Letters To A Young Comedian

Tuesday 17 May 2005, The Stage

The Arabs invented nothing. No, don’t get me wrong - I have not applied false tan and turned into Robert Kilroy-Silk. I am stating a fact. The Romans didn’t have nothing, as Terry Venables once said of Lazio football team.

The concept of zero was introduced by Arab scholars who, like all academics, were being paid so little that they had to find a new term to describe their wage packet. Nothing proved to be a brilliant notion and I for one have spent years investigating and doing it.

These nothing thoughts are prompted by my visit last week to Battersea Arts Centre (or possibly BAC, I’m never quite sure) where I and 200 other people spent an hour and some laughing about nothing. Jackson’s Way, presented by Will Adamsdale, started out at BAC a year ago and returns having won the Perrier Award in Edinburgh.

It is a show that brilliantly exploits the philosophical notion that for everything in the world that happens there are billions of other things that don’t. For example, I have been sitting here in Cafe Nero in Balham for about half an hour now writing this. During that time I have not eaten a doughnut, put up some curtains, had sex with an alien, thought about Nicholas Parsons (actually now I have done that), invaded Italy, changed into a big clown outfit, assassinated Michael Winner, etc, etc until the end of time.

Jackson’s Way opens up the world of nothing and pours profundity into it, creating an abstract world that reminded me a bit of Ionesco and Beckett, innit.

Jerry Seinfeld famously said that his sitcom was about nothing but he was wrong. It was actually about the small trivial things that glue your days together, the little trails we have that distinguish us from everyone else. It was small-time observational comedy turned blockbuster comedy.

Dave Gorman is a man who has also created hilarity around nothing. He went to find other people called Dave Gorman, constructing an elaborate world round this quest (and other quests in other shows) without ever addressing the question, “Why am I doing this?” Gorman and the audience colluded in not posing this question since clearly there is no answer, and in some way the humour derives from everyone knowing this.

There are comics who hate this kind of humour. With all the big events in the world, all the things that do happen, they would say the comedian has a duty to engage with reality. Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, the twin gods of ‘comedy as truth’, sought to change the world, to force people to think about serious issues, about politics. Even if you’re just doing aeroplane gags, at least they are about something.

I sympathise with this view but as a liberal (after homosexuals the most evil people on earth) I can also enjoy the more metaphysical pleasures of the meaningless. These nothing shows may have no politics or relevance to the real world but they engage in a strange dialogue with the great philosophical ideas, since they seem to look at the big question, ‘Why are we here?’ and offer up the tentative answer, ‘I have no bloody idea’.

Next time round, I will be writing about something.

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