A few weeks ago I found myself on stage in a stand up club once again having to employ the “invisible lasso.” That’s when your act becomes more crowd control than entertainment as you try frantically, using words alone, to reign in a noisy, drunken crowd with a short attention span. That night they included a bunch of child care workers in the corner who among the 15 of them had at least one person at any given time talking all the way through the two and a half hour show. It happens all too often that people sit yapping away to each other completely disrespectful of the paying customers sitting next to them and not actually engaged in the show that they have paid through the nose for. They could have sat in the bar upstairs talking as much rubbish as they wanted for free. Bizarre!
So at one point in the show where I try to find the tallest man in the room for a bit of visual shtick involving his mighty frame and my diminutive five feet five and a half inches, one of the rowdies shouted “Get him on stage!” I assured her that this was kinda the point. One of the “The Noise-ettes” then yelled “We want to see how big his feet is!” By this point I was finding it difficult to deal with them in jest and with that I shouted back, “‘Is?’ ‘How big his feet is?’ It’s how big his feet are! Are!”
Suddenly in the eye of the storm I stood thinking for a millisecond, “Did I just correct a heckler’s grammar? Did I just stand there in front of 120 people and nit-pick the construction of a grown woman’s sentence? What have I become?” But just as immediately I began to defend myself and blurted out “Yes, madam, I did just correct your grammar, but only because I’m a snob. Language is important to me. I use it for a living and I don’t like hearing it misused. I’m sure if I came round to your crèche and started kicking the weans about, you would show me how to do it properly.” Luckily that was met with laughter and my position as Word Monitor was accepted.
After that I did what I hate doing as a comedian – I ploughed through my set, dead behind the eyes, until I’d done my time.
I stick to my guns. I was raised with the belief that words are important. We used language for our sport, throwing gags and puns and lots a sarcasm* each other’s way, volleying phrases back and forward, always elaborating on each others badinage. It’s not like we were an academic family. Two years ago my brother and my nephew became the first in our family’s history to get a university degree. Nor were we conservatively trying to uphold The Queen’s English. We read and quoted Burns and Spike Milligan, neither of which were “proper” English. But they respected English, and along with Scots and gobbledegook created beautiful verbal sculptures. I loved the wordplay of my childhood.
It was all about cultural enlightenment. That’s what gave me a reach beyond my grasp, the permission to hope. Regardless of your social, economic or geographical demographic, you need cultural enlightenment. It gives one a curiosity, a way to find the little pleasures that make life worth the struggle. Without it there is only the fleeting trash of transient popular culture – reality TV, manufactured music, the same old jokes repeated over and over again to the echo of forced laughter.
I once did a stand up gig at Saughton prison. Some thought I was a bleeding heart and that these bad seeds did not deserve entertained. Well, here’s the thing – if a guy goes to jail for five years I don’t want him to come out angry, tormented and vengeful. I want him reformed, re-educated and ready to give back to society. Part of that process is cultural enlightenment. I entertain prisoners for my own sake.
Communication is so important and we need to know how to do it and that means understanding words. And I don’t mean going out and learning lots of new words; I just mean understanding the words you already use. That way after the Con-Dem government at Westminster have cut all the funding for regional theatre, independent arts, the BBC, UK Film Council and theatre and the arts through educational programmes and social care, we have a lesson to pass on to future generations.
*Footnote. If you are so inclined to believe without question that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit then just read the opening chapter of The Great Gatsby. In fact if you read the whole thing you’ll realise halfway through just how sarcastic the title is.