Fringe preview: Seriously Funny
Amid all the knockabout fun of the Fringe, some comedians are tackling bigger, more serious subjects
This article is from 2015.
We’re agreed. Nobody needs to hear this question again: do you have to be mad to be a comedian? ‘It’s a very original question that sits alongside “are women funny?” and “who are your influences in comedy?”‘ On the subject of mental illness and its related wreckages, Felicity Ward is candid, referring to herself as a ‘psychopath’, which may be less far from the truth than imagined.
In a study, The British Journal of Psychiatry found that comedians are likely to have psychotic tendencies, a report which led to Ward’s involvement in a documentary about mental health. All this brought up more material than she could conceivably use in the programme, so this year’s Fringe show, What if There Is No Toilet?, was born.
‘It was a bit of a no-brainer,’ she continues. ‘I’d done all the research before I started writing the show. I’m better at writing on a topic if I know a lot about it. I’ve been diagnosed for five years, officially, but I’ve had it for a lot longer than that.’
Of course, you don’t have to be unstable to be funny, but according to the comedy line-up at this year’s Fringe, there’s nothing more amusing than personal tragedy. Alongside Ward’s show about mental health issues and irritable bowel syndrome (the latter delicate issue is also being tackled by Laura Lexx), other topics to be addressed in comedy shows are amputation (Colin Leggo), euthanasia (Mel Moon), the death of a parent (John-Luke Roberts), a spouse with cancer (Alistair Barrie) and having cancer yourself (Beth Vyse). It’s shaping up to be a heavy old month.
‘You have to be quite careful with the subject matter because a lot of people have been through absolute hell with it.’ It's been five years since Beth had breast cancer and she finally got the all clear at the end of last year (‘they said to me, “you’re the same as everyone else now”, but you never will be the same as everyone else’), and her show relives the experience. As Funny as Cancer also deals with her childhood and later life experiences – she met Nelson Mandela when she was young and was engaged to Michael Jackson (no, not that one) – with Vyse neither sugar-coating nor going for gross-out.
‘My stuff has always been a bit surreal, but there’s this underlying thing that I want to get out: people go on stage and talk about things that happen to them because that’s funny. That’s the reason I’m doing this show, because it’s always on my mind. I’m telling it in quite a surreal way, so I suppose my style of humour comes through in that.’
Mark Steel’s Who Do I Think I Am? is the comic’s incredible tale of trying to track down his birth mother, albeit with little success (‘she didn’t want to know me’), but along that rocky road, he discovered that his natural father had lived an extraordinary life, particularly in relation to the sorts of people he associates with. ‘He wrote a book about backgammon with an introduction written by a chap called Jim Slater, who was then found guilty of corruption on a massive scale. So those are the people he was close to; given that I’ve spent my whole life campaigning against exactly those sorts of people, that makes it a most extraordinary tale. It’s like a really badly-written Jeffrey Archer novel.’
Utterly pragmatic about what is a harrowing tale in which his father tells him that he offered his mother money to have him ‘dealt with’ (code for ‘aborted’), Steel makes no bones about how important, and helpful, it is that humour can emerge from gravitas. ‘Anything that’s funny comes from something that matters, doesn’t it? It makes it a lot easier to have a story where things happen that are funny. You’ve then just got to find a way of telling it in a funny way. If one of them had been an accountant and the other was a tree surgeon and the most exciting thing they ever did was go to Eastbourne, then they wouldn’t have helped me. But this lot have definitely helped me out.’
On discovering her problems with anxiety and depression, Ward is similarly down-to-earth and deadpan. ‘In 2010, I went up to the Fringe and did my second show. That was when my anxiety exploded. That anxiety was the equivalent of a really successful comedian. It was an overnight success.’ Where the pillars of mental illness and IBS intertwine was the discovery that her fear of losing control of her bladder and bowels was, in fact, entirely normal for someone with her mental health issues. ‘That’s a crazy thing to tell someone: “I’m afraid of wetting myself on stage”. But it’s really common and has been a theme throughout my life. It’s my longest running relationship. It’s also one of those things where I thought “I wonder if I can make that funny”.’
This, then, is the primary objective for Ward, Vyse and Steel: chiselling out jokes wherever possible. ‘This isn’t a campaign, only because I feel like my primary objective as a comedian is to make people laugh,’ says Ward. All three seem to be agreed on this. Nobody is looking for sympathy, but it’s hard to say that it’s all as blasé as it come across.
‘I didn’t ever see a counsellor,’ Vyse says. ‘I’ve kind of dealt with it by myself by making the most ridiculous humour, surreal stuff that’s quite grotesque. There’s quite graphic stuff that goes on [when you have breast cancer]; you have to have this drainage out of your boob and it’s like a blood sack that you carry around with you, but then it just becomes your friend. You just pop it in your cardigan pocket and you’re off down the shops.’
By baring all on stage, the comedian places an audience in the role of a passive therapist, listening sympathetically to their unfolding plight. While Ward maintains she doesn’t have an agenda, she does admit that when it comes to important issues, comedy works. ‘I think people need to know what happens. People need to bring it up through humour and tell their story. If people get on board with that, then brilliant. And if not, that’s OK too.’
Beth Vyse: As Funny as Cancer, The Hive, 226 0000, 6–30 Aug (not 18), 4.20pm, £5.
Felicity Ward: What if There Is No Toilet?, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 8–31 Aug (not 17), 9pm, £10–£12 (£9–£11). Previews 5–7 Aug, £6.
Mark Steel: Who Do I Think I Am?, Assembly George Square Studios, 623 3030, 8–30 Aug (not 17), 8.15pm, £13–£14 (£12–£13). Previews 5–7 Aug, £10.
Alistair Barrie: No More Stage 3, Movement, 226 0000, 8–29 Aug (not 17), 3.45pm, free.
Colin Leggo: Leggoland, The Blind Poet, 667 7533, 6–30 Aug (not 17), 1.30pm, free.
John-Luke Roberts: Stdad-Up, Voodoo Rooms, 226 0000, 8–30 Aug, 6.55pm, free.
Laura Lexx: Lovely, Underbelly Med Quad, 0844 545 8252, 8–30 Aug (not 18), 4.05pm, £9–£10.50 (£8–£9.50). Previews 5–7 Aug, £6.
Mel Moon: Sick Girl, Counting House, 667 7533, 8–30 Aug, 12.05pm, free.