Simon Evans gets topical

Simon Evans Simon Evans - © Rob Greig
Posted: Tue Aug 9 2011

Topical comedy may by dying out on the live circuit but there is one place where it is thriving, says comic Simon Evans.

There are several passages in 'Underworld' -Don de Lillo's epic masterpiece about Cold War America - in which he imagines Lenny Bruce's free-wheeling onstage responses to the events of the day. How many passages there are in total, I can't tell you. I couldn't finish the book, it's very long, there's way too much about baseball and I was far too busy providing my own up-to-the-minute responses to news stories on Twitter. But he's in there. And from what I already knew of Lenny Bruce, it felt very convincing.

For a start, it wasn't remotely funny, which has always been my impression of Bruce, and it was authentically riddled with hipster slang (which, like most slang, sounds embarrassingly childish and evasive once out of date). But it was still compelling, because it was someone grappling with world events, in real time, rather than presenting a prepared monologue. Just as his heroes - jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker - rarely hit on a melody as memorable as the Gershwin standards they were improvising around, so Bruce rarely nailed a phrase or a passage as definitive as those of, say, Woody Allen. But, that wasn't the point. He was engaging with the timeline and just possibly performing a more valuable, primal function than most of us modern-day comedians would be happy to take on. He was being topical.

So why, these days, is genuinely topical comedy on the stand-up circuit in staggeringly short supply? There appear to be a few reasons for its decline. For one, audiences nowadays expect a certain degree of polish from a comedian, and I can't say I blame them. As a comic, it's hard to deliver topical material with polish. The first few times you break in a routine it is always hesitating, jerky and betrays your lack of conviction that any of it is going to be funny. By the time you've got it right it's last week's news. People don't go out to watch a rehearsal in the name of entertainment. They have reality TV for that.

And, equally, there is huge uncertainty among comics about what audiences are aware of. Even stories on the front pages can have evaded a group of punters and it never helps to have to start a piece of topical material by explaining the context. Besides, if the crowd don't know what you're on about, explaining it to them beforehand hardly ever convinces them that you haven't made it all up to support your gag, or worse, your prejudices.

But perhaps most importantly, the simple fact is it's hard work writing jokes and no easier writing them knowing they have a shelf life of three weeks rather than of 12 months. Most comics soon learn the fashion-writer wisdom of investing in some timeless classics rather than re-stocking the comedy wardrobe at Primark every other weekend.

However, there is to my mind one place where topical comedy really is alive and well: evolving even. That is Twitter. Within minutes of any event having taken place - long before it's been on TV or radio, let alone in the daily papers - the first jokes appear. The speed of response is such that one regularly learns the news in the form of a joke someone is cracking about it, or even someone else heckling them, complaining that it is 'too soon'. If a story looks really promising, entire fake accounts will spring up, suck the marrow from a story, deliver a couple of dozen gorgeously barbed remarks and fade away again in the time it takes a character comedian to select a new wig. And while the quality is patchy, the sheer number of people committing their resources to it, and the magic of the re-tweet, put the odds overwhelmingly in the microblogging website's favour. This is just one reason I enjoy Twitter so much and why, as a stand-up, I shall continue to address myself to the eternal verities… with a liberal application of polish.