In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard defined ‘immature humour’ as a precursor to religious faith: it balanced comedy with tragedy, and had ‘a jauntiness that has sprung out of reflection still too early’ and is ‘weary [of] time’. This immature humour allows us to satirise our own lives by lending great importance to the most trifling aspects of our natures. It is a mark of ‘aesthetic refinement’.
Skip to Simon Munnery onstage at this year’s Fringe, delivering his latest show, Simon Munnery Sings Søren Kierkegaard. He’s in full swing with a bit about Vladimir Putin. “The clue is in the name. The clue is in the name. The clue is in the name. Putin. He poos in a tin.”
We might disagree about the definition of ‘refinement’, but it fits with what the 19th century Danish philosopher describes and for those of us with little or no faith in religion, it might be the best thing on offer.
When I ask him what he finds funny about his subject, he replies ‘deceptiveness and scathingness’. I’m reminded a little of his character Alan Parker Urban Warrior, a quasi-satirical caricature of youthful socialism who also served as a vehicle for all manner of daft aphorism (Munnery himself is of the left). And of his trenchantly superior, tall-hatted fop from an earlier sketch series, Attention Scum!
Kierkegaard also had a variety of personas: for instance, he adopted the pseudonym Johannes Climacus for his most prolix book, ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript. I’m wary of going too far down this path. Critics are frequently overstimulated by the notion of singular influence—we like to draw lineages between artistic figures, and sometimes end up exaggerating or even manufacturing their importance. Deflating this tendency, Munnery tells me ‘There’s no real reason for Kierkegaard—it could have been Nietzsche, could have been Schopenhauer, it could have been anyone but I picked Kierkegaard and now I’m running with it.’ He mentions a work called The Concept of Irony, and soon after notes Kierkegaard’s opposition to theologians on the grounds that ‘the object of worship has to be absurd for there to be an element of faith.’ It strikes me that critics can be a bit like theologians in their tendency to want to make sense of the performance they’ve witnessed, because their response is inevitably based on taste.
I ask what Kierkegaard might have made of stand-up comedy. Munnery says he’s not sure, but that he would like to see his subject give it a go. Simon Munnery Sings Søren Kierkegaard is probably the closest we’ll get to that: the show involves performances from across Kierkegaard’s corpus and anecdotes about his life. One particular section from The Present Age is delivered with aplomb, and then raked back over again by Munnery, who teases out the hilarious trenchancy of the language like an enthusiastic professor.
We talk about the current state of comedy. Pointing to the spate of new cabaret-style evenings springing up in London, he says they appeal to people because they provide a collective experience antithetical to the singularity of watching television. ‘People [still] like being in a group … The audience is the amazing thing. A group of people laughing as one, almost magically sometimes.’
At one point in our conversation, I ask him whether he feels ‘under pressure to make people laugh’. “Well you can’t actually make them laugh. I’ve been to gigs where a very angry drunk man has gone ‘MAKE ME LAUGH’ and it’s just not, you know, it’s like someone saying ‘MAKE ME TALLER’. It’s not possible if you’re in that mood, you’re down in a ditch and angry. A lot of people have paid money to come to a comedy gig and laugh. The best thing is to try not to prevent that, let them if they want to. It’s the wrong way to look at it, to make them laugh.” His palm opens. “Give them opportunity.”
Munnery has certainly given plenty such opportunities. He’s inhabited every single subgenre of comic performance: sketches, plays, poetry, songs, films, puppetry. One of his more experimental shows was called La Concepta, a popup restaurant with an audience limited to four: “There’s so much theatre attached to food, I thought I would just leave the food out and leave it with the bones of the theatre. … [One comedian] used to cancel a gig if it was under thirty people, that was his magic number. That’s what an audience is, about 30. Interestingly for a schoolteacher 30 is the maximum class size. There’s something that happens […] when you get to about 30, maybe they get a sense of themselves as a group, they’re unteachable and become an audience. But they’re still the mob.
