Stand-up Comedy: A Scene of Paradoxes

By | 31 October 2021

The figure of the comedian themselves and the authentic message from their act is equally difficult to articulate in a singular way. Australian comedian Lawrence Leung, when speaking to Darryn King (2008), rightfully identifies the need for authenticity in a comedian’s act: ‘We’re trying to be honest, to tell stories and observations based on our own lives’. He observes that ‘people who are just themselves end up being the best comedians’ (2008, 109). However, as Keisalo analyses, one of the paradoxes of comedy is the very notion of ‘authenticity’ – while it is crucial to gain audience trust, stories and jokes can be fabricated (2018, 122). The very act of being on stage implies that the performer is ‘acting’ in some sense; we should not expect that we’re witnessing their everyday self, or that the views they express are entirely truthful and their own personal beliefs – it is after all, a space for ‘jokes’. Keisalo asserts that the ‘stage persona is an exaggeration’ of truthful parts of the comedian’s personality (2018, 123). What we see on stage is usually a flawed persona which embodies contradictions that make the act comedic. Audiences are asked to simultaneously keep two ideas in mind; to expect that the stage persona does reflect parts of the comedian’s personality while understanding not every assertion made is sincere or serious (Rappaport and Quilty-Dunn, 2020). The act of performing comedy requires the comedian to shift between perspectives on and of the persona they’ve created on stage. Using a combination of prepared and improvised material, they need to be constantly responsive to the audience, in order to guide them through these shifts in perspective. Comedy is created through this dialogic activity as the audience is lead to see the comedian’s point of view. The best comedians have you on the edge of your seat, unable to predict their next move (it’s the surprise that keeps us laughing), and we leave with an understanding of their attitudes, both ‘real’ and performative, to achieve the comic moment.

As a comedian, the continued practice of stand-up itself is unpredictable. It’s a common saying that ‘you’re only as good as your last gig’ because of the extreme highs and lows one experiences throughout the journey. While with practice, comedians achieve a level of mastery where they perform consistently well in front of varied audiences, every comic knows the feeling of having absolutely no idea how new material will land on the audience before them. And there’s no way to find out except to go ahead and try it.

Snap forward a few years from where I began in this essay, I’m sick to my stomach waiting backstage at the GMHBA Stadium in Geelong, about to perform to an audience of 180 people. I’ve just had a bad spell of gigs – three weeks of performing poorly (sometimes to what felt like deafening silence), most nights, to scattered audiences in Melbourne. It’s these times you really question – what am I doing with my life? Does anyone understand what I’m trying to say? Am I even ‘funny’? I look out at the daunting audience and notice they are all white and above 50, they certainly don’t look like my usual demographic. I brace for the worst, hear the MC call my name, and walk out on stage.

About half way through the performance I begin to relax. Despite my own prejudices about the audience, and the fact that they’ve had vastly different life experiences to me, they’re all attentive and laughing. We trust each other and from there it turns into one of my favourite and most memorable gigs. That’s the beauty of comedy – it will always surprise you and keep you guessing with its contradictions. In its playfulness, it is an inherently collaborative, dynamic and enigmatic space and this is why we keep coming back for more.

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