How Comedians Get Started

Music, poetry, magic, impressions and what that has to do with Pentecost

In this column, I look at an easily missed delight in the Pentecost story. We start out in the comedy clubs, and end up in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Stick with it.

Comedians tend to look down on musical comedy. Turning up to a comedy gig with a guitar feels, to them, like cheating. “The joke is only funny because it rhymes,” they protest.

Plenty of comedians started out with guitars. Billy Connolly was touring folk clubs with his guitar. He was so naturally funny that his songs got in the way, and the guitar was scrapped. Jasper Carrot also began life as funny songster. Bill Bailey was in a musical double act called The Rubber Bishops, but kept the music. He continues to excels in that area, moving beyond the ‘joke that’s only funny because it rhymes’ to be an excellent comedian. (I highly recommend Part Troll which has some really interesting theological reflections)

A Sense of Rhythm

Rhyming and the structure of songs are a good way to start out in comedy. In fact, you don’t even need the music. Phil Jupitus began life as Porky the Poet. The poems gave the act a focal point which is eventually jettisoned and the comedian emerges and grows in confidence.

Others use the narrative of a magic trick in the same way. There is a natural progression to the trick that we all know, that the comedian can lean on and use as a safety rail, riffing and joking along the way. And as long as he produces your card, he’s going to be able to get off stage to a round of applause.

Making An Impression

The other way of making an instant impression is, well, impressions. In the 1980s, Steve Coogan made a name for himself as an impressionist, going on to provide voices for Spitting Image. But he clearly wanted to move out of that world and into being a character actor, Alan Partridge being his most notable success.

Like many who are making their way in comedy, Coogan saw impressions as a cheap laugh that don’t lead anywhere. He still does voices when promoting movies on chat shows, and the audience howl with delight. But he implies that impressions are like magic tricks, creating an effect using a versatile voice they were born with as if to say,  “So I can make a name for myself sounding like Neil Kinnock or Morgan Freeman. Who cares?” It’s understandable.

I’ve always found this attitude to be a shame as I love impressions. I always have. Having a line performed by Rory Bremner early in my gag-writing career was a moment I will always cherish. But what’s the appeal of impressions?

When the impressionist opens their mouth, and a voice emerges that is instantly recognisable, and totally at odds with what we’re seeing, it is thrilling. It is inherently comic. (Comic juxtaposition, as I explain in The Sacred Art of Joking). A young white man in a T-shirt and jeans opens their mouth, and out comes the voice of Morgan Freeman. It’s funny.

Accents

I even find accents thrilling. I love the moment when Glaswegian comedian Kevin Bridges impersonates a posh Englishman from Leamington Spa. When someone with a rich regional accent suddenly switches to another, like flicking a switch, it’s usually very funny.

I mention this because I’ve been reflecting on the story of Pentecost. It’s very easy for the drama of the moment when the Holy Spirit comes to overshadow the human aspect. There is a sound like rushing wind and the appearance of flames and the proclamation of the wonders of God in languages from all over the world, reversing the curse of Babel.

Did You Hear That?

But what is the reaction of those who overhear this event?

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:7)

Galileans were, I’m told, known for their thick guttural vowel-swallowing accents. Most of Jesus’ twelve disciples were Galilean. Yet suddenly, here they were speaking like “residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt.” The effect would have been exhilarating, astonishing and comic. Even in this moment where a new age is beginning, the Last Days in fact, God weaves in joy, delight and comedy.

There is much more to be said on Pentecost. I plan to say it to my church on Sunday morning where we will reflect on how our thirst for God is quenched by the gift of this Spirit. Our alienation from God, whose image we all bear, is painful. In the Garden of Eden, Adam hid from God among the trees and covered himself. God comes near in the Tabernacle and Temple but the High Priest has to be purified to enter God’s presence and sacrifices made. Then God tabernacles with us in Christ (John 1). He dies and the Temple curtain is torn in two. But then, foreshadowed by Elijah’s ascension and Elisha’s double portion of the Spirit, Christ ascends into heaven (Acts 1) and sends his Spirit at Pentecost, a harvest festival. Peter stands and proclaims the gospel to the nations gathered in Jerusalem, and there is a harvest of 3000 that day who join the Kingdom of God. Alleluia!

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I talk about comic moments in the Bible with a poet, musician and comedian, Jude Simpson in the second episode of The Sacred Art of Joking. Take half an hour to watch it. It’s a hoot.


The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer is still available to pre-order and there’s a bit more information on the book over on my website.