Ben Miller: Survival of the wittiest

Heard the one about evolution? Stand-up is a science, says the comedian Ben Miller, and dying on stage is all down to Darwinism

I remember the moment vividly. I was second on the bill at a stand-up night with Harry Hill headlining at the Brighton Ballroom in the early 1990s, and I was dying. My one-liners were falling flat, as were my attempts at surreal impressions. Then, an attractive, dark-haired women at the front of an audience of 200 people said in a quiet voice: "Anyone could do that."

If I had been an elite sportsman, you would say I choked, but I wasn't an elite anything. I was a nobody. A giant existential wormhole now opened up beneath me, leading down through a whirling black hole of comedy hell and out to the beginnings of the universe. Some strange part of my brain – the detached, all-seeing part that always believes you are going to win a game of table tennis – floated up into the sky and looked down. I saw myself standing on this pathetic little stage with my pathetic act, not even managing to provoke interest, never mind make anyone laugh. Every organ of my being was suddenly sluiced in shame.

That night, on the long drive home, I reflected on the similarities between evolution and comedy. My death that night and everything I've witnessed since leads me to one inescapable conclusion. Anyone who wants to understand the pressures that drive a species to change over time could do a lot worse than study the comedian in their natural habitat. It would have made a belting dissertation subject when I studied science at Cambridge. Alas it is only now TV channel Eden has asked me to write an essay to mark its science month that I can explore this unlikely hypothesis further.

Darwin tells us that for evolution to work, more offspring must be produced than can survive. Those who have been to an open mic night will be aware that the number of people who want to be stand-up comedians is significantly greater than the number that has any chance of making it. It's pure survival of the fittest. The night I died on stage in Brighton, Harry Hill came on and not only survived but brought the roof down.

Variability of traits between individuals is also important for evolution by natural selection. There's no doubt that we see plenty of that in comedy. I have seen everything from a young woman climbing into a suitcase and zipping it up behind her to a grown man lighting a firework and firing it from his behind. They don't call it "variety" for nothing.

Evolution requires reproduction. The successful stand-up gets to reproduce their act at other comedy clubs or possibly even on television. I understand the latest advances in quantum computing are going to enable brain implants so that our every waking moment is accompanied by a Michael McIntyre observational comedy routine.

Scientists have proposed a variety of evolutionary theories of humour that mostly boil down to comedians trying to get laid. American evolutionary biologist Richard D Alexander, for example, suggested in his 1986 book Ostracism and Indirect Reciprocity: the Reproductive Significance of Humour, that the point of telling jokes was to raise one's own status, lower that of certain other individuals, and enhance social unity. And to get laid.

Comedy also goes through its own evolutions. It all started with cavemen being unable to contain themselves when one of their number was sat on by a woolly mammoth. A century or so ago everyone would collapse into hysterics at the sight of men in face-paint driving around a big top in a collapsible car with square wheels. There was the exaggerated, physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, moving through Morecambe and Wise, Monty Python and the slapstick of The Young Ones and Fawlty Towers.

Homo sapiens have engaged in humour for thousands of years. There were jesters and joke books in Ancient Greece. Funny conversations were observed by the first anthropologists to observe Australian aboriginals, then genetically isolated for some 35,000 years. Though as anyone who has ever sat through a Shakespearean comedy will attest, not all jokes keep their allure down the centuries.

I see the comedy of the future becoming ever more minimalist until one day we are so sophisticated that being funny will no longer be of use in obtaining food, shelter or making us attractive to the opposite sex. It is a trait that is gradually losing its evolutionary rationale. According to my calculations, the death of comedy will therefore occur in approximately the year 6000.

As admittedly somewhat thin evidence for my hypothesis, I would point to Earth's more advanced cultures. The Swiss, for example, don't have an embarrassment of top comedians. I'd tentatively suggest there are few people on the planet that would part with hard cash for a night at a comedy venue in Basel.

Whereas once we thought of our life-sustaining Earth as a one-off, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope are discovering that there are vast numbers of planets orbiting other stars. There's a growing view that life is commonplace elsewhere in the universe. If intelligence and culture are by-products of increasing complexity in organisms, this raises the interesting question of what other forms of comedy have evolved out there. It's also great news for Lee Evans's promoter, as it means there are a lot more venues for him to tap.

This essay is an extract from 'The Eden Articles', a free e-book that is available from Amazon and iTunes from 20 July and from the Eden website uktv.co.uk/eden/tv

Ben Miller presents 'What Is One Degree?' on Friday 20 July at 8pm on Eden (Sky Channel 532, Virgin Channel 208)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor