The shame of a forgotten blog

I have not posted anything in a long time, but this is because of being so busy with the Digressions stuff. I have continued performing (hit the 100 gigs mark in December, two years after my first time!), have several publications coming out, and am working on a book project.

I will write about this soon and post links to upcoming publications.

Here’s a link to my post on digressions in comedy and anthropology.

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AntroBlogi

…aand I still have not had the time to post, but I did write a short text on my research for AntroBlogi, which is a Finnish language site to promote anthropology in Finland through accessible commentary on current events and short texts by researchers. I will also join the AntroBlogi team to read and comment on texts before publication.

I am currently under a deadline (when is a scholar not?) to write an article about how Finnish comedians use new media (broadly defined as social media and others that have joined traditional broadcast and print media) but after that I hope to actually put together some thoughts and write blog posts (ideas I have, but no time to put them in order).

For example, I recently found out that while clowns, like comedians, are predominantly men, in Finland there are relatively more women who work as clowns – this is very intriguing. I have to think about it and talk to clowns, but my first thought is to ask, is there something about the figure of the clown that could partly explain this? The clown is ambiguous in terms of being a social person – does it allow for a more fluid, carnevalized version, or even a fading of gender in a way that stand-up comedy, so predicated on a naturalised individual, does not?

I have been thinking about gender and comedy lately also because I listened to Noin viikon radio interviews (in Finnish) with Anna Dahlman and Saara Särmä by Jukka Lindström on gender (well women really), feminism, and comedy – some comment I’d made earlier were mentioned in both interviews and – in the time-honored tradition of anthropology – I immediately started thinking about how to complicate it further. Stand-up carries a high risk of public shame and failure – how does this relate to gender? Is it worse or less funny to see a woman fail? if so, why? Is the idea of a man failing safer (in that it is his own responsibility more than in the case of a woman) but also more exciting somehow?

In other news, I did get a stroke of luck and will be starting a two-year post-doc fellowship at Aarhus university in September – so I will have more time to write both academic publications and blog reflections. As much as I love teaching anthropology, it will be a huge luxury and welcome break to focus on research for a bit – and as there seems to be no shortage of English language open-mics, I will continue performing. (and learn what the Danish comedy scene is like).

For the summer, I plan to collect as much material as I can, see lots of comedy get in a bunch of gigs – I have now performed a total of 25 – take a course in clowning, another stand-up course, and go to comedy camp 🙂

Oh, and LOUIS CK IS COMING TO HELSINKI IN AUGUST!!! and I have a ticket!

 

 

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Blog Post on Allegra

While avoiding writing posts for my own blog, I had one published in a much fancier & more professional one 🙂

http://allegralaboratory.net/learning-to-make-people-laugh-a-semiotic-anthropology-of-stand-up-comedy/

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Public anthropologist

I haven’t posted in a long time due to general being busy, teaching, writing, applying for jobs and grants and hanging out in comedy clubs, but I did have time to participate in a few media things and talk about comedy.

I took part in a panel discussion on women and comedy at the Season Film Festival with Heli Sutela, Anna Dahlman, Joonas Nordman, and Elina Rislakki, and then Anna Dahlman and I also talked about this in the Yle Kultakuume radio program (all in Finnish). We talked about the fact that there are more men than women comedians (and comedy writers) and about the different representations of men and women in comedy (e.g. comedic characters are often flawed – how are these flaws depicted, are flaws tolerated differently in men and women?). I will write a longer post on this in the future – I do think the ways comedy is gendered are interesting, but the whys, as well as the questions of how sexism in comedy is manifested and what could be done about it are big and complicated issues, which need to be looked at in terms of wider social and cultural contexts. If 90 percent of stand-up comedians are men, the reasons for this are more complicated than comedy being a certain way, or women being a certain way. Any way, I’ll get to that later.

I also talked to a Yle X journalist, who wrote an internet article on humor and the freedom of speech. This is something I’ve been thinking about and will also post about later; I think different perspectives are important here in that a joke is never good or bad or funny or offensive in itself, only from certain perspectives. So the question is not so much, is this joke offensive, but from what perspective would it be so? Ambiguity and openness to a variety of interpretations is important (inherent) to humor, but what are the risks involved in the different interpretations, and to whom?

Finally, there was an article about the Helsinki open-mic club Jano in Finnish women’s mag Me Naiset. This was a more general take by the journalist on a visit to an open-mic club, with profiles of the night’s performers and comments by the anthropologist – I do think that the inclusion of open-mic clubs in a general interest women’s magazine indicates that stand-up comedy  has a secure place in the arts and entertainment scene of Finland.

For me, all this has been very fun and interesting, and I have enjoyed the conversations as well as the chance to bring an anthropological point of view into the discussion. I am also glad that my view of humor as a very complex phenomenon have been so well accepted and that as ‘the researcher’ I have not been asked to give any final answers, clear definitions, or simple solutions. It has been said that anthropology does not aim to make the world simpler, but to show its complexity – this is something that actually seems very promising for dialogues between anthropology and the arts.

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Interview on the Serious Introspection Talk Show

On February 10 I was on the Serious Introspection Live talk show at Ihana baari in Helsinki with John W. Fail and Justin Tylor Tate to talk about my research and Feminist Comedy Night with Jamie MacDonald. Here is the video.

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Stand-up Comedy and the Permission to Fail

 

Stand-up comedy entails high emotional stakes for both performers and audiences. Although stand-up can be interesting for spectators in many different ways, it tends to be clearly either good or bad – and bad comedy can be very painful to watch. For the performer, a good performance feels wonderful, an okay one can feel like a failure, and bombing can feel like death. This post is about adding new material, trying new things, and taking risks.

My first performances went fairly well in many ways. I had written a decent five minute set during the course I took, and although some bits in it were stronger than others, it had a good beginning and end and I felt secure enough with it to just go and present it and concentrate on worrying about the performance rather than the material.

I did pretty much the same set for the first six gigs. Now, one of the biggest misconceptions I’ve found there to be about stand-up is how fast new material is produced. Writing comedy takes a long time. At this point, I would say that developing 5-10 minutes of comedy material would take me as long as writing an 8,000-word research article (I plan to discuss both comedic and academic writing in more detail in another post). In stand-up it is not only that writing takes time, but new material has to be tested and developed in performance, with a audience, and your own intuitions or the reactions of a friend you test the joke on only take you so far. This is why it is more common to replace bits in a set gradually rather than throwing out the entire set at once – although some comedians, like Louis C.K. are known for this, and Teemu Vesterinen did a project where he started off with all new material and worked on it through ten performances over two weeks. However, these are seasoned pros, and in any case developing the new material is a process.

So, when I decided I wanted to start adding new material to my set, that brought on new anxieties. I wanted to start by replacing the weaker material, but it was surprisingly scary to let go of something that I knew was not-terrible and usually got at least some small laughs in exchange for the unknown. Also, I am not (at least not yet, anyway) good at writing one-liners, (short set-up and punch-line jokes) I tend to create a scenario and then make jokes about how the scenario could develop. It seems to me that replacing shorter one-liners that stand on their own is easier in the sense that if the new bit fails, at least it failed quickly. If a longer bit about a scenario goes south, for a beginner like me it’s very hard to abandon it smoothly, so there is a risk of a long, drawn-out failure.

At my seventh gig at Jano I planned on trying out some new material. It is sort of general advice that you should start and end with strong material – I think in his book Andre Wickström says to start with your second-best joke and end on the best one (I don’t have the book at hand to check, so apologies if this is incorrect!). So, my original plan was to start and end on old bits and add a new stuff in the middle. However, I was worried about the subject matter of the new stuff, as it was a bit more personal and heavier than my other topics – and when I discussed this with the other performers of the night, opinions on where I should put the new bit were divided. Most views reflected the idea of bracketing new and untested material with the tested bits, but someone else pointed out that the problem with heavier material is that if the audience gets too bummed out, they might not laugh at even the material that usually works.

My point is not to shift responsibility of my choices to anyone else but to bring out how these choices can be discussed – everyone finished with ‘do what you feel is best’. I ended up putting the new material at the end, also with the hope that I would feel more comfortable going into it after the more dependable bits. In hindsight, this might not have been the best choice, as although the new material did get some laughs, it was clear that it still needed work and I ended on a bit of a low note – also in hindsight, it would have been better to end a bit sooner, when something I had thought of as a minor punchline at best got more of a laugh than the intended point. Technically speaking, I should have ended a lot sooner, as I also committed one of the cardinal sins of open mic comedy: I went over time. I had timed myself at home, but this turned out to be wildly inaccurate – so another incentive for me to learn to write one-liners, or to figure out more possible end points for longer bits, is that it makes time-management easier, so that when you get the signal that you have one more minute left you can at least get to a punchline in that minute.

And to not end this blog-post on a low note, the very next night I had another gig at Molly Malone’s no subtitles club, which was also my first time performing in English. I was, again, trying out a (different) bit of new material, and this time I put it in the middle. It worked okay, and I was then able to go on to the older material, which I was happy to find worked in English as well, as I’d been a bit worried about how much of the laughs had depended on using specific words or language-play that didn’t really translate. Performing in English actually felt very natural and even liberating in a way. Different languages in the Helsinki comedy scene is definitely something I plan to look at in my research. Many Finnish comedians perform in both Finnish and English, some native speakers of English perform in English at mostly Finnish-language clubs, yet others perform in their second language whether that is Finnish or English. The audiences at the English language clubs contain a wide variety of nationalities, for many of whom English is a second language.

I don’t like the feelings of failure, but stand-up comedy requires the willingness to take risks and to learn from the consequences. As a genre, stand-up is predicated on the permission to fail. No-one escapes mistakes, failed bits, or outright bombing (in Finnish they call it stage-death), but as long as you are willing to face the audience again there are endless do-overs. A huge bonus is that the open-mic scene in Helsinki is, by and large, warm and welcoming, with enthusiastic audiences and supportive comics.

 

 

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Performance as Research: Anthropologist as Would-be Comedian  

 

Stand-up comedy (like most forms of humor) is full of paradoxes. Getting on stage is easy in the sense that there are many possibilities for performance: open mic-nights are an integral part of the Helsinki stand-up comedy scene and many of these clubs, meant for beginners starting out and more experienced comedians trying out new material, welcome anyone who would like to give it a go. The only thing between you and the stand-up stage is you – and therein lies the rub. To my mind, stand-up comedy requires both the audacity to grab the mic, claim the attention, and put yourself out there, as well as the sensitivity and self-awareness to reflect on how you’re coming across and being interpreted. It requires an exceptional capacity for accepting critique – first and foremost in the form of audience reactions – and a sense of self that allows you to reflect on those reactions in a constructive way and keep moving.

I want to point out that I am writing as a researcher doing participant observation – the classic and time-honored method of anthropological research – and I am very aware that in stand-up comedy I am a total beginner. What I am trying to do is to bring together and reflect on the viewpoints of a trained anthropologist and wide-eyed comedy initiate, to form some thoughts that can then be questioned and developed further.

 

Participant-observation

I have now performed five gigs at three different clubs: On the Rocks, Comedy Bronco, and Jano. They’ve gone pretty well, some better than others, but overall the experience has been an incredibly positive one, and I’ve discovered I really, really like doing stand-up (so far. It could all still go horribly wrong and become awful).

I’ve planned to include performance in the research since the beginning of the project. The main methodology of anthropology is long-term fieldwork (often at least a year) and the already mentioned participation observation. Ideally, the researcher shares everyday life with those he or she is doing research with, participating in as many aspects of life as possible. In this vein, I have been hanging out with comedians for almost a year now, but I wanted to take field work to the next level.

After all, how deeply could I hope to understand the perspective of a comedian if I didn’t at least try the process of creating and performing material for myself? The anthropologist has to combine and balance between the two forms of acquiring information; pure participation results in unreflexive experiences but only relying on observation will lack the viscerality of participation and can even be misleading – both are needed for a well-rounded understanding and analysis of the thing being researched. The point is not to be constantly half participating and half observing; for me the experience of performance has been a very intense one of participation, with the reflection and observation coming afterwards (with the help of recordings, discussions, and notes written while the memory of the experience is still fresh).

 

First time on stage

Many comedians have done their first gig at the long running weekly open mic club On the Rocks, and so did I. It took me a few weeks after Ida’s course ended to gather up the courage to ask for a spot, but eventually I did. The time leading up to the gig was nerve-wracking, I worried I would trip on my way to the stage, black-out completely on what I was going to say, or not know what to do with the microphone. I rehearsed my set over and over to make sure I knew what to say (this is another paradox of stand-up comedy: the material can only really be worked on in a performance setting, in front of the audience – at the same time writing a bit requires attention to every detail).

Leading up to my turn, I felt nervous, grateful for the large cellar space that allowed me to pace around, watch the other performances, and sneak back to look at my notes one more time. As our Master of Ceremonies Bahar Tokat announced my name, telling the audience this was my very first gig, I felt very focused and also slightly unreal, like I’d switched to autopilot. I had a weird sense of tunnel vision in the stage-lights as I stepped up to the stage, received an encouraging handshake from Bahar, and took the mic. I did forget to move the mic stand to the side and the gig itself remains a bit of a blur, but I remembered my set, and, more importantly, I got laughs. Then, very quickly, it was all over, I said my goodbyes, hugged Bahar and walked off, hearing the applause as she asked if the audience if they’d want to see me on stage again in the future. There were more hugs and congratulations from comedians and other friends, and I felt relieved and happy and and a little hyper – I did it! I’d survived my first try at stand-up comedy.

 

Future plans

At this point I intend to keep performing, not only because it offers valuable insight, but also because I find it personally so intriguing, exciting, and challenging. In the Spring I plan to attend another course and write more material in both Finnish and English, and keep up both the participation and the observation in and of various facets of stand-up comedy.

 

 

 

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