I was always stunned into quiet amazement when my friend B. (who got a comedy writing qualification later), an expert submission wrestler and dedicated no-holds-barred Mixed Martial Arts practitioner I trained with in my thirties, talked about comedy.
No matter how one was instructed that one ought to pin him to the mat or how one tied the darkly hirsute, piercingly turquoise-eyed, shiny-pated mesomorph up, it was impossible in the wash and clay slip of sudor to choke, armlock or wrap his foot in the armpit and configure the fulcrum and the torque to catch his achilles tendon and cleave with the blade of the wrist.
He’d talk about comedy whilst never laughing from the bottom of the impenetrable pot of his gut and putting you at unbridled ease; or just not in my stymieing presence.
A bond over a belly laugh was as elusive as satisfaction on the mat.
Maybe eight years ago, B. and I saw Neil Mullarkey – a successful, experienced and skilled comedian – at the Comedy Store off Leicester Square.
Some months before, B. had erupted shrivelling, mummifying hot ash and gas at the sight and sound of me enjoying myself without preparation, with too much openly gay abandon, too uncontrollably mirthfully and licentiously, having too much fun independently both by myself and promiscuously with other myxie-ridden marks hopping madly in public aisles, between the rows, spilling into the space between the seating and the stage, and onto the stage—and when I was seriously, suicidally ground down by work and really, really needed this lift—at a Sunday night show of unscripted improvised comedy inside the full red lipstick-lipped and sharp-winged black cave mouth of the Store.
The blackness all sung out of me and the spirit hoisted, bounding my way up the stairs out of the basement venue at the end, the forgotten, top-geared gait of the eye climbing and sliding on the balloons and squiggles of outsized autographs, and blearily recognising on the stairwell walls the likenesses of the great and the good of past performers at the Comedy Store, I was then startled outside on the busy, particulates- and pavement pizza-rich street in a Piccadilly Circus midnight.
I watched B.
Camouflaged by the pall of hot candied peanut smell, the fixed smiles of people giving away free admission vouchers, and the black and blue and red and white fonts and flags of tourist mugs and T-shirts and lettered mirrors—and sending into trance the gift shop proprietor standing behind an open till clutching a mini Union Jack in one hand and change in the other, outside the field of B’s sightline—he curtly announced with a stare of shrewd purpose that he was going to go home and roast a chicken.
For my best friend at school, Basil Fawlty was the be all and end all – the be all and end all he quoted and imitated irrepressibly. And I liked Tim because he was genuinely friendly, pleased to see you – he climbed over or sat on you as if you were a robust, comfortable leather sofa, a limestone window ledge or a Morris Minor bonnet, and liked poking fun at anything and letting rip with laughter and heaving asthmatically with delight in a buoyant way that thumbed the scale into high spirits.
He and his elder brother by two years fought like cat and dog.
Tim’s aspiration as a teenager was to be a gamekeeper and the rusted external iron telephone bell on the wall of the sheep barn across the courtyard opposite his house outside a neighbouring village was spattered with nicks and dimples made by lead BB pellets picked out of the pocket, thumbed into the breech of an air rifle broken open over bent knee and clapped shut, and shot out of the barrel from fifteen yards with barely a glance.
On his knowledgeable instruction I got two pink-eyed ferrets, built them a chipboard and chicken wire cage, and wellied-up and leather-bagged and wax-cottoned we went rabbiting – rubber scabbards stepping and spattering over the not exceedingly big Kentish ordnance survey map, sleet or rain or shine.
Having picked an eager—but recently fed—animal from its portable hutch and introduced it into a burrow, it then remained to watch and wait until a muffled thumping some way down in the privacy of earth underfoot meant that—flushed out by the unhungry, laser-eyed yellowy-white albino—an agouti-pelted rabbit might at any moment bolt from a black hole and then into the green purse net covering it, one back leg paw now thumping and batting at the air, the other clawing at, rapidly tensing and slacking, a silk thread.
I think I caught about less than ten in total—partly because myxomatosis, a disease that blinds rabbits, amongst other symptoms, had decimated the population and the wisdom was that far fewer rabbits lived underground as a result—skinning them but never reaching the point of curing the fleeces with wood fire ash.
A cat on a doorstep with lowered head and raised wary eyes, I proffered the carcasses to my parents for the supper table. They were not suitably impressed.
As a cat, it would have been impossible for me to understand that the crossly-dressed amateur ethologist could barely contain the jealousy of his position.
I might’ve been stealing clothes off a washing line.
I adored Tim’s mother, Margaret – the sweetest, most loving and affectionate and supportive mother—or woman—I knew, with a cheeky pout, sparkling eyes that gazed up at you softly, and a serenity and calmness—announced by a mezzo soprano voice that glided through perfect, long, strong snaking rows of seamlessly-set pearls—whose radiating beam instantly calmed adolescent waters.
From the little I knew or could know at that age, she did appear to be all that.
(My father and I came to verbal blows as well as self-inflicted psychological ones over Margaret – what else could happen when a woman melted the hearts of two rivalrous males staring at each other?)
But Tim could be witlessly cruel and overbearingly self-opinionated, losing his patience and putting me down nonchalantly at any opportunity – an opinionatedness that sat awkwardly with the fact that he was not very bright at school.
I was crestfallen by the casual contempt for my woodwork – not up to much.
But then again I failed to outline the sunny blue-eyed blonde’s efforts to capture and cage—and hunt rabbits with—the geist by copying John Cleese’s tragic joke in sufficient detail.
A lot of my friends I held to because, like countless other teenagers in search of foundations blearily awakening to a very incandescent and unsafe sense that they and others lived in a badly designed and directed dangerous dream (or one with no decent designer or director at all or worth speaking to), I squirmed and raged at my middle-class teacher parents, thirty and forty years my senior, and their stiff social bearing and way of being with their friends and mine.
Suffocated, mimicked, patronized, abridged – the daily, merciless humiliation was a source of endless, Sisyphean perseveration.
The old man did for my mother too – holding a handy, all-purpose, Freudian compact mirror cum Swiss Army penknife—a simple yet multi-purpose tool, on a string attached to the belt loop of the modest, rubble chute-shaped denims, permitting myriad operations—up to her tears and exasperation. And to her loyalty and her love for him.
The manner in which they tore each other’s throats out—day in, day out, in a loveless, sexless, joyless, bitterly lonely marriage, sclerotic with fear, random epithets scorching and sizzling hair and hide without warning, cattle brands recurrently whipped out of roaring, oxygen-sucking, scrap barrel fire, and where unselfconscious laughter led to quease and conning tower-high condescension—was nothing to admire.
Witheringly, with mock-furrowed brow and sad sideways look, bottle bottoms laid to rest on the crisp, white folded top sheet – as my father and I sat on opposite sides of her bed in Pembury hospital, the wedge in my throat—a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer—having not yet quite felled the trunk of my neck – she let go and swung: “you do look mournful Dan, what is the matter?”.
The wedge remained, stuck fast. I snapped upwards rapidly from the hospital chair to break the grisly frame and exited to the lavatory for space and air, involuntarily picturing when she would be finally cut down and washed away.
But incomprehension was no excuse – one could always shut up, stop talking, stop reading or trying to influence the scene, and go and look it up.
Curing one of lack of awareness.
My other best friend introduced me through monthlies to the alembic, the steep-angled lower jaw of the ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air and Sedan’s windshield and to custom drag racers—magazine copy feet and meter tracks rising to meet silent fender skirt maws and bias-ply, rolling rubber tongues aflame—and taught me to smoke in the bike shed out of the rain during school periods when I didnt have to go to French classes because my foreign language skills were too far ahead for my year; hopped up by springs and summers spent in the cafe of a tiny town on a crossroads in the southern French department of the Lot and with a cosmopolitan Parisian family who skipped and bounced down from the capital in Renault Quatrelles to play generous, familiar yet dazzling summer hosts in a rooftop holiday apartment and yacht atop the spray-flecked squalls of Catalina Blue northern Brittany.
He beat people up.
Not me, fortunately – but never having seen him do it, and only ever having had my psychical head, torso and genitals kicked in by someone who abhorred violence, I had unpleasant daydreams about what exactly that would look and feel and taste like in, underneath, and over white cotton shirts, black cotton trousers and burgundy and black diagonally-striped satin school ties.
As black wool blazer were ripped up overhead and inside out and pulled down to straightjacket and to imprison and then to spin and to pitch the sightless, winded body down onto mud and grass playing field slope, the soft falsetto warble nearby of a girl’s request for the time and a linesman’s hiss jumbling with the thudding jab in the solar plexus from the kneecap of a streetwise schoolboy who’d watched A Clockwork Orange—and the transfixing line of his own solemnly practised reproduction of McDowell’s leery, leering grin in his boarding house study mirror—one too many times.
Jon had avowedly been charged with Actual Bodily Harm and did carry a flick knife.
His dad worked in Kuwait in the oil business and he had moved around the world from school to school.
A violin scholar from the spit of a rural idyll, from a peppered moth of a nineteen-thirties, two-storey, slate-tiled, brick and charcoal grey clapboard house, first floor front windows looking east over the holly of a thick, wild, ten foot high hedge at Benenden Public School for Girls’ six-acre lacrosse playing field and the pea-green grass of rolling cow fields, surrounded by the Radios Three and the Radios Four and the woods and the coppices and the fishponds, the perch, the pike and roach and the apple orchards, I was abutted by books on Byzantine and Modern Art, Desmond Morris’ comb-over and Manwatching manual, Freud and Havelock Ellis and Melanie Klein and Jan Morris, and Mrs Jekyll on garden husbandry.
In thick cellophane dustjackets, the 1971 edition of Webster’s blue, two-volumed Third New International Unabridged American English Dictionary, renowned for its permissiveness, relegated my mother’s naked, blue, two volume, 1933 Shorter Oxford to the task of bookending the cracked spines of French, German, Spanish and Turkish Grammars, A level set literature texts in original and in translation, and textbooks on the theory and practice of teaching the dyslexic, on an undusted shelf upstairs on the landing.
A shiplap bird hide stood, inscrutably slit-slotty, stormtrooper-eyed, at the brow of the hundred yard-long, two and a half acre orchard.
Long grass, cow parsley, bramble, upright Bramley and plopping, falling epiglottal apple and cankered, cooking pear trunk edged uncertainly upslope to meet wire box pattern stock fencing at the north edge of the one acre garden, parallel to the rutted, broken red brick, crushed stone and yellow clay aggregate-paved lane and right of way—on the other side of the holly, ash and nut orchard hedge—that might shatter the windscreen or crack open the wheel bearing without warning of anything too small or old or fragile driven in too much haste and anger, that cut down through grass and nettled banks and down the hill past the house and studio and rolling north down and giving way to mud track, opening out to commercial orchards, woodlands and open pasture far from metalled road or village.
Creaking, creosoted tongues and grooves recording, receiving, imperceptibly.
An eighteen-inch diametered circular steel plate, coquelicot with an empty white mouth of a letterbox bisecting it, a No Entry sign nicked one night from under the nose of the village police station, sat stuck high mounted on the wall looking down at a tawny, four foot high, self-possessed phallus—delicately polished, delicately blow-torched to add light and shade, blackened beeswax drizzled and set in the tiny shallow runnels dug out along its length with a 1/16 inch V-chisel, inscribing sentences itching to officiate at the marriage of word and melded deed in Roman, Arabic and Cyrillic script—that stood sculpted by the artist in walnut in a corner of my bedroom adjoining his cork tile-floored studio, inside another more recently built wood-clad single-storey building a few yards from the north edge of the house, oxidising black felt on the gentle incline of a flat roof and brimful of a mote-rich light, poured through the large squared 8’s and O’s, open A’s, and completed, closed E’s of factory-type, zinc-galvanised steel-frame windows.
Moues of penned up, fish-faced, Modernist sculptures—the gooey, long, attenuated limbs and inflated, ballooning fruitwood digits quaveringly still, waiting to be let out for an exhibition, one or two peeping out from the mildewed folds of plaster, paint and glue-flecked sheets, inside the felt-roofed parallelepiped of another timber shed, bowing with age, beside the elbow of the north-west corner of the studio—ogled each other’s behinds with Looks Ancient and Contemporary.
At night, turps, white spirit, and epoxy resin glue vapours loosened the unyielding lineaments and stodge of my poorly conceived nightmares, the joins and seams and threads and vivid intensities then further decaying in daylight.
Insistent earworms – segments of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, the flat, rasping crake and clacking, clattery rallentando and accelerando of Edith Piaf’s Milord, Schubert’s Fifth Symphony or his Winterreise for anserine tenor, Bach’s four-voiced fugal Partitas for Solo Violin, and Shostakovich’s coded, muted, cat gut screams from besieged, wartime, Stalinist Leningrad – clicked and tapped in the timbering.
When I was a small child the hand-held electric jigsaw-sawn quarter inch plywood and one millimetre malleable steel wire, the makeshift shelving and hooks, that materialised, mounted in the most unlikely places throughout the property—pair of half-moon, tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles on a leather lace lanyard, RSPB Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, palm-sized Russian Zenith binoculars, score of a Glazunov Russian song, and abraded Duralex tumbler a fifth-full of Valpolicella camping out regularly on their ledges in the open—and the hanging web of white, red, and orange electrical extension cables driving Akai reel to reel and Hitachi and National Panasonic cassette tape recorders, Black and Decker power drill penetrating and screwing and unscrewing at varying velocity, electric disc sander, small vertical band saw, hot magnolia glare of 100 watt spot lamp focussed by raw aluminium factory shade on split Turkey oak eagle beak and claw or creamy ash baby orangutan ascending scoliotic bamboo spine, magic dusting of sawdust and bronze and tin-zinc alloy powders, the radio and chainsaw dawn chorus wagging VU audio meter needles in and out of the green and the red, blades of pea-green and poppy-red cow field grass, were irrepressible improvisation.
Tough, red Dacca banana fingers gloved in rigger’s canvas and pigskin gripped the blow lamp – powered either by a squat, French, Campingaz blue canister of butane gas or a brass container containing liquid paraffin vaporised by the manual pumping action of a piston rod and lit; a noisy jet engine of blue-emerald flame with a pale papaya core.
The fat bottom of the paperback edition of The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English nested in the side of the house facing the studio building, on a round wooden side table – in front of the loo behind venetian blinds in the dimly-lit, terracotta-tiled downstairs shower room with a small, suspiciously wasteful electric instant hot water box that scalded and froze and spoilt you by turns with a weak spray; the dog-eared pages and highlighted entries and detailed etymologies traced intently with the fearless, fragrant stipe of a middle finger missing a passive cross-piece.
Giving the bum’s rush to and short-circuiting the dials, the tubes, the contraptions, the thingummies, the cheap, ersatz spare parts, the winking lights and smiles and exterior displays that obscured the hands-on.
And the whereabouts of the bullshit-detecting appliance.
The Blinding of Oedipus in cold-cast, bronze bas-relief—hanging by stiff, flat, wide white plastic electricity flex from the cobalt blue, softboard workshop wall—was evidence of a mythic intensity and transformation provoking reflection.
I was a weedy dilute wet watercolour. A poof of powdered plaster of Paris. Unexposed or undeveloped film emulsion or strip of celluloid negative to be held down under a heavy glass magnifier on the light box and peered through. An inert medium to be expertly blown, sprayed and cut into life with breath and words and light from beyond me. A figure watching the diorama of an inner landscape. A yellow-bloomed paperback page magically fluttering and turning and revealing in a pin-drop, spine-curving theatrical silence. A regular Klein bottle on the doorstep generously shared with the robins, sparrows, finches and tits pecking, flitting and hopping, leaving creamy white, grey and black forked prints on the vitreous, see-through standing reserve. A soft, papery, resin-glistering birch bark for an eight pound, stainless steel bench plane to shave and smooth to a fine finish, the authentic grain revealing and affirmative of the true professional craftsman’s touch and milky eye.
Jon joined the Air Force at sixteen and from skinny, pale, long black-haired biker lout he went—through six weeks basic training—to harder-drinking but crewcuttingly, wall-nuttingly, brick shithouse-fit RAF Rock Ape guarding airfields.
He came back to visit us when we were still at school. And we appeared to him and to ourselves like silly school kids who knew nothing.
And after he got blind, yowling, Suzuki GT250-drunk in the pub with me one of those weekends the soldier entered a fugue state in the town car park and then inside the James Bond, Living Daylights’ lenses of concrete drainage culvert sections in the muddy little Crane river valley in Cranbrook, rehearsing the military war game procedures for nuclear, chemical, and biological attack.
The demonstration of his new knowledge, combat training trauma, and adult freedom and responsibility, was “Go, Go, Go!!!”. Drunk – on duty; in charge; efficient and unstoppable.
Tim continued to wear me down with denunciations of both an inauthentic, burdensome world and myself – the mulish Austin 1100 stumped as to what to do in the face of the frenzied importunings of a tree branch.
The “sense of humour bypass” was the bane of his life.
Particularly on a long trip to Greece in ’81—spent mostly to the side of the squint spokes of long, straight, deserted French N roads, watching the low-geared gait of an intermittent two-stroke Velo-Solex moped, black plastic hairdryer of an engine housing concealing a drive pinion squatting on a bald front tyre; a stolid, red and white DAF eighteen-wheeler HGV, Coq Sportif-logo-ed canvas straps and flaps flapping and yapping in the Rhone Valley wind tunnel, one driver’s hand silhouetted against cab window-cut clouds waving goodbye, the other clapping down on the centre of the steering wheel to sound a spleen-rattling parp; a corrugated, silver-grey Citroen Camionette motorhome reversing the rat race, moving from point A to point B; or a thin-skinned Dedeuche tin can yeeEEeeEEeeEEing and snarling through the grille as it gave a wide berth to a stuck-out thumb and the wheel-borne toy Zeppelin followed the Roman remnant and gentle tide of telephone lines up to the hub of another hilltop capped with a hoarding advertising the pleasures of the region—after we left school at eighteen.
The humour ever commanding, the melismatic mimicry of the scathing, over-burdened Fawlty thinning out the vendanges in the Pyrenees-Orientales co-operative vineyards clinging to the slopes of the Commune along with a sultry, Parisian, eighteen year old girl heroin addict, a night in a Lyons council flat with two girls on a lark, a ferry crossing from the stony bleached heel of Italy, and scooter rides around the crumbling tarmac-caked edges of the island of Corfu, to a disposable, depthless, one-note abstraction.
Even as one brought to mind the weft of a tweed trouser tube of a man summoned to life with deft stroke of script and antic, overlong limb – un-guyed spruce mast and booms slewing, pivoting and sheering in the howling, blustering gale of sitcom studio audiences’ laughter off the screen with a life of its own.
Mullarkey, the Comedy Store comedian, satirises organization- and self-help- and success-speak through one of his comic characters – a management guru who mouths absurd slogans and neologisms.
“Dont be Needy be Succeedy!”
He is fun, and spot on target if you are in the mood. I met him in person once and my mood may have meant I didn’t find him personable.
But I do not know the man – in fact what, to be perfectly honest, do I know?
I do know that B. went mad over him, he admired him so much, he badgered me to see more of him.
“Mullarkey: he’s the MAN !! ” B. grunt-shouted, slapping down on the passenger-side dash with the left palm and pumping a triumphal uppercut air-punch out with the right fist – with a follow-through of momentary, still reflection.
Such was my state of distraction that I nearly hit the car in front.
Was Mullarkey – and by extension B. as well – the comedy leader, the pack head, the best, the top guy? The go-getter? The alpha bet?
The thought leader?
