Laugh? I nearly died: The rise of stand-up tragedy

Forget mother-in-law jokes, today's comedians are more likely to be found riffing on divorce, death and despair says Nione Meakin.

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The Independent Culture

"It was Sunday night," the speaker begins. "I went home to my lovely wife, put my key in the lock and the lock didn't turn. That was when I realised my second marriage was over." "Thinking too much isn't a choice, it's a condition," offers another. "Some of us are born this way, and we get worse. There was a time I suffered a bout of overthinking so virulent it took me the better part of five years to shut it down."

It sounds like a therapy session, but we're in a theatre and the outpourings of woe to which we're listening are carefully constructed. This is stand-up tragedy – a fluid form that takes in everything from music to comedy and is characterised by an emphasis on truth. Dave Pickering, the founder of a night dedicated to it, describes it thus: "It's an open term. When someone stands up to do tragedy, it's their take on what a tragedy is. Sometimes tragedy is funny, sometimes it leaves you in tears – the results are tremendously varied."

He's not joking (naturally); his nights have featured everything from a (fictional) story about infanticide to the "tragedy" of a trip to Ikea. "Tragedy is everywhere, both in high and in lowbrow culture," he continues. "It's always been a part of our lives, from the days of Electra up to The X Factor today. But people seem afraid of bringing it out into the open. Culturally, we like to insist on optimism. We're sold happiness, but our papers are full of tragedy. To me, this is about redressing the balance."

It may not have been identified so explicitly before, but stand-up tragedy is a familiar concept. Comedians have long mined personal misfortune for laughs and at the number of "true stories" nights springing up around the country, tales of heartache are often the best received. Tim Kerr, who runs a True Stories Told Live group in Brighton, says the appeal of a tragic story is simple: "The slow demise of community generally and religion-based community in particular has isolated us. It's become 'not OK' for people to say they're having a bad time. The trouble is you can't turn tragedy off. Its effects linger. Sharing stories of our tragedies can be highly rewarding. They remind us that behind the great new car and the executive home is someone who might be hurting just like us."

As to why it's right for now, Pickering points to factors such as the economic slump, mass unemployment and disillusionment with a glossy pop culture. "At stand-up tragedy, performers' stories have often been about the political situation we face, whether it's Grace Petrie singing about being young and betrayed by the current Govern- ment or Radcliffe Royds telling his true story of homelessness and addiction," Pickering says. "This is a live experience that truly reflects the state we're in."

But it's about something more fundamental, too. Experiencing tragedy and frustration is part of what it means to be human – we've all had experience of a job we don't get, a relationship that ends, loneliness. Kerr believes stand-up tragedy scratches an itch that isn't satisfied by more sophisticated art forms.

"It's that visceral experience of watching and hearing another person tell an honest story – you feel alive, you're part of something," he says.

Comedians frequently turn to tragic events for material. Richard Pryor, raised in a brothel by a mother who abused him, built a career on it, and Woody Allen wouldn't be Woody Allen without his neuroses. It makes sense; stand-up comedy is drawn from life.

Sometimes it can be hard to watch. Matt Price turned a real-life incident of his girlfriend being violently assaulted by an upstairs neighbour into a redemptive piece of stand-up. Similarly, Kim Noble's 2009 show, Kim Noble Will Die, left audiences reeling as he charted his battle with manic depression using homemade videos of self-harming, desperate recorded calls from his mother and cartoon animations of him killing himself. The jury remains out on whether the show was the blackest stand-up, performance art or a cry for help.

It's also true that tragedy can be damn funny. The gay San Franciscan comic Scott Capurro, whose mother outed him to himself aged 18, recalls the irony of attending her Catholic funeral service, while the Irish-American stand-up Des Bishop has written about waking up in hospital after losing one of his testicles to cancer. "There were four men in the room with me and two of them had also had the same operation", he says. "I felt empowered by that. Between the five of us we had seven testicles. I felt the power of the brotherhood and the humour of that thought got me through."

Comedian Jason Cook, who made his debut with a show about his failings and transgressions and followed it with one about the death of his father, says storytelling has always been a part of his act so it felt natural to talk about darker topics. "I think laughing about these things is a way of dealing with them and showing people they're not alone," he says.

The comedy programme at next month's Edinburgh Fringe is rife with personal tragedy; Sean Hughes' Life Becomes Noises is a musing on his dad's death that sees the Irish comic donning a jockey's outfit in honour of his father's passion for horse racing. "We take death too seriously," he says. Mark Thomas, best known for shows on political themes, also examines the loss of his father in Bravo Figaro, while Australian stand-up Felicity Ward makes a song and dance of heartbreak and her dark days as an alcoholic in The Hedgehog Dilemma. Timandra Harkness' show Your Days Are Numbered offers a humorous look at "the mathematics of death".

For Capurro, as for Cook, it is also an opportunity to pay tribute. His decision to talk about the death of his mother in last year's Who Are The Jocks? was largely about honouring her memory in the best way he knew how. Besides, he adds, even grief doesn't diminish the comedian's "end-of-the-pier need" for laughter every seven seconds. "That's what it's all about, baby."

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