Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Surreys

I'm not really sure what I witnessed last night... if you wanted a supremely interesting example of the delicate status between comedian and audience, you got it. If, like the kind (if not slightly chaotic) people of Camberley, you wanted straight up jokes... you were sorely disappointed.

The night began with large, white round tables in the side studio space of The Camberley Theatre, in the foyer were hundreds of people eagerly awaiting The Pirates of Penzance in the main theatre... and we got the people who didn't want to see that.

The compere was a fairly rough and ready act... lovely persona, strong northern accent and heavy gags that took themselves to the audience and impressed upon them the unexpected elements of a gig. The audience responded well, convinced that whatever he was, he was it well.

Then, the first act came on... he had a delicate style... intelligent delivery, slow pace and jokes all pivoting around his Asian ethnicity. It wasn't the sort of material I fully enjoy, in my opinion it trod the fine line between clever creation, and exploiting racial stereotypes to a largely white audience who thought it was incredibly cutting edge. I find, the further you edge away from London, the more impressive an ethnic joke will be.

The audience loved this guy and he thoroughly deserved it... truly - he played with their expectations, he gave them a structure they understood and wanted. He guided them into what he was doing and they laughed on cue every time. Brilliantly played.

Then there were the middle acts... sigh. The first one went out and told meandering fart jokes with all the finesse of a chicken's flight. He ploughed straight into ill advised banter with a front row table who had been the centre of attention all night, and failed to raise his material's aim to the audience of mainly 40+ adults who probably don't find fart jokes or bad sex stories particularly amusing. Obviously, it would be wrong to make any judgements on this comedian or his act based on one performance in a less than typical comedy club. But, I think it is fair to say that his performance last night was not great.

Then I was on. The earth shook. I won't attempt any public dissection of my own performance as my levels of neuroticism so far contained in this blog mean I've now got PanicAttacksNow and AnxietyHelp avidly following me on Twitter. Joy of joys.

What I will say, however, is that you could palpably feel the different levels of energy coming back at you from the audience.

From the stage, to your right there was a table of overly drunk friends who were laughing at almost anything and contributing as much as you would let them... and then some more. To your left and towards the front there was a well measured balance of laughter that seemed friendly and wanting to be involved where your gags were strong enough to convince them. And at the back,there was a huge dead space of detached audience who were devilishly difficult to make laugh. They had joined in, carefully with a measured response, to the first act... they'd ignored the second act... were lukewarm to the compere... and I think responded 2 or 3 times to my sharper gags. Chat they did not like, straight up structure they enjoyed. Comedy made easy. Like them blokes off the telly.

So... now to the headliner. The headliner was Trevor Lock. A genius. Very clever comedy, very clever word play and an interesting take on genre and style. An understated comedian I would argue?

Being a headliner, he had not seen the rest of the evening... and he hit the stage.

What ensued was complete audience disarray and carnage. He attempted at first to banter with different areas of the audience... he played with the noisy front table and had much laughter coming back to him... until, a so far silent, table at the back shouted out loudly to complain that the front table had had all of the attention.

Lock addressed this table, gave them the attention they craved and had the audience rolling as he put the man down and played with him. The front table crowed loudly and tried to get back in the game. Sensing that it was all getting a little Lord of the Flies, he went round the room asking if people were celebrating anything special... wishing people happy birthdays and inciting much laughter. All to the annoyance of the front table, who were no longer special.

Lock then noted that he hadn't done any jokes yet... and a large portion of the audience (visible from my vantage point at the side) nodded in agreement, murmured or shouted their agreement. It was time to provide material.

Lock started out along a slowly building piece about his sister's vagina... at first the audience weren't sure - was this crude or clever? But he got them onside as he went further down and he won with this piece. But, it just couldn't be held.

Certain areas of the audience's desire to be involved had surpassed their normal social conventions in a comedy gig. While one third were baying for material which they wouldn't be quiet long enough to hear, the other third were sitting patiently waiting to go home and the other third were still merrily offering contributions as though they were the beloved mascot, and not the irritating child at the front of the schoolroom who won't keep their hand down.

Sadly, it all ended in defeat... with the audience desperately wanting to hear comedy, but not being confident enough in a joke that's not traditionally structured, to let the comedy build in Lock's natural style. It was incredible to hear them all shout together at the front table to be quiet and to blame them for the ruination of the gig, but to be muttering quietly all the time about the poor quality of the comedy and the comedians.

Whose fault was it? Should the comedy have bent better to the gig? After all, the audience have paid... but does the comedian have a right to only be booked for comedy he can do well? You wouldn't send a carpenter to do plumbing and then demand he knows how to do it because you've already paid. The right tools for a job.

Should the audience have been more open minded? They certainly couldn't comprehend that laughter bought through audience interaction was just as worthwhile as the material laughter. They felt short changed at laughing at something intangible.

Should the venue have evicted the front table when it became apparent that they had gone beyond sense? For this table, their own involvement was prioritised over the greater good of the evening.

I've never seen anything like it. It wasn't audience vs comedian, it was audience vs audience vs comedian vs audience. Absolutely stunning.

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