Sunday, September 25, 2016

Freedom: The Reason to See Little Joe (With A Postscript on the Defining the Norm Awards)

A few years ago, following a performance in Edinburgh, someone said of my shows that they were about freedom. Only on rare occasions throughout my nearly twenty-year career (if you can call it that) did I ever flirt with the possibility that any of my shows had a theme. During one run in San Francisco, I told the press that my intent with that particular piece (2007’s Grandpa, It’s Not Fitting) was to systematically slaughter every politically-correct sacred cow, in increasing order of social relevance, from the shallowness of Hollywood to the repression of the Koran in little over an hour. Usually, though, when queried about a theme by an interviewer or a prospective punter, I opt for the convenient catch-all terms of “dreamlike” or “nightmare-esque” or even “LSD trip”.

All monikers which could be applied to my latest opus: Little Joe. (playing 30 September and 1-2 October at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn)

But yet, when this woman revealed to me her analysis of my work, I instantaneously and appreciatively agreed with her. Freedom is exactly what my shows are about. Freedom from political correctness, freedom from industry approval. Freedom to say what I want, think what I want, and be what I want. Freedom to embrace and expose the subconscious in all its truthful beauty and not-so-beautiful truth. And perhaps I have likewise been hoping, all these years, to impart that liberating freedom to others who may suffer from groupthink, peer pressure, political correctness, and fear of cultural stigmatisation and social banishment. To simultaneously reap the rewards and suffer the blows that are part and parcel of steadfastly remaining an individual in the midst of an ever-expanding and increasingly authoritarian larger community. To live the life authentic. Yes, indeed -- my shows, my work, my life, are all precisely about freedom.

And Little Joe may be the freest show I’ve ever written. (playing 30 September and 1-2 October at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn) 


Many theories were circulating on social media and throughout Fringe pop-up bars in the wake of my publication of the nominees for the Defining the Norm Awards. Chief among them, undoubtedly, was that I had conceived of the awards as a way to get attention. This theory is promptly debunked if one takes into account two very obvious factors: 1) The nominees were published, in synch with the Awards, at the end of the festival -- a time precluding any effective public relations coup. But more importantly, 2) Everything about the Fringe is an attempt to get attention. Hypocrisy? Yes, it just follows me around like a lost puppy dog.

Another theory was sugar-coated in the sort of faux compassion that is the hallmark of today’s aesthetic wasteland. There was concern expressed over my mental well-being and even armchair diagnoses that perhaps I was having a bi-polar breakdown of some sort, the awards being a manifestation of psychological illness. The implication here is that the glut of mundane, boring, predictable, overly safe, non-challenging, political-correct comedy must be an hallucination. If we don’t talk it about, it must not exist, right? See no evil, hear no evil, and – most definitely – speak no evil. And besides, with all the sycophantic fawning this year about shows dealing “bravely” with mental health issues, how come I didn’t receive more applause and acclaim for what some were characterising as an act of sheer madness? Or, more to the point, as Craig Campbell graciously reminded me backstage one night at The Stand, artists are supposed to be insane. Yes, indeed, Craig, once upon a time before business sense prevailed over artistic inspiration. Good dog, Hypocrisy, have another bone.

Within a mere ten minutes of the nominees being published, the issue of me being Sarah last year was raised, with a few outraged comedians desperately asserting – despite never having been to one of my shows – that my 2015 performance would itself have been a nominee for various Defining the Norm categories. But it’s near impossible for regular practitioners of hypocrisy to accuse another of the same, for they were, unsurprisingly, wrong – as is anyone who assumes that a comedian wearing a dress will spend an hour talking about wearing a dress, or a black comedian will spend an hour talking about being black, or a female comedian will spend an hour talking about being female. And to think that once, way back in the day, surprise was considered the most important element to comedy writing. Unquestionably, these are the very bigots the real anti-bigots need to confront. They’ve got all their boxes ready and waiting, so either hop inside of your own volition or feel their communal wrath.

