Homage To Catatonia
I never saw George Orwell do stand-up. It wasn’t on my GCSE syllabus. This is probably because he never actually did any, which is a great pity because what the first half of the twentieth century really needed was a strong socialist comedy alternative to Adolf Hitler, who was regularly filling stadiums by this point. I like to imagine he did, though. In my milky mind’s eye, I envisage George traipsing around various pubs and clubs with notes scribbled on his left palm outlining the five minute sets he had written and given lofty titles to:
•Clown And Out In Paris And London
•The End Of The Wigan Pier Show
(And he had a strong twenty minute set, that would always run over by exactly twenty four seconds, which he called “Nineteen Eighty Four”). All this made him chuckle because he thought it was very clever. He was shit, obviously. Occasionally his audience would just stare at him with wide eyes and blank faces. To be fair, they were mostly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a tough time to be a comedian on the open mic circuit.
He tried introducing props. His routine with the rats and the cage always worked best in smaller rooms. He preferred not to be filmed, for George it was all about the live event. And, in truth, it wasn’t all bad. Yes, he bombed a few times (as did Hitler), but for the most part he was well received in cosy, warm venues where people would come together in order to appreciate all the positive stuff about humanity while outside the world seemed to be falling apart. And George loved it when they laughed at him. He just tended not to remember those bits because he was, by his nature, a miserable git.
Sometimes, though, it went so well that he would forget that he was a miserable git. He had this brilliant bit about a talking pig that would have everybody in stitches. When it went well it was as if the whole world woke up. The atmosphere fizzled and crackled; it was electric. The proximity with the audience, the genuine sense of care between performers and the raw,all-embracing honesty of each gig would rouse even the most catatonic of crowds. Yes, there was risk and the caustic abrasion of new material rubbing itself into shape. But somehow it was just better.
Better than the alternatives - the all-pervading predictability of populist fodder. Better than the polished-to-death, non-stick slickness of TV-tempered totalitarianism. Better than the uniform, homogenised hum-drum that saturated the entertainment industry. It was better, even, than the sold out stadia that were always filled to the brim with people who left feeling a little bit empty. It was better because it was alive. No, it was life.
Life itself, throbbing and pumping and sweating, sentient and self-aware at the back end of a dodgy pub in Trowbridge. And if that didn’t wake you up then nothing would. George would bounce back home like his ankles were made of springs. He’d get in, stick the kettle on and put his springy feet up. Sipping at his tea, he would allow himself a moment or two of sheer joyful smugness. The world wasn’t so bad after all.
Then he would turn the telly on and his heart would sink again. It was some typically glossy, heavily edited tedium from Aunty Beeb; a shallow vehicle for mass-marketed, vapidcomedian-cum-celebrity self-propagandists with clever accountants. They were calling it “Room 101”. It was, George decided, like his worst nightmare. And with that he slipped off back to sleep.
Written by Matt Macaulay. Illustrated by Lise Richardson. Article originally published in issue one of The Independent Comedy Appreciation Magazine, May 2018.