Can’t you teach an audience though?
“I suppose yeah. But there’s something about that…so you think four, that’s not an audience. Any comic, if their show’s got four people in, they’ll say can we just cancel it, because it just feels awful. You might have a good one, but you don’t learn anything from it, it’s not an audience if you talk to like one creature.”
The exchange made me curious about his motivation for covering such a wide range of ground, and whether pushing the envelope is a part of this autodidactic philosophy on comedy. “Basically if I find something funny … I’d like to share that. And then any difficulties on the way I embrace with joy – oh right, it didn’t work. Sometimes I’ll try something, and it won’t work, then I’ll leave it alone for a couple of years and come back to it. I don’t really give up on things very much. There’s nothing like thinking about something that ‘will they get that’, ‘will they get that’, and actually finding a way to make it work, and it working. Even if it’s just one person laughing, in a way, I am not alone.”
Munnery seems more aware of his audience than most. Towards the end of our interview he comes out with a slight modification of Machiavelli: ‘the ends are the means. Okay, you’re bombing Iraq to bring democracy? No you’re bombing Iraq, that’s it. What your ends are irrelevant – it’s what you’re actually doing.’ I asked him whether he thought that was true for comedy. He responded by pointing out that there are different kinds of laughter. SS guards in the death camps probably laughed in a ‘horrible’ way, but conversely ‘there’s beautiful laughter when everyone shares a thing.’
Jerry Sadowitz is a performer who unites these types of laughter—horrible and beautiful—more than any other contemporary standup. Again, it’s telling that Munnery focuses more on the ‘beautiful’ aspects, and locates these in the aesthetic reaction, describing ‘waves of sound crossing the audience’ as they by turns laughed at and were offended by the jokes he tells at such rapid pace. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Kierkegaard’s most accessible work, Either/Or, contains a theatrical analogy for the apocalypse. “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.’ This could be a description of Sadowitz’s tragicomedy, but it doesn’t really cover Munnery—though Sadowitz counts as a major influence, their styles are too different. There’s a cautious optimism to Munnery that makes him personally intriguing. He’s philosophical without being highfalutin: he even expresses optimism about the Fringe, and the hope that one day the Free Fringe will become even bigger than its parent.
“[The Fringe] has always seemed completely sewn up, because it’s so expensive, people have always said that, but yet it’s always got bigger. There are still gaps. The dawn gap—the dawn till 10am gap hasnt been used at all! If you could put on a show at dawn, you get people to come and it’s a different show every day, they’re yours. They’ll go home, sleep all day, be up all night, back to you.”
He pauses, and bellows: “DAWN!” “Someone also did a show up Arthur’s Seat. Imagine Arthur’s Seat at dawn – so to get there you have to leave when it’s still dark and climb Arthur’s Seat. The feeling of exhilaration you’d have to see the sun come up and see some amazing show—it wouldn’t even have to be that amazing a show for it to feel amazing.”
I think, in a way, I say, it would be good to do an hour and a half show where you walk up Arthur’s Seat, then around the Crags, then back up Arthur’s Seat, and when you finally reach the top you do maximum five minutes of material.
“A single joke.”
“And wasn’t this fun?” I add.
“It would be amazing. Also all the trees haven’t been used. You could go and put a show on under a tree, going down the microbes. There’s no need for a venue. I’d quite like to put on a festival somewhere which was just trees, all acoustics and no amplification, so each tree became a venue in a wood, people could sort of wander around.”
It strikes me that that would sound a bit like Jerry Sadowitz’s ripples of offense and laughter, but less disturbing, more obviously ‘beautiful’, a word Munnery frequently uses to describe particularly edifying or appreciable moments of laughter). The whole scenario seems to sum up Munnery rather well. Next year I hope to see him in a tree.
Simon Munnery Sings Søren Kierkegaard is at Soho Theatre, London, from 17th-22nd March. Tickets are available at £10 with the promo code: SHOW6