Comedy moments: You kill me, you really do

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The Independent Culture
Our monthly series in which comedians reflect on comedy sees Mike Gunn consider the crucial difference between being dead funny and simply dying a death.

As a deadpan comedian working the alternative comedy circuit, perhaps I'm asking for trouble writing this article, but if I die on stage tonight at least I'll be dressed for the part.

You can probably tell by my picture that I'm not your traditional cheeky-chappy type. I prefer to revel in other people's misfortune - Schadenfreude I think the Germans call it. It's not just me and the Germans though, comedy has always been cruel. Even Plato is quoted as saying: "Laughter is found at the debasement of your fellow man."

That's why I've chosen to write about dying on stage. Why is it that when a stand-up is not very good, the audience reaction seems to be more extreme than in any other field of entertainment? I've never seen a ballerina, a singer or ever a juggler booed off. School nativity plays, which are invariably awful, receive no heckling and polite applause at the end.

Why is it, then, that stand-up comedy - often described as the most difficult thing in show business - elicits no such respect? Even the euphemisms for a lame stand-up performance seem excessive: he bombed, died a death, stunk the place out, cleared the room... Isn't this a bit harsh? It's just a few jokes for heaven's sake - not life or death! On the other hand the expressions used for doing well are equally violent: I stormed it, I killed, I blew the roof off. (Notice how these phrases are couched in the first person).

While you've been watching your Yuletide comedy programmes this year, you'll have noticed the obviously false canned laughter and wondered why it's there. Well, either there was no audience or more likely there no laughter. It's there to fool you into thinking the show is funny. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that comedy should be a two-way street between the comedian and the crowd - it does not work in isolation.

Comedians are constantly assessed throughout their performance. If after every punch line (more violence) you are not getting a laugh, then you're not being funny - it's as simple as that. This constant evaluation doesn't happen in any other form of entertainment. During a bad live show, an absence of laughter tells one person in the audience how everybody else feels about the show: the whole crowd is connected. All comedians fear silence.

At a concert or a play you may not be enjoying the performance but you don't know how it's going down with the rest of the room. (You'd better not say anything - it might just be you.) Often its hard enough to turn to your date and say, "Look, this is awful - let's go." It could be her favourite show for all you know - some people really like Christmas Pantos.

There seems to be security in numbers. A kind of fever can sweep through an audience of nice, reasonable people in a matter of seconds, turning them into an angry mob baying for the blood of a hapless comedian. I don't know why, but to see a comedian dying on stage is almost as uncomfortable for the audience as it is for the comedian. The only thing worse than being in the crowd cringing with embarrassment as some poor sod (third person again) leaves the stage is looking out yourself from that same stage - and seeing your new date cringing with embarrassment as you exit.

The truth is that all comics die, even the greats. Tommy Cooper was so good he managed to quite literally die on stage - and still get laughs.

So remember - next time you see a comic dying, don't just sit there in silence hating him. After all, he's committed the most heinous of all crimes: not being funny. Stand up, shout abuse, throw something. But consider: earlier this year Lee Hurst managed to turn the tables on the audience. Somebody actually died while watching him.

My name's been Mike Gunn. Good night.

Pause for applause or silence.