonstration that stand-up can have an outrageous emotional effect upon the audience, as it can transition the audience from a neutral state, to a hysterical state and lands in a sad and angry state. This is a masterclass in manipulating the audience, as they are driven to tears through Thomas’ performance. Thomas utilises emotion to make a political point and demonstrates that his stand-up merely more than just for laughter: he is making a point, making the audience upset and he is making an active engagement and building a relationship with the audience. In the words of Thomas: “You can take audiences into places they didn’t expect to go” (Thomas,2004).
Whilst Thomas demonstrated a political motivation, Russell Kane shows a similar intensity, but with a “personal experience” in his show Smokescreens and Castles. Kane’s show focuses on his relationship with father and tells anecdotes in a high-energy and entertaining manner, whilst using the present tense. After an hour, Kane shockingly reveals that his father has been passed away for several years. This revelation is performed with low-energy, acting as a stark contrast to Kane’s usual energetic performance.
“Russell: The sad truth of this fuckin’ story- right- is that he will never see this show,- he will never know a DVD was made – that’s it I’m drifting into my Dad’s voice now- this is a sick fucked up way to close the show –right [Laughter].
Russell’s Father: That’s right boy- keep ‘em laughing, the next bit isn’t particularly funny”.
The following minutes features a monologue of Russell impersonating his father giving Russell advice and gives the audience a timeline of the events and the heartbreak which followed after Russell’s father death. The hard-hitting moments are the bits of emotional detail which are crafted - words which make the sentiment vivid and ripe of real emotion. This is conveyed to the audience.
In the father’s monologue:
“Russell’s father: After the funeral-right- where bizarrely, I’m cremated to the music of Barry White, where your heart breaks in fucking two and you don’t cry a tear cos you’re trying to be strong”
Kane closes his show with this and gains an overwhelming response as it comes out of nowhere, so much so that Kane won the 2010 Edinburgh Comedy Award. Similar to Thomas, Kane catches the audience by surprise with an emotional revelation. Doing this device at the end of the show is crafty move as it pins an underlying sadness to the previous stories about his father. Before the reveal, the audience were simply enjoying the trivial dad stories, but the reveal instantly weaves a theme and meaning into the whole show. Kane discusses the device:
“What if you did it at the end? So you are speaking in the present tense all the way through and the audience are like ‘ha-ha-ha’. Right at the last minute, you shift into past tense – a little blackout and of course it did the trick, the audience cried and stuff like that”
It is clear to see with both Kane and Thomas that their material engages with their audience on either a political or a personal level through the means of stand-up. Though the intention is to make people laugh, these skilled stand-ups are able to create comedy which touches upon an emotional side, which is significant as it denotes change. By creating these moments of shock, and emotional pain, change occurs by the fact that the audience has felt an incongruous feeling alongside laughter during the show. Though there are moments of hilarity in the show, there are poignant moments too, where we see emotion coincide with laughter. There is no “anesthesia of the heart”, as the examples above prove that comedy can create emotional change. It can affect an audience’s mood after a show has concluded, proving that emotions can be altered by comedian thus signifying change and emotions lingering beyond the performance.
Change Upon The Comedian
The next group of change is how comedy directly affects the joker themselves. This change enhances or worsens the life of a comedian. This may seem obvious; stand-up affects the comedian, as it is their career and therefore tailors their life accordingly. However there are more substantial changes that are imposed upon the comedian in the pursuit of material and from performance demands. The first aspect of this change, are comedians who do ridiculous stunts for comedy.
Many comedians adopt a ‘documentary comedy’ performance style where they set out in the outside world and report back on their encounters and anecdotes upon the stage. “The personal comedy documentary, detailing some 'madcap' challenge has become a staple Edinburgh show, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Dave Gorman” (Bennett,2004).
Dave Gorman is the pinnacle of documentary comedy as he does extravagant challenges in the real world and reports them onstage for a comedy show. Gorman attempted to meet every other Dave Gorman in the world, strictly obeyed astrology’s guidance for forty days and did ten ‘Googlewhacks’ in a row. The shows discuss how the comedian fared.
