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.

"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."

For more on Stand-Up Tragedy visit

Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?