Kill or Be Killed: the serious art of being funny

I made a pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. It’s the largest arts festival in the world, and just one of the many festivals that take place in Edinburgh every August. People come from all over the globe to take in a variety of delights: visual art, performance art, music, opera, literature, dance, cabaret, comedy, military parading, buskers, whiskey, chips, and offal.

I, however, went explicitly for the comedy. I went because my life at that time was an absolute shambles. 2013 had just been one long year of bad news and dead-ends: one breakup, two layoffs, moving house three times across four cities, burying my grandfather, moving back in with my mother, and going to collect my father from jail. By the time 2014 came around I was in a state of serious depression; I was a washout at 29, and despaired of ever piecing a new life together. Until it occurred to me that the one constant source of solace and joy in my life (besides my cat) was comedy. Mostly standup, mostly British & Irish. Which wasn’t that easy to come by in Portland, Oregon — even on the internet. I became convinced that finding my way to the mecca of comedy would somehow reveal a new path forwards. So I quit my new minimum-wage retail job, changed my 2013 tax return into a budget airline ticket, threw some clothes in a rucksack, and made my way from Stumptown to the Fringe.

I spent nearly two weeks trudging through the rain and dodging the herds of tourists and puddles of sick that filled Edinburgh’s cobblestoned streets. I went to shows, hung around stony courtyards, subsisted on lager and crisps, and took notes. I was absolutely exhausted by the end, but I had worked out something remarkable: what comedy was for. What drove people to make it, and what compelled others to consume it. It was the same thing that had lured me across the Atlantic:

Love. And lovelessness.

The fucked-up-ed-ness of comedians is a cliché that we have come to take for granted. Lots of comedians carefully cultivate personas around this cliché, like smart aleck, schlubby rock stars. It was certainly central to several of the sets I saw at Edinburgh. David O’Doherty told us at the start of his set, “Your laughs are all that’s standing between this [being a show] and a middle-aged man’s breakdown.” Simon Amstel (my lost twin) mused over the fact that he learned to entertain as a child, as a way to try to stop his mother crying after his parents’ divorce. Mark Watson’s entire set was nothing but an agitated recap of his anxiety problem, alcohol abuse, and resulting nervous breakdown at a children’s party.

Of the few dozen Fringe shows I went to, the topics covered (based on personal experiences of the performers) included:

Alienation, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicide, relationship struggles, break-ups, divorce, broken hearts, breakdowns, perfectionism, social awkwardness, physical maladies, alcoholism, bodily hang-ups, body clocks, sex, unemployment, jealousy, homophobia, addiction, feelings of worthless, fear of failure, fear of dying alone, and misguided attempts to find happiness in material goods.

I was relating this range of subject matter to my now-fiancé (whom I found en route to the Fringe). He is Irish, and therefore knows things about Catholicism, and pointed out that I was describing a forgiveness ritual — confession and absolution. The performer comes into the designated space, confesses all their most aberrant deeds and thoughts and qualities, and, if the listener approves of the telling, they laugh and applaud, and absolve them.

And some of these people really need it. I mean really — lives are at stake.

Which I was reminded of just after I saw Sara Pascoe. She ended her phenomenal show with the reminder that everything we hate about ourselves evolved for a reason, and sent us off with the ‘inspirational’ take-home message of “Remember guys, none of us have ever killed ourselves!” Which seemed, at the time, humorously reassuring, if a bit macabre.

Until the following day, when Robin Williams killed himself. The news of it was splashed across every newspaper and tv set, and filled every social media feed. Suddenly, I realized how damn close Pascoe had been cutting it in joking about suicide; even the most well-known and much-loved comedian, the funniest of the funny, was prepared to cut his own wrists and hang himself.

Just after Robin Williams’ suicide was announced, an audibly shaken Marc Maron re-ran a podcast he did with Williams in 2010. In it, the two of them talked a great deal about depression and addiction. Williams spoke, explicitly and at length, about standup being “therapy”, a way of dealing with fear and insecurity. Both men agreed that their careers were shaped by their relationships with their parents, and deep-seated cravings for approval and love. Williams referred to an old Lenny Bruce routine, about how stand-up is really just a person going on stage, asking over and over again of the audience, “Do you love me? Do you love me?” The comedian says something terrible, gains approval, says something else terrible, checks to see if he still has approval. Over and over.

In that same interview, Williams stated that one of the greatest things about performing comedy is that the comic is allowed to say things that they’d never be allowed to talk about in other social situations; the sort of comments that might get you arrested in public get you applause in a gig. Getting past this block of what one can or cannot say in public seems to be one of the only real barriers to becoming a comedian. Nearly all of us can speak, and most of us can manage a witticism or a punch line if we really try. It’s a great craft to do comedy well, but the only genuine deterrent to grabbing a microphone and having a crack at it must be this psychological one.

While in Edinburgh, I had tea with author Susie Maguire. She told me that she had done performance and comedy for many years herself. She explained to me that she had chosen to perform in character because it enabled her say things aloud that she wouldn’t have had the nerve to say in public as herself; her ‘character’ could claim public space in a way she’d not dare to do otherwise.

Which echoed what Williams said in his interview, but also something that Bridget Christie (my hero) dealt with at length in her first series of ‘Bridget Christie Minds the Gap’ on Radio 4. She argues that the reason that fewer comics are women, and the reason we keep having to hear absurd arguments over whether or not women are even funny at all, is that “Society is still not used to outspoken women dominating space.” Which is obviously, appallingly true –women can’t seem to do anything in the news, in the media, or even in computer games without being told they’re evil and ugly, and getting rape and death threats. No wonder then that men, as she says, generally “find it easier to think that they have a right to be on a stage. Any stage.”