‘Documentary comedy’ demands a personal investment from the comedian and a reason why they are doing it. Gorman explains that if there is no reason, there is no investment and the show falls flat; Gorman admits this occurred during the astrology show, whereas the others had genuine meaning behind them (Gorman,2016). This format also requires time, travelling and effort in order to complete these challenges. There is seemingly little to gain except extraordinary stories for stand-up, like the following examples.
100 Acts Of Minor Dissent
Mark Thomas’ work consists of encountering subjects in the real world and relating them back to the stage. In Extreme Rambling, he walked the Israeli Barrier in 2011 and the show told his journey.
Another extravagant comedic challenge was Thomas’ 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, a show in which Thomas commits hundred comically rebellious acts. The rules of the acts are thus:
“100 Acts of Minor Dissent to be committed in one year… Should 100 acts fail to be committed a forfeit shall be levied. The forfeit shall be the donation of £1000 to UKIP”
Acts include: Fighting Camden busking fines with Kazoos, getting banned from Tesco and campaigning for the London living wage for John Lewis workers (and succeeding). This show was a physical and creative challenge with a high, personal stake to Thomas (hence a personal investment).
In a conversation that I had with Thomas, he told me he how had to rush from act to act, driving all over London, meet people constantly for different activities every day; one day in particularly he had to complete five acts in a single day. This conjures the idea of how fatiguing this type of show is to a comedian: Thomas has to write the show and complete the challenges with Edinburgh Fringe as a deadline. It is bound to have psychological and physiological impacts upon the comedian. Richard Herring tests this boundary in his extreme shows.
The Twelve Tasks of Richard Herring
In Herring’s shows, he lives out unique ideas which make his life difficult. In The 12 Tasks of Hercules Terrace, Herring does a modern version of the Hercules’ tasks to combat his mid-life crisis.
Herring’s twelve challenges are ludicrous, for example he attempts to steal Germaine Greer’s bra, walks over coals and plays ‘Consecutive Number Plate Spotting’ in which he actively spots the numbers 1 to 999 on car license plates, in order, without skipping one. This pedantic game is “practically impossible” (Herring,2004) to complete. These extremes take his job to the extra mile.
There are financial and health repercussions of the show. One of the challenges was to date 50 women in 50 nights, taking them on different dates. The cost of this for Herring was “£4678.44” and he gained minor liver damage from excessive drinking (Herring,2005). This proves the comedy can change the comedian’s health and wealth. Herring’s personal investment is subtle, but arguably his extreme obsession of the challenges was more than just to create a show: he was attempting to become a better person and defeat depression. Herring states:
“The Twelve Tasks of Hercules Terrace which was my least favourite show … [but] I found it a very moving show actually. The journey of that show… it did take me from a dark place to a light place. But that’s the idea of comedy changing my personal life”
In this instance we see change occurring: the creation of the show helped alleviate Herring’s issues. This demonstrates how documentary comedy can affect a comedian’s life beyond the stage and create a positive, albeit time inefficient, change.
Another of Herring’s shows involved growing Hitler’s moustache to claim it back for Charlie Chaplin. He wore it for an entire year for his 2010 show Hitler Moustache. This majorly affects Herring’s appearance for an entire year which vastly changes his quality of life. His appearance would make people instantly judge:
“Part of the show is about at what point the conceit of comedy is more important than your real life. You know, I was putting myself in physical danger if anyone misunderstood it”
The moustache’s social stigma was full of comedic dilemmas, for example Herring had to go to his parents 50th Wedding anniversary (he shaved it off) (Herring,2010), had to wear it on a television appearance of Have I Got News For You and had to wear it for the entirety of his tour. Though comedic, the moustache has darker elements. Herring states: “In Hitler Moustache, my life was affected… I was genuinely pulling bits out of my moustache – just subconsciously… because I hated it so much” (Herring,2016).
This is important, as pulling out hair conveys psychological impairment and signifies distress. Herring suggests that comedy inflicts a lifestyle which makes him hate his appearance, thus meaning comedy imposes negative effects and can lead comedians to be in mentally compromising positions. Herring’s act of unconsciously pulling out his moustache hair reflects a drastic psychological impact in which comedy instigated.