In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what flummoxed the comedy community more – this year’s awards or last year’s decision to live as Sarah and then become Will again. To this day, I see and hear comics I’ve never met speak authoritatively about both topics after first cautiously prefacing their diatribes with wishy-washy wording like My suspicion is. . .or I’ve not met the man, but my feeling is. . . “Feeling”, of course, being the vital linchpin term that can transform novice into expert, for anyone may speak in terms of feelings when so few converse in facts. How symptomatic of our diseased culture that people barely clever enough to be comedians deign to fashion themselves psychologists as well. Attaboy, Hypocrisy, come here and let me scratch yer head!

Other knee-jerk assessments of the DTN Awards were a bit more naked with their vitriol. Who is this foreigner to come here and tell us how to do comedy? screamed a self-righteous few. Well, allow me to introduce myself. This foreigner grew up worshipping – and was consequently heavily-influenced by -- what the best of British comedy once offered: Surrealism, absurdism, and satire. Little did I realise those art forms would be shoved aside to accommodate the now-prevalent pattern of comics sucking up to obtuse club owners and media fixtures, month after month, until that one magical time of the year when they’re allowed to go north of the border for three weeks and play at being Oprah Winfrey. We had confessional performances in the States as well and I didn’t like them out there either. Which is, of course, why I moved to Great Britain, my historical comedic home, birthplace of satire and the Sex Pistols.

Right on cue, there were also the inevitable lamentations that I was “punching down”. To this I say, has not our relativistic culture shown us that there are no longer such things as “up” or “down”? That anybody who wants to do comedy should be encouraged to do so? For we are all one happy comedy community and if we absolutely must complain about other comedians, we should either do it late night in a car, with one to three others, returning from a gig, or united as a massive front against a single individual – such as myself – who dares transgress the unwritten law that the illusion of the “happy comedy community” – for an illusion it truly is – must always prevail against the persistent tug of empirical reality. Oh, Hypocrisy, man’s best friend you are.

And besides, these awards were nothing if not egalitarian. I’d be hard-pressed to think of many other show business nomination lists that would unite eager young open-mikers with established mainstream television stars the way the DTN Awards did. Everybody and everything about the Fringe was covered honestly and fairly in one broad, all-encompassing sweep. Not to mention, any accusations of punching down are, by necessity, entirely contingent upon where I happen to be placed within the comedy hierarchy at any given moment. I know all too well how malleable a performer’s position can be when it comes to serving another’s argument. Last year, when I made the statement to The List that I thought Jon Stewart was “one of the least funny people on the planet”, the cries from the comedy community rose up as one: Who is this nobody going after an established guy like Jon Stewart? One year later, and the cry has suddenly transformed into: Who is this established guy going after these nobodies?

I have to admit here relishing at times the sweet irony that the highest levels of hatred for the Defining the Norm Awards emanated from bookers who never dared to put me one of their shows because -- dig this -- I’m not normal enough.  

So standing apart from, or, dare I say, above it all, one thing remains crystal clear. The reason for the proliferation of the disparate and incorrect theories about why I went through with the DTN Awards is because, to the average contemporary comedian whose limited outlook can only think in terms of careerist advantage or disadvantage, the actual explanation, simple though it may be, is one that such business-minded sorts would never (and could never) consider: I did it because I wanted to do it.

Now, that being said, there did appear one accusation that was quite tellingly accurate. Somebody had written in the first few hours following the nominee announcements: Will Franken seems to have a pretty high opinion of himself.

Why yes, I do. And I likewise have pretty high opinions of – in no particular order – The Beatles, Beethoven, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Lenny Bruce, William Blake, Peter Cook, and so many more.

Like all of the above, I am a free individual, slave to no community. I use intellect where stupidity is presumed, I use originality where formulaic is expected, I use merit where quotas are dangled, and I use rebellion where correctness is demanded. And it was a busy August indeed for this rebel. With the awards, I said “fuck you” to the comedic status quo. With my show, I said “fuck you” to the nature of reality itself. And I’m doing the latter again for three nights, right here in London town.

Little Joe. (playing 30 September and 1-2 October at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn)