Stand-up is often prized for its transparency, and its lack of artifice; up there alone on stage, there’s nowhere to hide, and comedians must acknowledge their embodied identities. There’s transparency too in the relationship with the audience – the comedian’s need for an audience is perhaps uniquely evident: as John Limon puts it, ‘they make his jokes into jokes, or refuse to, by a reaction that is more final, less appealable, than a judgement’ (26). One of the interesting things about Jordan Brooke’s show, ‘Bleed’ (available from Soho Theatre on Demand until 27th May) is the way in which these key elements of stand-up – the necessity for self-exposure as well as the acknowledged need for an audience – both so foundational to the sense of comedy as a peculiarly authentic art form – are played with. And while the conventions of comedy are arguably the central subject of the show, Brookes’ deconstruction also recognises the ways in which the mechanics of comedy are always linked to larger issues about personhood and identity.
Opening with an initial routine that conforms to recognisable stand-up conventions – some observational humour; touches of physical slapstick; self-deprecation; the obligatory reference to personal pathos – it’s a little edgy, but Brooke’s persona is accommodating, even genial. However, the show quickly seems to fray around the edges, with technical mishaps and moments of antagonism creating a sense of unease. The slapstick and self-deprecation (specifically his hunger for the approval of the audience) – initially anchored to consensual notions of acceptable or appropriate behaviour, gradually become more extravagant. The physical comedy is drawn out, pushed to breaking point, while the self-deprecation is magnified and skewed. We move from realism to absurdism, and a banal – and very funny – mythos, as Brookes evolves into a demonic ‘god king’, booming menacingly through a voice distorter, feeding on the audience’s laughter. The lapses back into the generic – ‘so I’m trying to meet new people’ – are now beautifully incongruous and serve to highlight the distance we’ve travelled from the conventionality of the opening. Both successful as call-backs – we laugh with the pleasure of recognition – these moments are also mocking: what was that initial ‘realism’ anyway? How real is any naturalistic performance of self?
Our hunger for the safety and reassurance of accustomed forms is also targeted when Brookes satirises some of the cultural mechanisms for managing social anxiety: phrases like ‘it’s all good’ and ‘lovely stuff’ – initially straightforward enough as conversational tics within the opening routine, but skewed later, as form and decorum disintegrate. Such phrases are central to the manufactured bonhomie of much stand-up, and Brookes extends the spirit of mocking deconstruction to other structures that sustain comedy: the blurbs, the selling points – and he repeats the phrase, the ‘riskiest comic in the biz’ until it disintegrates into nonsense. He is fully implicated in the mockery, as in one aside that is simultaneously self-laceration and brag: ‘if this doesn’t go so well daddy gets sad. I’ll be trapped here in this critically acclaimed hell’. Abjection, aggression and egotism all rolled into one.
If conventional forms and realism are shown to be dubious, the show’s shift towards absurdism and the grotesque is perhaps closer to some kind of truth: the very excess an articulation of the ludicrous extent of human egotism and need. Taking things too far is what we do – excess is innate – and yet we’re afraid of it, and there are few social spaces where it is tolerated, comedy being one of them. But even within this licensed space, Brookes is pushing his luck: and the coup de grâce of the show is his very literal seduction of the audience, made all the more acutely uncomfortable by the visceral noises we hear in the headphones distributed during the earlier tech ‘difficulties’, and the fixed grin on his face as he looks on.
Also delivered via the headphones are the early notes for the show – or at least a simulacrum of the notes – sketchy ideas which seem to reveal some of the process behind its construction. The notes are interspersed with episodes dramatizing Brookes’ obsessive fixation on the work, and thus the relationship with his audience, at the explicit cost of any actual intimacy with ‘real life’ partners. But despite the exposure of these details, and a sense of intimacy enhanced by his voice in our ears, Brookes paradoxically remains concealed. This is partly a result of all the masks he has donned, the stripping away of each new layer shown to be as calculated as the last.
The promise of exposure and the seeming removal of artifice in the notes, like many other such comic gestures, perform authenticity but do not deliver. Increasingly dominating the end of the show, they provide an inconclusive conclusion – apt for such a keenly deconstructive work. But for all the sophisticated and subtle analysis of that deconstruction, the show’s comedy is never compromised; in straddling the line between stand-up and experimental theatre, ‘Bleed’ remains purest stand-up in its consistent hilarity.
Limon, John. Stand-up comedy in theory, or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
© Emma Sullivan 2020.