The Yellow hat is the thinking hat of speculative positivity and it’s this hat that I struggle most with. Boundless positivity is an unnatural quality in a comedian, we are typically wingers, critics and smart asses who endlessly seek out things that irk and irritate to parody, satirise and attack. Socrates believed the heart of good comedy was surprise but I think the modern equivalent would be ‘surprise, everything’s fucked!’ Whether it be the burning fervent hatred of stupidity made famous by modern stand ups Bill Hicks and George Carlin, the combative front row sergeants like Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr or surrealists like Monty Python and the Mighty Boosh, whose absurdity can be seen as a ‘fuck you’ to manners and social normality. Are all comedians angry people?
Comedy is a tough job and the highs and lows of a gigging solo comedian can have the unfortunate effect of gradually causing a depressive personality. People either find you funny or not and if you bomb it’s awful. A comic’s material is such a part of them that it’s not just the jokes that fail it’s also the person; a bad gig is like taking a mortar and pestle to your soul. Contrastingly a fantastic gig can have the unfortunate side effect of a massive come down. The high is so high that sometimes life just can’t compare.
Freud notes that most people’s greatest fear is to, stand-alone on a stage being laughed at by a room full of people. Each night of the Fringe comedians seek this out, then throw themselves body and soul into it and try to control it, no wonder some of us are a little damaged. The stereotypical comedian is a manic personality suffering from huge highs and lows, drinking constantly, unable to switch off, jealous and driven, but is this true? Are we all attention seeking manic-depressives screeching for attention from the stage each night? In an environment with very clear parameters for success and failure surrounded by critics, colleagues and judges how do comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe cope with the pressures of the job? I sat down with one of the shining lights of comedic positivity, Adam Hills to talk about bringing joy to people, staying positive and the Muppets.
Adam Hills starting doing stand up at age 19 and brought his first show to Edinburgh in 1997. Since then he’s been nominated numerous times for the Perrier and has built a reputation as one of the most celebratory, ‘sun drenched’ life-affirming comedians working at the Fringe. I wondered whether Adams positivity was a choice or whether it was a natural progression over time. He told me that the progression began early in his career, he started to notice that hostility created hostility and he realised he wanted to leave the room filled with happiness and joy not angry upset hecklers. Adam says he just began to change small things in his jokes. “I remember re-writing one of my jokes about hating Americans, because they name their children after personality traits that they wish they will grow up to have, Faith, Hope, Charity etc. I thought you know what I don’t hate Americans at all, hate is such a strong awful word to use and I rewrote the joke, ‘You know what I love about Americans, they are the most optimistic people on the planet they name their children after traits they wish they had’… it’s the exact same joke but you don’t feel so dirty afterward’
This is a perfect example of Adams attitude to stand up, rather than talking down to people, attacking the room and leaving a hostile snake pit behind him he has a rare ability to be leave an audience feeling laughed out and joyous. This year he was at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival and had the great honour to be part of a gala show hosted by The Muppets. The Muppets are the original Joymongers and there are few groups that can bring the kind of exuberant happiness to an audience like Jim Henson’s furry troupe of puppets. Adam had planned to do a set with material about the Swedish Chef so he was placed in the running order accordingly. As Adam was waiting to go on the Swedish Chef was creating chaos on the stage utensils flying about, meatballs all over the place. Suddenly a wooden spoon flew through the air and landed near his feet in the wings. He looked at the spoon nervously and asked the backstage assistant if he could take the spoon on. After much tooing and froing, checking and radioing the assistant gave Adam the go ahead and he walked onto stage with Swedish Chef’s spoon, held it up and then to the delight of the packed crowd mischievously slid the spoon into his jacket pocket, the crowd erupted into cheers. He then did his set, improvising and cracking jokes about his love of the Muppets and upon exiting almost bumped headlong into the Swedish Chef. The Chef reached into his jacket removed the wooden spoon and banged him on the chest with it then held up the spoon looked at Adam, said, ‘ok’ and gave it back, Adam then high fived Kermit, hugged the puppeteers and got a free ride home on Snuffaluffagus.
In the press the next day a critic noted that Adam was the only comic to capture the celebratory nature of the night. In the maelstrom of press, competition and criticism that comedians receive at the Fringe it’s easy to lose sight of what we are here to do and lapse into a fug of self loathing and negativity. All of us in our own way try to go out and make people laugh and feel better about the world. Perhaps we need to be reminded that its not daddy issues, attentions seeking or an addictive personality that drives comics to dive headlong into one of the most psychologically terrifying atmosphere imaginable its just a genuine desire to spread a little laughter, mirth and positivity. In the famous words of the Muppeteer himself, “When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there. ” Jim Henson