An offstage voice announces his entrance, but our host refuses to appear. That’s the first shredded expectation in Jordan Brookes’s show Body of Work, which opens at Soho theatre in London this week. Brookes is not the first to upend conventions about how comedians take the stage. Doctor Brown fans will remember his elongated entrances, tangled up in curtains, and many comics get a quick laugh from confessing that the offstage announcer is usually, in fact, the comic themselves. But when Brookes’s show debuted in Edinburgh this summer, critics – myself included – hailed the way that it demolishes so many conventions of comedy.
This begs the question: what do we take for granted when we sit down to watch comedy? That it’ll be funny, primarily: that the mood will be light-hearted, and that (almost) everything the comic says will be in the service of making us laugh. An associated precept is that the comedian will seek to ingratiate themselves with the audience, it being hard to make people laugh if they haven’t yet warmed to you.
The latter convention has its refuseniks, of course – Stewart Lee prominent among them. Likewise Hans Teeuwen, Bo Burnham, Luke McQueen and (to a lesser extent) Brookes, who deploy malevolence or superciliousness at least as much as warmth. They scramble, too, the idea that everything a comedian says must be a joke. Teeuwen will suddenly play something beautiful on a piano. Burnham recites, with defiant sincerity, a Shakespeare soliloquy. The double act Beard staged a whole show that majored as much on strange as conventionally funny. In such cases, you laugh because there isn’t a joke, nor any obvious source of mirth. Conventional punchlines amuse because they’re unexpected. But so, too, is the complete absence of punchline or comic purpose – which can be equally funny.
Rhythm is another area in which the convention-busters wreak their havoc. It’s integral to comedy: ignore the actual words at many a standup show, and you may still laugh – because the pitch and flow of what a comic is saying, the vocal peaks, troughs and pauses, all but compel it. Within individual jokes and across whole sets, comics use pace, volume and the content of what they’re saying to focus attention and build up heads of steam. Brookes and co are just as rhythmically adroit – but their intention is quite the opposite. They don’t let their shows get in a groove. They keep switch-backing, between topics, types of joke, modes of performance. Now Teeuwen’s a puppeteer, now he’s political. One minute Brookes mourns his dead gran then – on an instant – he’s performing a lewd mime.
It’s a stop-start, rug-pulling approach, designed to prevent audiences from ever settling. There’s a similar impulse behind these acts’ shifting personae. Standup orthodoxy requires that audiences, on a basic level, know who they’re watching. We know Jack Whitehall is and will forever be a bumbling posho. We know Sarah Millican is a potty-mouthed, salt-of-the-earth Geordie. The laughs often come from imagining how that character reacts in any given situation. But unconventional comics withhold that laugh, or any stable sense of who they are. Brookes frames Body of Work as a show about that grandparent with dementia – placing it in a lineage of heartfelt “dead dad” comedy shows. But that premise, and the idea of him as a caring grandchild, is no sooner established than undermined. Any sense that the show’s “message” or Brookes’s character might be taken on trust is ruthlessly mocked.
You’d be forgiven for being infuriated by this kind of comedy, which probably appeals more to comedy insiders than casual onlookers. I find the destabilising experience of watching Brookes and Teeuwen (or more playful convention-stretchers such as Claudia O’Doherty), never knowing where the next laugh is coming from, deeply exciting. But that may be because I’m so used to the conventions they’re sending up. I love it when spontaneous things happen in a Burnham set, then are revealed to have been meticulously rehearsed – all to shred the convention that standup is more impromptu than other artforms. I even love (albeit through a film of cold sweat) when McQueen – and Brookes, too – flout the convention that a blind eye be turned to the presence of critics in the audience. “You’d have to be a real cunt,” Brookes says at the end of Body of Work, “to give this show three stars.” I really enjoyed it and – if you’ve an iconoclastic spirit – you might, too.