Saying What You Mean By Hiding What You Mean
Forgive me if I’m sort of repeating myself this week – this week’s Tape will in some ways be a followup or companion piece to this Tape from earlier this year, in which I laid out my thoughts on meaning in comedy, and how to convey it. Although I have made such shows myself in the past, these days I always cringe a bit when I see a show that feels the need to lecture the audience at the end about what it was it was actually trying to say, to make sure nobody is left in any doubt. For me, it diminishes one of the most powerful things about good art and good comedy (and here I really am just repeating or paraphrasing things from that earlier Tape), which is that A. Audiences want to be allowed to find ways to figure out how the show relates to them, without being bludgened to death with an exact breakdown of how the comedian wants them to relate to it – it’s not about the creator of the art, it’s about the person looking at it. And B. Audiences are intelligent, and don’t need to be given much to be able to figure all this stuff out for themselves anyway. Often, a climactic monologue telling them exactly what you were getting at is a little insulting to an audience’s capacity to figure this stuff out, and will often leave them thinking “Well yeah, of course.”
My number one mission statement for my own show this year was to find a way to communicate a lot about how I’d felt over the last 2 years, and where it had led me emotionally, without ever giving the audience any information. Instead, my approach was to create a show where all that meaning was baked into its very concept, so that on a dramatic level, it tells the audience everything I want them to understand about my world-view without having to really tell them a single thing. I’m going back over all these old thoughts and ideas again this week because last weekend I saw John-Luke Roberts’ new show at the amazing ARGComFest (had such an amazing time, thanks to them for having me back!) and he is an absolute master at this stuff, and I wanted to say a few words in praise of his approach.
John-Luke’s 2021 show It Is Better (a live adaptation of a show originally written as an audio-only vinyl project) was, on the surface, an absurd over-analysis of the phrase “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” in which he obsessively conjured up bizarre images that are better than never having loved at all, or worse than loving and losing. Within this kaleidoscope of dumb stuff there were scattered moments – maybe three or four in total, each one only a sentence long, and each one completely devoid of detail – that clearly established that this thought exercise was the result of Luke’s processing two different kinds of loss. Perhaps barely more than one or two minutes of this 60-minute show dwelt on Luke’s personal feelings or situation, but it told me everything I needed to know in order to empathise with him, and then to understand what he was trying to say because I could relate it to losses I’ve had to deal with myself. That’s all we need as audiences – a single point of connection into which we can pour ourselves. I thought it was masterfully done, and the best example of a show that tells you exactly what it means by hiding what it means since John Kearns’ beautiful Double Take And Fade Away (also available on vinyl from Monkey Barrel – such good taste, those guys!)
John-Luke’s latest show is doing a similar thing in terms of disguising a personal story inside a complicated, ridiculous, over-the-top and over-extended absurdist gag, this time about searching through the entire multiverse for a specific universe he’s trying to find. It’s not fair for me to say any more than that about a show that’s still a work-in-progress, and I know certain things about it are set to change, but it looks set to be another show that handles the emotional centre of a piece of absurdism in a really delicate and intelligent way. I’m really excited to see the finished show.
Also at ARGComFest, I watched the latest preview of the brilliant Cerys Bradley’s show Sportsperson, which I’ve had the pleasure of directing this year, and am excited about applying the finishing touches to our approach to this issue in their show. Throughout the rehearsal process we’ve been very keen to avoid the trope of summing up the disparate threads of a show in a single monologue at the end that spoonfeeds the audience with the meaning of the show, but instead to find simple narrative and dramatic devices that give the audience all the information they need to be able to pull those threads together for themselves, and to give them the keys to be able to unlock that final part of the show’s meaning. This week we made some final tweaks to get this difficult balancing act working just right, and I’m excited to see how those help the finished show click into place before Cerys takes the Fringe by storm!
What do you think? Do you like it when a show gives you a precise breakdown of exactly what it was trying to say, or do you prefer it when you’re given the space to figure it out for yourself? Have any of you found interesting tools or practises for approaching this idea in your own creative work? I’d love to hear from you!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Brian And Charles, the feature film based on this brilliant short from a few years ago, is in actual cinemas! I’m going to see it tonight, I think, and it’s supposed to be brilliant. Independent films like this managing to get actual widespread cinema releases need all your support to help such films continue to exist, so do try to go and see it if you can, I’ve heard only amazing things!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I performed at Chortle’s Fast Fringe this week, and because of the nature of the gig there were far too many amazing comics on for me to list them all (30, I think), but Jazz Emu has an amazing song about fingerless gloves that really got me going.
Book Of The Week – Hiding The Elephant: How Magicians Invented The Impossible by Jim Steinmeyer. The last book I read about the practice of magic caused me to make an entire show based on it, so God knows what’ll come of this history of the art form. It’s fantastic so far, and I felt I’d gone far enough down this road that it was time I read a bit more about it, to make sure I know what I’m talking about.
Album Of The Week – Toast by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. This has only just been released, but was recorded and shelved in 2001. Most of the songs on it ended up being re-recorded with Booker T. & The MG’s and released as Are You Passionate? It’s pretty good. It’s standard Young-and-Crazy-Horse stuff, but if you like their vibe, it’s always nice to hear more of the same.
Film Of The Week – The only film I’ve seen this week is Minions: The Rise Of Gru. It was quite fun. There’s a funny bit where they fly a plane.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you enjoyed it and wanted to send it to a friend or recommend others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time,
PS Here’s a nice picture of me working very hard indeed