The pursuit of comedy often affects mental wellbeing. Herring often plays with the idea that his mental health may have snapped. This idea is arduously tested with Me1 vs Me2 Snooker podcast: where Herring narrates playing against himself at snooker in a purposely unentertaining audio format (Herring,2011). Herring’s performances poses the question of how exactly does stand-up affect the comedian’s psyche? Has it gotten comedians into emotionally-troubled territories?
One of the most forthcoming and honest comedians who approaches breakdowns is Brendon Burns. Discussing his shows of battling personas, Burnsy Vs. Brendon. ‘Burnsy’ is abrasively outspoken, and coarsely crude and is followed by softly-spoken ‘Brendon’, who is reflective, socio-political and is closer to the real him (Burns,2015). He explains how the show wound him in a mental institute.
“Anytime I think you do expository or… any stuff that’s kinda trying to look into your inner psyche, anything that happens in your life that is damaging, right- when you are really making a living out of that, there is a small part of you, no matter how horrible things get, there is a part of you going ‘yeah-but this is a good twenty minutes’… Like you know-fucking- If I try and commit suicide- right- and I survive. That is an Edinburgh hour”
Burns is certainly far from alone when it comes to revealing deeply entrenched thoughts and feelings. American comedians like Louis C.K., Marc Maron and Doug Stanhope, have perfected telling these dark, honest, and occasionally, shameful realisations. Stanhope, for example talks about helping euthanise his mother (Stanhope,2013). There are also numerous comedians that often discuss mental illness on stage.
This explicit honesty reflects dark nuances and thoughts within life, linking back to Freud’s Relief theory. The theory suggests audiences laugh because the comedian openly discusses taboos and anti-social feelings in a public environment and the laughter acts as a safe way to relieve social tensions held in the unconscious. The comedian soothes anti-social and primitive compulsions and desires safely with his “tendentious jokes” (Freud,1991;131). Comedians generate laughter by discussing these dark moments, as they are fundamentally understandable to humans. Comedians, because of what audiences laugh at, are drawn to discuss the sinister, undiscussed and painful things in life.
Burns’ point, however, is that comedians feel compelled to discuss things which are happening in their lives, for many reasons: lack of material, tight Edinburgh deadlines, because they want catharsis, or simply because they think it is funny. Regardless, Burns picked the most painful parts, which had a detrimental effect on his mental wellbeing:
“What I was doing at the time was trying to write these perfect shows that would come up with this final magic button. So I would begin the show, and it was about my breakup. And I would talk about all these things which really hurt, that were really painful and it is killing. Absolutely killing. And then at the end I would do this final analysis, you know, this let-go moment in this, you know, pitch perfect narrative, end to the narrative. And a lot of people walked away from it and still to this day come up to me and say ‘you know I got some help off the back of that – that show helped me a lot and everything’. But then I get up the same night and still start doing the same shit all over again and doing the same stuff that was painful. So you are tearing the roof of the place, but inside you are trying really hard not to top yourself. And that’s how I ended up in the nut house.”
The repetition of doing impairing material every night wreaks psychological havoc. Burns would reach the catharsis every night, but would return daily to the painful stuff, thus never gaining closure over it, which causes deep emotional contortion with each performance. Therefore, the impact of stand-up proves to be a harsh, as it can make one mentally unwell.
Even doing shows for long periods with no break (and with no focus to emotion) can equally have its toll upon the comedian, as is it physically straining. Glenn Wool discusses Mitch Hedberg’s death:
“Your health will slow you down and you just won’t be able to do it… Mitch, although partied a lot, it wasn’t drugs that killed him, it was burnout... He was a day or two away from holiday. They knew he needed it…so it’s a real thing”.
The point Wool makes is reflective upon all comedians. Being a comedian and trying to be the best requires a lot of determination, persistence and hard-work, and comedy takes all free-time away. Overworking in comedy leads to instability and can lead to worse.
It is clear that stand-up directly affects the performers in many ways: participating in ridiculous feats, changing their offstage life and triggering psychological turmoil. Evidence of Burns, Herring and Thomas supports the argument that comedy affects their way of life, their mental health and also can also make them artistically fulfilled. This is a unique area of change, but it is clear that a comedian’ life is drastically altered by their own performative demands. Therefore stand-up changes many comedians’ lives as it causes significant changes to their lifestyle and dramatically affects their life beyond the stage.
The fourth and final group which manufactures change is the growth of knowledge that stand-up comedy creates. The thinking of this argument is that change can occur as stand-up teaches facts and complicated matters to the audience in a digestible manner. This can be seen with Robin Ince discussing sciences, Paul Sinha teaching the Magna Carta’s history or Bridget Christie tackling “labia minora reduction surgery, domestic violence, female genital mutilation” (Christie,2015;216). The audience can both laugh and learn. Zijderveld states comedy “sharpens our awareness of the comic and tragic aspects of human socio-cultural life” (Zijderveld,1968;287). This implies that information given by comedy has worth and is sociologically vital, as stand-up can act as a bridge to comprehension.
Knowledge growth has been touched before as it overlaps with the other areas. For example, Thomas’ reveals that Coca-Cola is immoral by telling the audience of their alleged wrongdoings. Thomas’s audience demonstrates a knowledge growth thus making them susceptible to Thomas’ message to not drink Coca-Cola. A similar point can be seen in As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela where he directly asks the reader to absorb in an important piece of knowledge: “This is a figure you need to remember. If you only remember two figures from this book, make this one of them” (Thomas,2007;144). Similarly with emotional change, Thomas’s Dambusters gives a torrent of devastating information. This information causes the audiences to react with glee or anger. This is important, as the audience needs to digest the information first in order for emotional and political change to be enacted. The information is the fuel for the change to occur. Therefore, knowledge growth not only overlaps with the other areas of change, but is fundamental for change to happen. The only exception is that it does not affect the ‘change within the comedian’, as the comedian supplies the knowledge.
Knowledge growth is largely about absorbing the experience of the stage: the comedian tells the fact alongside a joke, laughter occurs and the fact stays with them. However, a problem occurs: as the subject is immeasurable in this way. We are back to Aristophanic Conundrum and the ‘second layer’ argument again. You never know how the mind works when influenced by a comedian, ergo you cannot dismiss or be certain on all these points. The argument against knowledge growth in this instance is how does one know whether the transfer of knowledge has occurred? Perhaps a person mishears, does not understand and simply forgets the figures, which is likely under the influence of alcohol or whilst worrying about getting back in time for the babysitter or the last train home.
Without reiterating previous arguments, we can clearly denote that laughter is an audible symbol of understanding. If a comedian tells a convoluted and confusing joke, the audience will not laugh, however if the joke is clear, the audience’s laughter alerts the comedian that they understand the joke. This means that if there were to be no laughter, it would infer there would be some mixed messages. Ergo when a comedian gets laughter it is a signal that information has been succcessfully transferred. The audience may forget the individual statistics, but the overall experience will still remain with them, (thus reinforcing Double’s “second layer”). With this in mind, let us analyse evidence of knowledge growth within stand-up.
Mark Steel’s Lectures
Mark Steel is a comedian that has gained recognition for seeking comedy from unusual subject areas in history and politics. Steel covers famous revolutions, historical figures and complex ideologies through the means of the comedy and well-crafted gags.
Steel had several series based around similar ideas: The Mark Steel Lectures: People with a Passion and The Mark Steel Revolution. In the Revolution shows, Steel discusses six famous revolutions with a remarkable degree of accuracy and hilarity, like covering the French Revolution, The Russian revolution and the Industrial revolution (Steel,1998). In People with a Passion, Steel discusses the life and works of historical figures like Aristotle, Che Guevara and Karl Marx. To give an example of how such areas of history, philosophy and ideologies can be fun and engaging, this is Steel discussing Marx:
“Mark: Few things can be more obvious than that the fact that Marx was wrong [Titters]. Because if Communism REALLY was better than capitalism- it wouldn’t have need a 50-foot high wall to keep people in- would it? [laughter]. If you had a party and discovered some of the guests secretly building a hot air balloon in an effort to escape [Big laughter]- well you wouldn’t say “Well that WAS a successful evening!” [laughter]”
Steel discusses complexities like Communism, Engel’s Dialectics and ‘Das Capital’. It would be likely that there are audience members who do not know about these subjects and Marx as whole, but Steel’s interpretation allows the audience to connect to it in their own terms and in a comedic manner. Steel’s skills relate closely to the work of Robert Newman who teaches his audiences about oil’s history and neuroscience. Newman extrapolates the key ideas of the subject and finds comical incongruities and makes the incongruities accessible for the audience. Thus, for both Newman and Steel, the audience do not require historical knowledge to understand the joke, but there must be an access point in order to be relatable. This allows knowledge growth as the concepts are digestible and accessible segments.
