It is, admittedly, not a complex mystery why I gave up standup comedy: I was no good. More astonishing to me is that I tried it all. As someone with inordinate reverence for its successful practitioners (probably precisely because I failed at it and had a brief glimpse at the clunking machinery ticking away behind an apparently effortless performance), I almost feel like apologising for throwing my hat in the ring, and I certainly would like to apologise to the approximately 100 people in total who were ever subject to my meandering and clumsy attempts.
Once, a boyfriend from my teenage years told me I was funny. Surprised, I denied it: I never actually told any jokes, so how could I be funny? This was true, he said upon reflection, but I found funny things funny, even those funny things not everyone could identify as such. I had found it funny when someone writing for our school magazine as a food reviewer described a meal as “hot and thoroughly cooked”, for instance, and this was an example he gave of how I was observant of the everyday charms of language. He was correct about me as a mostly passive lover of funniness: it’s still correct to this day, and sadly it remained correct even when I was trying my best to be an active, productively funny person.
Helpless, breathless shared laughter brings you back to the most pleasurable parts of childhood and adolescence
When I started I was 20 or so, and was in a dire stage of life where I had dropped out of everything and had not only no idea what I would do with my future but also no idea what to do every day when I woke up. I knew there were things I should do, but they all appeared outsized and impossible to my depression-addled brain. An older friend of mine, the late and much loved Cian Hallinan, was a comedian and writer in Dublin and asked me to begin contributing to a monthly show he put on called Voicebox. What he wanted was a “voice of the youth” segment, where I would do a sort of satirical news report on what was happening to young people that week. (I remember the widespread nosebleeds from the briefly legal drug mephedrone being one item on the agenda.) I enjoyed writing the snappy little essays for this brief, the audience kindly laughed when I read them aloud, and Cian was proud and supportive of me. It both soothed my ego when I needed it most and fulfilled the requirement I had for immediacy.
I enjoyed this so much that I ill-advisedly went off book and tried my hand at actual standup. I did a routine whose essence I had ripped off almost entirely from a Jonny Sweet gig I had seen in London, where I handed out cards to uncomfortable audience members and made them read out gendered or misogynist insults, which I would then react to with theatrical offence. A few times, in the tiny room we did Voicebox in, with only a handful of supportive comedy nerd friends, it came off all right and was only averagely bad. By the time I tried it in a guest slot at Edinburgh, though, it was clear that it was veering into the territory of above averagely bad, maybe even unforgivable. I gave it up.
I still value funniness above most things. Helpless, breathless shared laughter brings you back to the most pleasurable parts of childhood and adolescence, those moments when to make a noise – in the classroom or a church – would be a dreadful disaster, a deterrent that makes the inevitable explosion all the more joyous. I wonder now how teachers could be angry when faced with the absurd sight and sound of children heaving with long-secreted laughter.
There are some people who instantly enliven an evening when they arrive, because their natural talent for funniness is so ingrained they don’t need to try to make you laugh all night – and this lack of trying is crucial to the dynamic. I have a friend who is widely agreed to be one of the funniest people any of us have met, but his electric energy and enjoyably unpredictable thought spirals would be ruined by the burden of effort. He simply is funny, in the connections he draws, in his speech, in his bones.
The comedian is something different. The comedian can sometimes be a naturally funny person like my friend. Even if they are, it isn’t enough to stand on stage and be ambiently banterous for an hour. There has to be form and strategy and something unifying, something sophisticated enough to distract those watching from the fact they are seeing a person who really, really wants them to laugh, whose night and perhaps career will be ruined if they don’t. This is the tension that attracted me to standup comedy, and that also viscerally repelled me; that balance of trying and not trying. These competing urges – of needing approval and pure arrogance – are the source of many neuroses, but up there on stage their clash can sometimes create an exhilarating, inimitable moment of euphoria and shared humanity. That possibility remains precious to me from where I now experience it, ensconced in the safe darkness of the audience. – Guardian
Megan Nolan is an Irish writer based in London