Edward Aczel is a schlubby 42-year-old account manager with a regional English marketing company who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. He has shaggy hair and a permanently hangdog expression and an expanding waistline. But don’t be fooled. When it comes to killing the joke, Aczel is a veritable Dirty Harry on the mic.
At the beginning of his latest show, at London’s Soho Theatre, he whips out his .44 Magnum, or I should say Magic Marker, and proceeds to list, on a large flip-chart, the humorous topics he’ll be grappling with in the hour to come. These include the credit crunch, climate change, and war. (The show is called “Edward Aczel Explains All The World’s Problems… Then Solves Them.” Spoiler: He does no such thing.)
Aczel breaks all the basic stand-up rules. He warns us that the show won’t be particularly well-crafted, let alone entertaining. He reels off a series of jokes with all the gusto of a lecturer at a tax-accounting seminar, and defuses them by pointing out what’s meant to be funny about each one. Instead of wooing us with punchlines, he lets his gags trail off, mumbles apologetically, and stares morosely at his feet. When all else fails, he recourses to his flip-chart and represents, in graph form, the downward trajectory of his performance.
The punchline here is that Aczel is actually funny. The act of putting the joke out of its misery, or failing to, becomes the joke itself. The sheer hopelessness of his routine is what makes it so appealing (and has prompted one excitable reviewer to dub him “Britain’s greatest entertainer”).
Aczel is a practitioner of what’s known as “anti-comedy.” The term is a recent one. Other examples include American comedians Neil Hamburger and Tim Heidecker, and the twitchy Dutch genius Hans Teeuwen. You could apply the term to TV sitcoms such as The Office that mix pain and awfulness and despair into our belly laughs. But anti-comedy has always been with us, in some form or other. We detect strains of it in Tommy Cooper, Andy Kaufman, Peter Cook, and anyone else who ever capitalized on that on-edge feeling you get when a joke is being badly told. (For a vintage example, check out Cook’s little-known “Sven from Swiss Cottage” series of prank calls he made to London talk-radio station LBC in the late Eighties.)
The term “anti-comedy” is unsatisfactory, because comedy still prevails and the audience, provided it is sympathetic to the peculiarities of the contract, still gets its yuks. The emphasis shifts: instead of focusing on the bulls-eye, we laugh at how far short of the target the comedian’s arrow falls. Paradoxically, it is the inadequacy of conventional comedy that is often exposed in these shortfalls: the laziness of accepted devices and structures, not to mention the complacency of audiences willing to laugh along with them.
In certain isolated cases, however, the “anti-comedy” label seems entirely apt. The joke may die when Aczel tells it, but it is reborn in a different context and we nurture it with our laughter. Kim Noble, another Englishman creating a stir on the UK stand-up circuit, doesn’t just annihilate the gag: he tortures it first, then dismembers it and hands you the bloodied remains. You don’t leave a Kim Noble show with a dreamy smile on your face. Rather, you get out of there as fast as possible and try to convince yourself it never happened.
“Has Kim Noble Exploited His Mental Illness to Create One of the Most Shocking Stand-up Shows Ever?”, one British broadsheet asked recently as Noble unleashed his latest work on London audiences, and the hyperbole of the headline was almost justified. Kim Noble Must Die (which also played at the Soho Theatre and is now on tour in the UK) is probably the most disturbing hour I have ever spent in a performance space of any sort.