David Lister: The Week in Arts

Don't expect a laugh from an off-duty comic
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The Independent Online

One of the strangest stories in recent weeks in the arts concerns the late Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who invented the comic strip Peanuts. It broke last week in America, was reported in The Independent and other dailies a day or so later and was still making full-page reports in last Sunday's papers. It continues to reverberate on websites and blogs this week.

It seems that a new biography of Schulz claims he was a moody, bitter, introverted and deeply unhappy artist who considered himself to be underappreciated. With commendable comic timing, he told his first wife at the start of their honeymoon: "I don't think I can ever be happy." He was, in short, a comic curmudgeon. And I am, in short, utterly unsurprised. This story strikes me as strange because I am surprised that others are surprised. Every comedian I have encountered has, offstage, been introspective, moody and invariably unfunny.

The most miserable press conference I have ever attended was given by a top comedian, who for sake of argument we can call Rowan Atkinson. Not only did he not say a single funny line or crack a smile, but his gloomy manner left me feeling utterly depressed.

The most difficult interview I have ever conducted in my journalistic career was with one of the funniest writers in Britain, who for want of a better name we can call Richard Curtis. The man whose lines had me in stitches in Four Weddings and a Funeral was desperately shy, uncommunicative, and – for that hour – didn't look terribly happy to be alive.

The writer Mat Coward, who worked on BBC Radio's Loose Ends and has collaborated with many of the best known comedians as well as writing books about comedy, tells me that he has rarely seen a comedian laugh. Instead, when they hear a joke, they will nod sagely, inwardly digest the parts that made the joke work, frown, nod again and, if you're lucky, mutter: "Yes, that's good."

The list of comedians who were brilliant on screen or stage but miserable in real life is too long and too well known to bear much repetition. From Tony Hancock to Peter Cook, Buster Keaton to Lenny Bruce, it is a familiar roll call.

Dr Mikita Brottman in his book on The Psychopathology of Humour says, "Autobiographies of stand-up comedians all seem to tell the same sad stories, all of them about people who never liked themselves, no matter what they did, until they finally learned to relieve the pain with laughter and applause. The more successful and accomplished they become, the more fraudulent they feel, and any brief setback in their career leads to depression and abuse."

Maybe. Or maybe it's much simpler, and it's not just about comedians. Most people working in the arts and relying on the often fickle love of an audience for their well-being are privately prone to being insecure and unhappy: actors and dancers as much as comics. That's why I would have been more surprised if Schulz had been the life and soul of the party than if he had been a curmudgeon. Misery goes with the territory.

When I met Woody Allen, I asked him what sort of things he got depressed about. He started reciting a long litany in which old age and illness were just two of many worries. I was surprised that he hadn't mentioned death and gently reminded him. For the only time in our hour-long chat he smiled, put his arm around my shoulder, apologised for being so remiss as to forget it, and thanked me for reminding him. So there are ways of making a comedian smile.

We know how to behave, Jude

At the Royal Festival Hall's Royal Gala, Jude Kelly (pictured), the Hall's artistic director, spoke to the audience just before proceedings commenced. She told them that they should stand when the Queen entered the hall.

I bow to no one in my admiration for the multi-talented Ms Kelly. But I do wonder if it was strictly necessary to give an audience that knew it was coming to a Royal Gala performance this rather elementary lesson in etiquette.

I may be wrong. Classical music audiences, and audiences at the Royal Festival Hall in particular, may have changed more in recent times than I had realised. Perhaps in Jude Kelly's words of advice there is an insight into how the arts, its audiences and Britain itself have altered since the same Queen was at the opening of the Royal Festival Hall in 1951, on that occasion as the daughter of the reigning monarch. Or it may be that Ms Kelly rather underestimates the knowledge of her own clientele.

* I thoroughly enjoyed the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at Tate Modern. As all the literature accompanying the exhibition makes clear, many of her sculptures suggesting captivity and family anguish spring from the traumas of her childhood.

One striking tableau is of a family dinner in which the children kill and then eat the father. So what are the awful events that have dominated the art of 95-year-old Louise Bourgeois for 70 years or more?

As far as I can gather, her father had an affair, and he installed his mistress in the family home as the children's governess. Not very nice. And I wouldn't wish to belittle the effect that this would have on a family. But nobody died; nobody was horribly mutilated; nobody really did anything that was worth 70 years of such angst. Her father behaved very badly. But as traumas go, I've heard worse.