Culture Magazine

I Have No Subject for My Blog Today But, in East London Last Night, I Saw a Very Successful Comedy Show with No Jokes.

By Thejohnfleming @thejohnfleming
(From left) Trevor Lock, Devvo & Chris Dangerfield at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

(From left) Trevor Lock, Devvo and Chris Dangerfield outside their Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012

In general, I do not review shows – I preview them – because, in my experience, reviewing shows just results in a performer calling you a cunt when they bump into you five years later. I also prefer to blog about performers and their lives rather than shows. In general, this blog is about people, people, people.

But that is not what today’s blog is about.

Every year I go to the Edinburgh Fringe and I have a problem.

I know a fair number of comedians to varying degrees and each of them expects me to go to his or her new hour-long show which they have sweated blood to create. Some get a bit miffed if I do not see their shows but, frankly, I do not want to see their shows.

As comedians, I know they are good. I know their schtick. I do not want to see acts I have seen before, however good. And I can, by and large, see them any time in London.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, I want to see bizarre new acts who may get nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award. And, for my own enjoyment, I want to see acts I have never seen before – ideally comedians and performers I have never even heard of.

To quote the late Malcolm Hardee, they “might be shit, might be good. Dunno.” That is the risk you take but it is worth it.

This year, I did not see comedian Trevor Lock’s show. But I should have done. He usually does what I might call “intelligent surreal verbal comedy”. Last night he was performing a show called Not Joking which had, on the poster:

WARNING: THIS SHOW DOES NOT CONTAIN JOKES, ROUTINES, STAND UP COMEDY OR BANANAS

The poster for last night’s show promoted by Poppy Hillstead

The poster for last night’s unusual show

People go to comedy clubs to laugh and to be given happiness.

A joke is a constructed sentence or two designed to elicit one major burst of laughter at the end and, with luck, maybe some minor titter-making points along the way. The problem a comic has in a one hour show is that each traditionally constructed joke with punchline will only last, at heart, perhaps one minute. In the hands of a highly-experienced and talented performer, this can be stretched to several minutes. But the show is an hour long.

A joke is structured Set-Up / Detail / Climactic Laughter.

As comic Lewis Schaffer might – and possibly will – say, a joke is a bit like sex.

It is:

Foreplay / Build-up / Climax.

After the climax of the joke, a comedian, however skilled, has to start at ground zero again to build-up the next joke to its climax. To make this constant stopping and re-starting invisibly smooth takes both talent and a lot of experience but, at heart, it is arguably not as smooth as the warm-up to a show.

Most comedians start their gag-based shows with a series of Hello. Where are you from? What do you do? questions to individuals sitting in different parts of the audience to try to warm-up little sections and, by warming-up these isolated little sections, to warm up the audience over-all. They try to make the audience feel warm, cuddly, happy and, most of all, involved in the show.

Then the show proper starts – a series of (hopefully disguised) joke-based stops and starts. The best Edinburgh Fringe shows now often avoid telling traditionally-structured stop-start jokes by using one unifying story and the audience’s enjoyment comes as much from the well-told story as from the laugh points.

This idea of telling stories rather than gags has now filtered down to comedy club level where, often, the best comics are telling longer stories with laughs rather than just a series of unrelated shorter gags strung together. And this has begat pure storytelling shows and clubs, as I blogged about four days ago in piece rather niftily titled: If alternative comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll, is storytelling the new comedy?

Trevor Lock’s show last night was slightly different.

Trevor Lock performed in front of a blank white wall

Trevor performed in front of a blank white wall to a full house

My heart sank when I heard it was intentionally going to have no jokes.

This is usually something inexperienced comics say when they (a) cannot tell jokes (b) have no performance skills and (c) are either bullshitting desperately or have possibly cocaine-induced delusions of their own genius.

Trevor Lock fits none of these three categories. He is funny, talented and as level-headed as any comedian (given that all comedians are, in their heart and soul, barking mad).

The nearest I can describe last night’s show was that it was a one-hour warm-up of the audience by a skilled performer who made something very difficult look very easy.

That makes it sound less than it was.

Basically, Trevor bonded the three-sided audience at the start in a very clever way (involving eye-contact) which I won’t describe. He then involved members of the audience in a basically non-structured show. (I noticed a couple of set-ups.)

Usually picking on audience members is awkward, even from a skilled performer – you are either going to get people who do not want to be picked-on and who have to be coaxed, which takes care and time unrelated to the basic show, or you get barely-controllable people who want to be the centre of attention and who have to be controlled and dampened-down.

Trevor avoided this by turning the show into what I think seemed to the audience to be something akin to a chat show with Trevor actually controlling what happened without seeming to be dominating. The consequence was a very very happy, constantly-bubbling-with-various-levels-of-laughter audience.

Remember that the object of going to see a comedy show is to laugh and to be given  happiness. Not necessarily to laugh in a near-mathematically-structured way at a pre-structured series of prepared jokes told in an order decided before the performer has actually encountered that specific audience.

Last night Trevor was, in effect, riding and guiding the emotions of the audience, rather than performing a pre-ordained show.

That is not easy for over an hour.

He managed it and, at the end, when they show was over, there was a loud, rising WHOOOOSHH! of clapping and cheers from a totally satisfied audience. Lots of smiling and chatter on the way out.

A highly intelligent, highly talented comedy performer at the top of his game.

If you can perform comedy without jokes and create an hour’s worth of constant laughter and happiness, then you must be doing something right.

Trevor Lock (left) & Chris Dangerfield, by Poppy Hillstead

Trevor Lock (left) and Chris Dangerfield – artwork courtesy of Poppy Hillstead, the promoter of Trevor’s show last night

This has not been a review, it has been an observation.

I would mostly be happy talking to performers about themselves and not seeing their shows. Last night was different. And it was interesting that, in the audience, were (I suppose I would describe them as) highly original performers Chris Dangerfield and Karl Schultz and rising promoter of the unusual Adam Taffler.


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