Tommy: What’s Comedy Got To Do With It?

 “I’ve been doing this for eighteen years. I could be doing it for another twenty. I’m tired of it, like. What interests me is just getting up now and talking, and seeing if that encounter between a person and a crowd where it’s totally spontaneous, if that can bring the adventure back into it”

“It feels like being wilfully shit. It makes you feel like you’re an artist taking chances but you’re not. It’s indulgent.”
– Tommy Tiernan, Tommy: To Tell You The Truth

There is something very attractive, in prospect at least, about an artist rebelling against convention and pursuing their own vision even at the expense of popularity. In comedy, the artistic risks come with an extra edge, since an alienated audience will make clear what they think in such a stark manner. Perhaps because of this, pretty much any comic who is seen to break new ground has been praised for, among other things, ignoring or at least downplaying the wishes of audience members.

Tommy Tiernan’s all-improvised tour of Europe last year, documented in Tommy: To Tell You The Truth, outwardly fits the above description. In fact, it is very different. On what is shown there, his performances consisted of him alternately rambling and ranting, with a sprinkling of genuine wit (as when in Zurich he discusses Marx’s quixotic attempt to incite socialist revolution in the most bourgeois city in the world). Early in the film he presents himself as taking artistic risks, but by the middle of the tour, in the face of bemused audiences and car-crash gigs, he expresses doubts about the merits of his new approach.

It is interesting to consider the difference between what Tiernan does on this tour and the kind of artistic risk-taking that seems worthwhile. One tempting response is to say that it’s a question of what you like: something is ‘risk-taking’ or ‘adventurous’ if you enjoy it, ‘self-indulgent’ if you do not. But I don’t think this is quite right. After all, it is possible to admire an artist for striking out on their own path, even if you find what results boring. For instance, I admire Paul Foot for his wilful eccentricity, even though I personally don’t enjoy the results:

What seems lacking in Tiernan is a sense of the possibilities and the value of what he has been doing, i.e., comedy in general and his comedy in particular. On stage he seems rudderless (which is very different to an improviser who is control of what they are doing, even if they don’t know exactly where they are headed). It is worth contrasting his approach with anti-comedians like Ed Aczel and Neil Hamburger. They create comedy by subverting and mocking the conventions of stand-up and the expectations of the audience, but they do so in effect by establishing and exploiting new conventions based on rejecting the standard approaches. What Tiernan is doing is, in a sense, a purer form of anti-comedy, one which undermines much more basic conventions of stand-up (that the comedian is funny in a way which the audience can be expected to appreciate) but not for any discernibly comic end. His tour manager describes the show as ‘Like punk rock improv… there are no rules’. But apart from the fact that the majority of improvisers do use rules, improvised comedy only works if it is directed to a certain purpose, i.e., being funny.

Tiernan himself worries that what he is doing is self-indulgent, which usually has connotations of arrogance and self-importance, but arguably he is also suffering from a loss of faith in the value of making people laugh unless it is accompanied by some philosophical insight or catharsis. This view might be understandable, though still curious, in someone who did not tour European cities playing what were presumably billed as comedy shows. Furthermore, the exercise is not only unfair on the audience members; Tiernan is selling himself short as well. Comedy which forsakes the search for laughter in favour of higher concerns will not only be poor comedy, but will sabotage its chance of achieving anything else. 

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