Features Published 22 May 2014

An Experiment in Comedy

In the latest in his occasional series on stand-up, Chris Bennion attends one of The Invisible Dot's monthly Experiments.
Chris Bennion

In a tiny room near Kings Cross, on a sun-blasted Sunday evening, a hungover Matt Crosby (of Pappy’s Fun Club fame) is discovering that the audience’s ‘nerve-mistaken-for-grey-hair-leading-to-unbelievable-horror’ stories are far more grisly than his. The Penny Dreadful’s David Reed is encouraging an audience member to (mentally) explore their own bottom. And Gemma Whelan hasn’t turned up.

Welcome to The Invisible Dot’s ‘Experiments’, led by stand-up Mike Wozniak. A night where established acts can let it all swing out (see above) and try out new/experimental material in front of a small but extremely understanding audience.

If you’re the kind of comedy fan that relishes seeing the germ of an idea or who likes their comedy a little less polished, than this might be right up your chuckle alley. Six (good) comedians at £8 is tremendous value in anyone’s book – unless you’re writing a book about just how little you value comedians, in which case it might strike you as a little steep – and the audience is made up entirely of what I would call ‘comedy fans’ (you know the ones, t-shirts, glasses, definitely own a Daniel Johnston album). I have been to and performed at enough comedy gigs to know that this is actually a rare and beautiful thing.

For my mind, it wasn’t nearly as experimental as I would like from an evening called ‘Experiments’ (but then I suppose they had to call it something and ‘some comedy’ doesn’t really cut the mustard). Sadly I had envisioned Wozniak creating some kind of (comedic) human centipede from his performers, stitching together a Frankenstein’s monster of an act and letting it run amok through the audience – each comic both out of their depth and rising to the challenge.

What it was, in fact, was a bunch of stand-ups you’ve heard of, trying out new material.  It wasn’t quite the dusty, well-worn preview-strewn road to Edinburgh but it was certainly something that looked and smelled a little bit like it. Edinburgh 2015, perhaps.

Is that bad? No. Is it experimental? Well, we could quibble about semantics all evening, but no. Does it matter? Kind of. Doesn’t it? It kind of matters.

So, what did I want it to be? Improv? Lord, no. Improvised comedy is the preserve of failed American actors in continental comedy clubs aimed exclusively at backpackers, successful American actors in continental comedy clubs aimed exclusively at backpackers and people who play Hacky Sack.

Did I want dangerous, line-crossing audience participation? Not really, though I’d now really like to see a comedy show that fits that description. Did I want every act to attempt to push the boundaries of comedy to such a degree that comedy as we know it would be a weird shape? I’m easier to please than that, so not really.

Look, being a comedy audience is hard, right? All that laughing, and occasionally not laughing. The constant threat of audience participation or of a comic asking you what you do for a living. The pressure to laugh at the right things at the right time at the right volume. It can be intense. And then, a new material night? That’s even worse. Then we are cast as arbiters, judges, editors. We then have to make sure we don’t accidentally laugh at the bad stuff. It’s serious pressure.

At an open mic night last year, in a moment of sheer panic, I shouted ‘YES!’ at a comedian after a joke had fallen totally flat. The thing was, I liked the joke. And though it hadn’t worked, it had great potential and I didn’t want the comic scrubbing it off their list. ‘YES!’ I honked. I even tried a thumbs up. They muttered something about ‘taking the piss’ and moved on. They almost certainly killed that joke dead that very night. And it was my fault! I was only trying to help!

So when I turned up at ‘Experiments’, I was prepared. I’d spent all day mentally going through my various reactions to experimental, on-the-edge comedy (the whole gamut from the discerning nod to outright panic). I had worked hard to rid myself of any expectations of tight fives or neatly packaged gags. I was ready to be subverted, surprised and experimented with.

Instead, I was faced with what was essentially a (very high quality) open mic/new material night for established acts. I wasn’t prepared for that. I was expecting the unexpected and I got the expected, which was unexpected, so really, I should have expected it. But I didn’t.

I’ll definitely return to Experiments in the future (it’s monthly at the moment) and you should too. I’d love the performers to pick up Mike Wozniak’s gauntlet and take advantage of an audience who are literally expecting anything to happen. Be bold, be brave. Do something that you wouldn’t usually do. We, the audience, are prepared for it. We’re there to experiment as much as you are.

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Chris Bennion

Chris is from Wales but you wouldn’t believe it. He is a writer of sorts but not really. He writes bits and bobs about television for the Mirror Online and likes to think of himself as a playwright, despite little or no evidence to back this up. He has also written and performed stand-up comedy, once winning the 1995-96 Women’s South London Darts League trophy for his efforts.

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