What is remarkably interesting is the terminology used for Steel show’s title that it is a “lecture”, adding a depth to the performance. No longer is this necessarily a comedy show which touches on obscure subjects, but this shifts the focus onto the learning aspect of the show, suggesting that it there is a genuine growth in knowledge intended with the performance. Though the comedy is consistent throughout, Steel’s performance is primarily based on teaching, conveying an idea that knowledge growth will occur, demonstrating clear change. We cannot measure how far this will go beyond the stage, but we can analyse that it will be taken in at the very least.
Steel is certainly a rare case in regards to knowledge growth, as he specifically going out to teach people about history, but he makes the argument understandable, as do all comedians: comedians must edit their material and subjects in a way which is comprehendible for the audience, alike Newman and Steel’s topics. Quirk supports this by saying comedians “[translate] their dense material into structures that their audiences can relate to” (Quirk,2015;192). This proves that stand-up is a great medium to teach and to comprehend subjects, proving that stand-up conveys knowledge growth beyond the stage and can create change on an intellectual basis.
I have analysed vast amounts of comedy and argued whether it can create change or just has a neutral effect. Looking at the Aristophanic conundrum, it is difficult to measure the cause and effect of the stand-up, as to pinpoint whether a joke, a routine or performance has altered anyone’s life: it is impossible to catalogue. There is no plausible social measurement for stand-up’s offstage effects. Since stand-up is an experience, as Quirk reinforces, “evidence of such behavioural changes…is necessarily anecdotal” (Quirk,2015;197).
Following this, the only genuine evidence for change are my own anecdotes. After completing the RBS Way Walk, many changes occurred to me: I helped Thomas organise ‘Loitering Fete’ in a trespassing situation (I technically broke the law). I was able to perform alongside Mark Thomas, became the chief organiser of the RBS Way Walk website, and I organise others doing the walk. This began with Thomas’ idea to conduct the RBS Way walk and influenced me take part thus initiating this sequence of events. This is certainly an outlier in many cases of comedy, however in my experience; this demonstrates that Thomas’ stand-up has changed many things within my life.
In addition, I realise that I, as an audience member, had an offstage effect on Thomas’ onstage work – a reversal of the model. In 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, during a performance in Canterbury (Thomas,2013), Thomas asked his audience for a new definition for the term ‘Farage’, in order to create a neologism which reflects on UKIP leader Nigel Farage. I tweeted in several weeks later to suggest that Farage’s definition should be ‘juice found at the bottom of the bin’, which became the winning definition (Thomas,2015;93). The definition even had a song written about it. Thomas’s comedy is centred on community help and he says: “We leave the theatre having changed in some way. That we leave with an idea, we leave with something to do - something you can join in” (Thomas,2015). The audience can also have effect onto comedy, as can be seen with hecklers.
After analysis, however, though I am looking for whether stand-up can create change, this is not the only revelation I have come to realise, as a newer discovery ties up the argument nicely. I argue that stand-up comedy can create change, as it can change people’s emotions, people’s knowledge, alter the comedian’s wellbeing and it occasionally can create political change as seen with Thomas. Thomas is the beacon for all formats of change, which all stem and develop from his philosophies towards stand-up.
To conclude, I believe that comedy can create change – however not every comedian does create change. So to conclude this project, I would like to finally look at what separates the comedians that create change and those that do not create change. The key difference is to simply look at the comedians that are creating change from the ones that do not: there is disparity between comedians like Jimmy Carr and Mark Thomas; Michael McIntyre and Luisa Omielan.
