I like to try and mix it up a bit so rather than going to see some serious play by an important young French playwright in translation at the Ustinov studio I chose to take a chance on some properly alternative comedy at the Rondo, our local venue for drama, music and comedy. This was the third experiment at the Rondo for us the previous two being to see “Poetry can F*ck Off” and “Knives in Hens” both discussed before on this blog and both quite challenging in their own ways. I had never heard of Andrew O’Neill before but both Time Out and Chortle rated him quite highly.
We have so far seen two other comedy acts live in Bath, Stewart Lee and Shazia Mirza, the former at the Theatre Royal and the latter at the Ustinov Studio. If the venue could be said to reflect the general standing of each in the stand-up comedy pecking order with Lee at the largest, seating 900 (and nearly full), but as he always likes to remind his Guardian reading audience, not at the really big venues which signal the high drawing and therefore earning power of the “mainstream” acts; and Mirza at a “quality” but small and full venue with a capacity of 126 then O’Neill is definitely hard grafting at the Rondo which seats 105 and which on the night in question hosted perhaps 40 – 45 determined audience members.
Modern stand-up comedy is a very interesting phenomenon. I am no expert on the history and development of this form although I can say that I was a regular at various Comedy venues in London in the early ’80s, such as The Bedford Arms in Balham and Jongleurs in Clapham, and in Sydney in mid-’80s such as the Harold Park Hotel, and my sense is that whilst there have been the old-style of stand-up comedian of the northern Workingman’s Club variety telling typically sexist, misogynist, racist, chauvinist and blue jokes at least since the war and probably earlier (the music halls?), the “alternative” comedy scene arose out of “sixties satire” pioneered by people such as Peter Cook at The Establishment Club.
Whether you are performing at a large venue or a small one it surely takes enormous courage and determination to “stand-up” in front of a crowd of people and have the effrontery to try and make them laugh. Even if I don’t necessarily laugh out loud but am simply amused I consider that an achievement on the part of the performer. Despite the effort what is even more amazing is actually how long some of these people have been, presumably, making some sort of living at this vocation because surely it must represent a very powerful vocation to keep at it for so long. Lee, for example, emerged in the mid-1990s and is now 47. The show that we saw live was parts of the new six-part TV series that he has done for the BBC which is currently airing. I have watched the first two episodes and recognized much of the first from the live performance. The second was new to me. He has filmed these shows in front of a live audience in a London club and employs his signature technique of talking to the live audience and then to the “people at home”, addressing us directly through the camera, criticizing each in turn for their inability to understand him and his “jokes”. This is in fact hugely sophisticated comic writing and performing and could only be the fruit of many a long year of performing. It takes enormous confidence in your own abilities.
That brings me to Andrew O’Neill. Here was this guy appearing on stage with long hair, a dress over skin-tight black jeans terminating in silver high-heeled ankle boots, and a declaration that he was a proud transvestite – reasonably confronting, but not actually threatening – proceeding to do nearly an hour a half of comedy with no break, apparently enjoying doing so, for the entertainment of less than 50 people in a small hall in a village on the edge of Bath. What kind of madness is that? Why would anyone do that? And by all accounts he has been performing for the last thirteen years. I am, of course, quite out of touch with the comedy scene in the UK now after so long in Australia and know it only at second hand through TV and some vague idea of which British comics are touring our land girt by sea.
As an appropriate insight here is a clip from Stewart Lee Presents with the man himself interviewing Andrew O’Neill between snatches of his show and, interestingly enough, he uses the phrase that I am coming to think of as best describing the best of these performers (I prefer that word to “stand-up), which is “performance artists”. I propose that this sort of stuff doesn’t even have to be exactly “funny” to be good or successful; it just needs to engage and arrest the attention of the audience and get their brains working like any other form of “art” and can be admired for its sheer “craft” if nothing else.