Clearly, there is a lot in comedy for the performer. It gives them a way of seeking absolution and love, and speaking about the otherwise unspeakable. It offers them the possibility of healing through sharing. But what about the audience? What’s in it for us? Are we virtuously punting-up to help them mend their souls? Are we perversely waiting to laugh-at and pass judgment on the folly and suffering of others?

No. Okay, maybe a bit of both, but mainly something else: we’re in it for ourselves. We’re drawn to it through our own damage; our own forms of lovelessness.

Imagine for a moment, that someone came up to you and asked, “Would you like to see a one-woman comedy show about a woman having a nervous breakdown while filming a pilot for a cooking show that she’s written as a way of trying to deal with her eating disorder? Oh, also, it’s in the very back of a long, dark corridor, in a creepy, drippy vault that smell like a tomb. See you there?”

You would very probably say no thank you. But you’d be missing out terribly. Because a show exactly matching that description, ‘Vanity Bites Back’ by Helen Duff, was probably the most surprising, moving, hilarious, and memorable experience of my whole time in Edinburgh. Picture a young woman, dressed like a 1950s TV housewife, hosting a demented fake cooking show, coating her arms in butter as she recalled the feelings of disgust she felt with her body fat even after just barely surviving a car crash. I’ve struggled a bit myself with self-hatred, and body dysmorphic disorder shit, as I think most Western women have in recent generations. To see someone doing something so funny, grotesque, disorienting, heartbreaking, yet deeply relatable was a bit of a revelation. It may be the only live performance of any sort where I have found myself actually moved to tears. I ended up going twice.

There is word for this: catharsis.

If you look up ‘catharsis’ on, this is what you find:

- the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.

- psychotherapy that encourages or permits the discharge of pent-up, socially unacceptable affects.

I remember half-learning the word ‘catharsis’ in high school. It was a thing that happened in Greek tragedy. When Medea killed her own children, that was somehow supposed to be cathartic. At sixteen, this explanation of catharsis puzzled me. At thirty, I now know why — it was bullshit. And it reflects a long-running cultural misconception: we don’t really understand catharsis, or where best to seek it. We don’t know how to recognize, talk about, or process any human emotions properly, but especially not this one. We think that in order to deal with sadness, we have to look to things that are overtly sad. We think that in order to seriously deal with serious issues, we have to look serious. Which is a bunch of old fashioned, eye for an eye, fight fire with fire nonsense.

When Bridget Christie finds a way to make us laugh at the horrors of our Western rape culture, or the rampant use of female genital mutilation in other cultures, that is awareness raising, sure, but it is also catharsis. Because these are things too horrible and huge to think about on their own for any sustained amount of time. When Simon Amstel serenely explains that calling someone a cunt is really just a way of saying “You’re the doorway to life!”, maybe we feel a little bit better about the times shitty guys have called us cunts, or tried to make us feel bad about having one (those of us who do). When Eleanor Tiernan claims that she had to stop drinking because she got a letter from Loreal to let her know she ‘wasn’t worth it’ anymore, we laugh at both the idiotic slogan she’s referencing, but also the feelings of worthlessness we know from the many, many times we’ve taken too much drink ourselves. When Josie Long observes that how hard it is, as a single person, not to look back at all your previous relationships as “a string of failures where the common theme is your terrible fucking personality,” we feel for her, and we also secretly nod our heads in recognition…

We watch these people freely and publicly owning up to things that we are loath to even admit to ourselves. And we feel a tremendous relief; thank goodness, I am not alone. It is comedy and comedy alone that explicitly says, “Here is the thing you are afraid of. But we can laugh about it. Together. And if we can laugh about it, we can probably deal with it.”

It’s no wonder then that our favorite news sources today are comedy programs. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, and John Oliver were all professional comedians before they took to their desks. In the UK as well, news-focused comedy programs like Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You, and Russell Howard’s Good News have been going strong for years. The ‘serious’ news is so relentlessly terrible, that most of us reach a point of fatigue where we simply can’t process it anymore. We need someone to help us laugh about it.

Which is why it seems ludicrous to me to not acknowledge great comedy as a great art, and the obvious realm in which to go seeking catharsis. Standup is storytelling at its absolute purest; a bit like literature, but with balls. Storytellers with the guts to say what they think and what they have done, to sweat it out to your face, without hiding behind the long, convoluted channels that lead to sanitary dust-jackets or downloads.

Mark Maron’s normal mode of speaking tends to range between kvetching and ranting. But recalling his conversation with Robin Williams, you could hear him choking up as he tried to convey how much love he had for the recently departed. He emphasized that Williams was sensitive, perceptive, empathetic, and that above all else, “he was full of love.” That the lovelessness he struggled against proved stronger, in the end, says a lot to how strong it must have been, and how much love he must have had and/or needed to do comedy for so many years and still take his own life.

When a comedian is having a great show, they are said to be ‘killing it’. And maybe, sometimes, it’s an issue of kill or be killed — kill the lovelessness (fear, insecurity, etc.), before it kills you. And when someone shares their experiences of their battles (even, or maybe especially when, we know that they have failed) they give us hope. Because we realize that whatever we’re struggling with, we’re not alone — screwing up, and being screwed up, are an integral part of being human. We’re reminded that even when it is horrible, it is still funny. As long as we’re still alive, we can still laugh. Any art that shows us this an act of bravery, and also one of love.