“You’re so brave, Matt, doing what you do,” some people would say, occasionally, when I started doing stand-up. And I would say, “No, true bravery is to be found elsewhere.” But secretly, in my heart, I agreed with them.
It’s no accident that metaphors used with stand-up tend to be gladiatorial, martial. If you do well you knock’em dead. You storm it. If you do badly, you die, in front of everyone, on stage. Mortifying. My own pre-performance fight-or-flight evacuations are eloquent testimony to the visceral, do or die nature of stand-up. Nevertheless I can count the number of times I’ve seriously embarrassed myself on stage on the fingers of one hand – although I do use a unique binary system which ascribes high values to index finger and thumb.
Why should you die if you don’t do well? Because it’s so live. You don’t wait for reviews, for test results, it’s continuous assessment. With no protective fourth wall the stand-up lives or dies, thrives or withers, according to the unpredictable response of this evening’s audience – this capricious, unrepresentative cross-section of society which tends to be crueller than the sum of its parts and younger than the mean age of its constituents. They want instant gratification. And they want it now.
I think a better metaphor for stand-up is sex. It may seem crude, crass, and ultimately inaccurate, but the same visceral, gladiatorial quality is there, it conveys a sense of the intensity of the relationship, the intimacy that can develop, and the messiness. Plus there’s a courting, a wooing, a seduction, and, on a good night, a consummation. I like the idea of it as tantric sex where the stand-up’s role is to induce and orchestrate the pleasurable involuntary spasm that is laughter – whilst generously withholding their own climax.
Freud has said that when any two people make love there are generations looking over their shoulders. I’ve no idea about that but it’s an interesting fantasy. I don’t think stand-up is like group sex. I see the audience as a single entity. And, just as a magnifying glass focuses the rays of the sun, so the spotlight intensifies the compound gaze of the many-headed audience creature.
The stand-up, engorged with attention, becomes a tumescent trickster-trickstress, licensed to probe, playfully, the shadowy areas of the personal and collective psyche; to be at once silly and cerebral, tangential, pan-genital, confessional, obsessive, dysfunctional and deeply flawed; to find and press the audience’s buttons, to touch their pleasure spots, pleasure their trouble spots, tickle their taboos……until, on a good night, natural opiates flood their cardio-vascular system, seratonin re-uptake is inhibited and – the best cure for depression – they find themselves literally swimming with endorphins.
Also, with both sex and stand-up: If you’re not getting a physiological response it’s not working; It’s more exciting when it touches on and explores taboo areas; and it works better when the other one’s a bit drunk. The analogy breaks down when you think of the saying: “Leave them wanting more”, also I’ve never known an audience to (convincingly) fake laughter. And, in hundreds of stand-up gigs, no-one’s ever said to me, “Get off, you’re crap.”