Opinion: When The Audience Doesn't Get The Joke

Tony Law

It’s been a funny week when it comes to getting the joke. On Wednesday night I went to the first night of the Greenwich Comedy Festival. The perfect-looking National Maritime Museum, by the way, must be one of the most beautiful, most symmetrical places that a comedy tent has ever been pitched.

Anyway, the opening act was Tony Law, who I think it is fair to say, is something of a room-splitter. He did an excerpt from his full-length Tone Zone show involving  a trombone, foghorn noises and a tassled onesie. After the interval compere Ed Gamble asked a man in the audience what he had done in the break: “Tried to work out what that was all about,” he replied. Gamble said “ok, very funny, what did you really do?”. “Tried to work out what that was all about,” he repeated. He was clearly befuddled by Law. 

No such bamboozling problems on Thursday night a few miles down the road at the O2 with Lee Evans, whose humour is so Route One you’d really have to be dimmer than some of the low-wattage characters he portrays onstage not to get it. Yet maybe the audience had too much of a good thing. Admittedly it was a school night, but the thing about the O2 is that there are so many people there that you would have seen a constant stream of people leaving from around 10.45pm while Evans was still onstage. Maybe one can only take so much of his kind of no-nonsense nonsense.

Friday night, however, was another Law-like experience. I went to see Foster’s Award winner John Kearns at the Soho Theatre. The room was full but I was curious to know how many people had actually seen Kearns before. He hasn't really done much television, certainly not stand-up. If you can call what he does stand-up. 

Presumably a lot of people bought tickets because he is this year's Foster’s Award winner. But the winners can be a mixed bag. Lee Evans himself won the award two decades ago, but these days the winners are likelier to be somewhat more esoteric. Think Dr Brown or Tim Key.

Anyway, I was near the back and suddenly in the middle of the set Kearns turned to a person in the front row and said something on the lines of “I know this is not your thing…” It’s something Kearns does a lot – like Law he knows that he can divide the room – but I think he really meant it this time.

It can’t be easy to give everything you’ve got and see a stern face staring back at you. It must make you wonder what is going on further back in the stalls. Comedians can often rarely see more than the front few rows because of the bright lights. In fact Kearns referenced this during his gig, at one point waving a torch at the crowd and saying “how do you like it?”.

The curious thing about comedy is that while it can often be a unifying force – there is nothing quite like a room of people laughing together – it can also be a divisive thing. Kearns highlighted this in the starkest of ways. It certainly makes the show memorable. I’m just not sure whether acknowledging the silent, unsmiling elephant in the room it increases the tension or defuses it.

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