The cairn in the blizzard at altitude?
The man to emulate, to admire, to feel secure with – whilst rolling one’s eyes at lesser beings, secure in the knowledge they understand nothing about what it is to have that eye, that knowledge, that power, that sharpness?
To be the man with that command.
(Or the man – empty ice cream scoop of a crescent moon glint in a pimpish puppeteer’s eye – silently surveying the helplessly mirthful, grateful, fluffy and promiscuous bunnies in the audience in front of him; meat or comfort women. Silly school kids who know nothing. One ho after another. Ho and then Ho.)
You see it crushed and choked this rangy, hard-gainer ectomorph that B. lacked the admirable honesty or clear-sighted realism or worldliness—things I earnestly fantasised a journalist should have—to see the comedic irony in this. You see it in the self-seriousness about what comedy was the “best”, the authority, the superior, the more worldly and “grown up”. And you see the common irony in the inability to laugh at the failure and insecurity that lay behind the seriousness.
The mooning pronoun outlined by its own redundancy.
You see the proud humorlessness and condescension about humour itself.
You see it’s as if comedy were primarily a weapon. An instrument of social control or advancement. Or a badge. Or a grade. A demonstration. Something to follow. A marque like BMW or Nike or Hunter Marine or OceanPrime. A guarantee of ascendancy, pre-eminence. A product. The mark of a group with a hierarchy of knowledge. Something to get you respect. You see it is a means of almost invisible, secret, telepathic, fey, paranormal control.
Something giving you the permission to be a chick – or dick or stooge or fluff – magnet.
If you could dare.
If you could own it.
You see it can be all those things – and cracks the ribs, ruptures the spleen, sends the lungs into expectorating seizure, stuffs you into a straight-jacket then explodes the buttons and straps, and threatens to evacuate the bowels downwardly or upwardly from the inside out to the outside aghast, or sullenly indifferent, or accepting and jubilant crowd in front when it is reflexively and honestly self-mocking and no-holds-barred with those very pretensions.
Dislodging, loosening, dissolving the chintzy wash and crinkly, fjord-ish lines and twinkly colours of the garishly illuminated I and the most haunted, unseen, oceanic, fishy-fingered and interrogatory I of Cap’n Birdseye.
The lit letter.
See a lot of comedians and examine humour in prose you read—reading your own emotions, reading your own responses, not just reading and gulping ideas or lines to bulimically regurgitate like someone with a weird word eating disorder, like another know-all, like another another listing, classifying librarian—and it is eye-rollingly bog-obvious that it can be many, many other things.
And you see it is not only a tool for the demonstration of one’s own or others’ heart-centredness, sweetness and kindness either.
Or ideological credentials.
All I know is (I might know it for the next fickle five minutes) is that I would not want to stand out, to be a laugh leader, to be arranging the lines.
Some **** camping in the concrete shadow of the sense of humour bypass, exiled by the humour police, might beard, badger or throttle me to reveal secrets, to reveal the con behind the safety curtain of laughter, or the frostbitten toes of a hero, or to punish me for his unhappiness – the backseat lovemaker giving notes and a director’s guidance proffering—with cold-reader’s faraway eyes—a mere look enough to explain that I am not laughing correctly, not snorting genuinely, not splitting sides freely and authentically, that I am pink streak-screened with helpless tears at the wrong kind of joke, that I am not erupting, fissuring and effervescing and gasping for oxygen, not choking, not properly, in the right kind of company.
You see I am laughing without a licence and in serious danger of causing an accident.
That I am an inauthentic mask.
You see I would be if—forlornly prone as I have been in the past to get so mournful or doleful about this kind of thing—I failed to see the funny side.
See the road side.
Stark, staring, melted-heart mad, waiting for the lift to get you the f*** out of this country or company.
Unable to take the eyes off the bouncing marks, the whirring animated nobodies, the eerie, stiff little cataleptic figures and cracks, hopping around, partying, and commanding extemporary attention on the page.
Obscuring the view from the peak.
Looking for completion.
The sympathy of the wind.