David Lister: Comedy doesn't travel... you need to be in the room to get it

The Week in Arts

The apocryphal story has a dying actor surrounded by his friends. "What is it like to die?" they ask. "It's hard," he replies, "but comedy's harder."

Harder still is writing or reading about comedy. At the moment most of the country's best stand-up comics, both new and established, are performing on the Edinburgh Fringe. Always at this time of year I am reminded of the time that I ventured a criticism of some of the female comics on the Fringe, and the comedy critic of Time Out magazine wrote without a hint of irony: "David Lister should expose himself to more female comedians."

I hesitate to provoke such dangerous advice again. But I feel that comedy is the hardest art form to convey to those who weren't present at the event. What is the comedy critic to do? You either give away the jokes and spoil the show for those still to see it, or you write something like: "She did a hilarious routine about a vacuum cleaner with a mind of its own." And that simply doesn't travel.

I'm not even sure that jokes themselves travel. Sat in London for the duration of the festival, the first thing I turn to is the Joke of the Day that The Independent publishes in its round-up of Fringe performances. It gives a good indication of the state of comedy today.

My favourite was the one told by Dan Antopolski: "I've been reading the prequel to 'Hamlet'. It's called 'Piglet'." Good, that. But I found myself wanting to know if it was a throwaway line while talking about something else or part of a run of jokes about Shakespeare or prequels. I crave a context, and you can't get that when you're 400 miles away. I raised a half smile at Roisin Conaty's gag: "I've no sense of direction, which makes it harder to storm off after an argument." Mildly amusing, but it might have been very amusing if it was part of a series of gags about a relationship, and maybe it was. You just don't know if you weren't in the room.

I couldn't raise a smile at all at Ruby Wax's quip: "Haggis? You take the contents of a zoo, put it in a blender and then stuff it in a condom." But... if it was part of a general rant about food, if it was late at night, if you had just come from a restaurant anyway, if you were part drunk, well maybe you would have wet yourself faster than Gerard Depardieu.

With theatre, film, music, you can feel you have witnessed the performance, plot, acting, musicianship from reading or hearing about it. The excitement of a great performance on stage or in the orchestra pit can be conveyed in print and its technique dissected. Analyse a joke and you kill it. Comedy simply doesn't travel. Unfortunately for those of us not in Edinburgh, you just have to be there.







Blair insight needed more pen chewing



The play Loyalty, written by my former Independent colleague Sarah Helm, has just finished its run at the Hampstead Theatre. At present it doesn't look like it will transfer to the West End or beyond, which is a shame, as it is quite extraordinary in its revelations about what happened and what was said in Tony Blair's inner circle, and indeed between Blair and Bush, at the time of the Iraq war. Helm is married to Jonathan Powell, who was Blair's chief of staff, and as the play makes clear, she listened in on sensitive phone calls and was present at high-level dinners.

I attended one of the last performances, and I could see members of the audience thoroughly enjoying the insights into the real Blair and his mannerisms. But I found myself concentrating more on Maxine Peake's portrayal of the Sarah Helm character. It's an odd experience to see a character on stage based on someone you know, and it can distort your critical judgements. Maxine Peake is a fine actress, and I'm sure in her mixture of the need to be on the side of right and a subversive frivolity she reached some emotional truths about the character. But in the whole two hours 20 minutes she didn't chew one single ballpoint pen. That lack of truthfulness in the portrayal may cost her an Olivier award.







And finally ... The Hour bottles it



I return to the matter of anachronisms in the gripping and brilliantly acted BBC drama The Hour one last time, as emails keep coming in on the subject. Though I originally raised the objection that anachronisms in speech, dress and social manners were distracting and surprising in a BBC drama (would a hostess in 1956 have said "I didn't realise you were 'together'"), I also believe some are a matter of opinion rather than fact.

One reader says that the statement at the time of Suez that this was the end of British colonialism may have proved true, but no one knew it then. Sorry, don't agree. There were plenty of far-sighted people around who would have thought that. I do agree with the reader who says that "less is more" came into the national vocabulary well after 1956, but I can't actually prove it, so I'll give the BBC the benefit of the doubt there too.

But I am grateful to reader Donna Poppy, who clearly watches The Hour with a dictionary at her side. She points out that the suspiciously modern phrase "Don't bottle out on me now" spoken by one character was first used in this way in 1979, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. You can't argue with that.







d.lister@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine