In 2012 I think I saw the comedian Richard Herring 6 times. I saw him in a mixture of his own shows, gigging with other comedians, and on game shows. He’s great – a brilliant wordsmith, and frighteningly clever – but after watching him half a dozen times, the cracks began to show. What seemed like an amazing off-the-cuff remark was suddenly transformed into a cliché. An observation which looked like it had just zinged into his brain was now revealed as a well rehearsed skit.
Comedy – especially stand up comedy – sells us the lie that the comedian comes on stage and makes up all the jokes on the spot. Sure, it’s obvious there’s a loose structure, but the wild and crazy tangents, riffing from the audience, and chaotic nature make it looks improvised. It’s not. Not remotely. Stand up comedy is a rehearsed performance and – as anyone who has seen a comedian repeat the same joke again and again – is more like an illusion than actual magic.
Which brings me on to Lost Voice Guy. Take a listen to him on Richard Herring’s podcast:
What I find fascinating is that the comedian has all of his quips on an iPad in front of him. When he wants to tell a joke, he hits the correct button and Text-To-Speech reads it aloud. In the abstract, it’s no different from any other comedian remembering a pile of jokes and trotting them out one after the other. Indeed, if you ever see Tim Vine live, he often has a few scraps of paper with him on which are written his newest jokes.
Yet, almost viscerally, I feel that Last Voice Guy is “cheating”. It’s like going to a theatre to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live – only to be shown a DVD of their performance. The performance somehow feels cheapened by not seeing it “live”.
There’s no doubt that Lost Voice Guy is hugely funny. But what is it about my brain which celebrates remembering a joke, and yet diminishes the effort of having an computer read a pre-composed gag?
If you have the time, watch Stewart Lee (a comedian who scribbles his latest thoughts on his hands) talking about the fantasy of stand-up being improvised. It’s an hour long, but well worth it.