I think the closest answer to this argument rings true with Jimmy Carr’s earlier comment as he states that he is “just an entertainer” and this is where my point lies. Carr only sees himself as an ‘entertainer’ and his motivation is simply to make people laugh: nothing more. However, if you take Thomas for example, his primary aim is to make people laugh, but he is also trying to make you feel, make you think and make you take action. The motivations and intentions of the two are incredibly different.
Therefore, I argue that there are two types of stand-up comedians: there are the ‘Entertainers’ who exist exclusively onstage to make people laugh. Secondly there are the ‘Artists’ who exist to attempt to say something more and attempt to influence their audience to change through the medium of making people laugh. Funmbi Omotayo describes these two groups.
“An entertainer gives the audience what they want. An artist gives them what they need. You know – entertainers come on and they satisfy the crowd – it’s great. But when you’re that artist… you give them what they didn’t even come for – and they’re like: ‘Wow, I did not expect that’”
Omotayo makes enlightening thoughts, he infers that the entertainers are the typical model of comedian; the type of comedians that fit with the mainstream image, the ones that play the gag-heavy weekend comedy clubs and simply aim to be the funniest person in the room. It is important to note that though they are not defined as ‘artists’ it does not undervalue their role as a comedian: both groups are explicitly funny, but have different methods, personalities and gag-styles. The entertainers, however, only want to provide funny material and do not seek any further validation from their craft. This can be seen with comedians such as Jon Richardson, Jack Whitehall, and Russell Howard. Whereas comedians who push the boundaries of stand-up, attempt to demonstrate a point, and cause an emotional outburst, comedians like Tim Key, Simon Munnery and Daniel Kitson.
Entertainers are often mainstream, television comedians and it is possible that the reason in which society views comedians as a form of escapism is because they generally only see the entertainers. They rarely see the ‘artists’ as they are fewer of them on television and therefore accept the view that all comedians simply offer laughter and nothing else.
This argument is truthful to some degree but has major flaws. For example Stewart Lee, who is the pinnacle of the definition of an ‘artist’, has five series of his television show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on BBC. Mark Thomas also had a television series from the late-nineties to 2002, ergo there is some form outlet for ‘artist’ comedians in the mainstream. Podcasts are widely available as well, but only really accessed by the ‘artists’ fans and therefore creating a moot point.
The idea of ‘artist’ and ‘entertainer’ are not binary terms: they define two ends of a spectrum thus comedians can be placed anywhere in between. One comedian does not necessarily stick to one label. For example, the reason why Russell Kane’s revelation about his late father is so stunning is that it has a heartfelt moment, in a show of leading you to believe it was entirely entertainment, and he strikes the audience with a heavily artistic moment.
This differentiation between the two groups is significant and between the two lays the concluding answer of this dissertation. There is a large section of stand-up comedy that does not create change and comedy’s main function is to make people happy and to forget. But comedy is disparate and varied. Within this are the comedians that graft and develop true masterpieces which display so much more. It has been shown that stand-up comedy can create fundamental changes and affect many lives beyond the stage. Most importantly, however, it also has the power to create acts of silly, inane and obliviously trivial change, because that’s the true nature of comedy.
Note to the examiner: In the printed version of this dissertation, there may be words and phrases with random spaces. This is an unsolvable, unpredictable printing error. To prove that it is not the author’s fault, please refer to the online copy.
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 These terms refer to Quirk’s definitions of these words. ‘Manipulation’ means another term for “craft, skill and technique” and ‘influence’ signifies alteration in beliefs, attitudes and behaviour (Quirk,2015;2) .
 Max Eastman, coincidentally, said it verbatim in Enjoyment Of Laughter (Eastman;1936,245).
 Referring to Newman’s shows History of Oil (Newman,2006) and The Brain Show (Newman,2016).
 Also available via http://www.gofasterstripe.com/cgi-bin/website.cgi?page=secretbadge
 I have seen this show many times, and I saw a version of the show before the time I conducted the RBS Way Walk. This performance is listed in the Bibliography by the fact that it was the last time I saw the show, as well as the only time I made academic notes post-performance.
 For sake of simplicity, with this bibliography entry I have entered the author of the podcast and the author of the quoted statement. There are other comedians featured within this podcast, which are featured in the text.
 This is a Youtube video for Mark Thomas Comedy Show in 2005. Dvds are unavailable.