Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Funny by numbers

Last night, we went along to the Channel 4 Comedy Gala.  It’s been recorded and will be on TV next Monday evening.

There were a LOT of stand-up comedians on the bill.  And I mean a LOT.  Each of them was given around five minutes and as you’d expect, some tickled my funny bone and some didn’t.

But as this isn’t a review – I shall limit myself to saying Bill Bailey and Michael McIntyre good – but that was expected.  Lee Evans not as annoying as I’d feared and actually quite funny.

More interesting was to note the same formula used by so many of the comedians on the bill.  Before we look at the formula itself, there’s a few things you need to know about the gig. 

  • It was in the O2.  That’s a very big venue. 
  • To get onto the stage, the acts had to walk up a few stairs
  • The gig was in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital

Armed with just those three facts you could reconstruct the set of many of the comedians on the bill.  So let’s do that.

First, walk up the stairs. 

If you trip on the stairs, make a joke about how that wasn’t intentional and how it all could’ve gone badly wrong.

If you aren’t the fittest person in the world, make a joke about how walking up the stairs was hard work.

Stand still for a minute and look out into the crowd.  Then utter an expletive and say how big the room is.  (Almost everyone except Lee Evans did this!). 

To get the crowd on side, ask if they’re having a good time and make a joke about how long the evening is.  (Again – almost everyone except Lee Evans)

Maybe riff a little about the fact that the O2 used to be the Millennium Dome.  It’s sponsored by a mobile phone company, so if you have some jokes about call plans or text messages, now’s your chance.

Then go into three minutes or so of your own material – maybe throwing in a few references to children or hospitals if you want to be topical.

If at any point you start to lose the crowd, either talk about how great the cause is. (Cue applause)

Or failing that, talk about how intimidated you are by the size of the room and how happy you are that you are getting through your set without dying. (Yes, one of them really did spend a proportion of their set doing just this…)

Finally, say what a great night is ahead of the audience, say thank you for coming and leave the stage.

Easy.

Of course, as the evening drags on, you can start to turn the “length of the show joke” into “don’t worry, you can go home soon”. 

If you’re feeling subversive, you could say that you’re not going to ask the crowd if they are enjoying the evening, as so many other people have asked that. 

Now, I realise I’m starting to sound miserable at this point.  Don’t get me wrong; I had a cracking evening and spent most of it laughing.  But there are two ways of looking at comedy – analogous to two ways in which you can listen to music.

I can listen to a song and get caught up in the emotion and the sound and the mood.  Or I can listen to a song and count the beats, listen for the chord changes, listen for the breaths on the vocal track and take it apart.

The first can be a moving experience.  The second can be an interesting experience.

Last night, at the gig itself, I was moved to laughter.  Right now, I’m being interesting.(*)

But is there a connection between the two ways of looking at comedy?  I think there is.  And my reason is that if I think of the acts who still stand out in my mind from last night, they are the ones who didn’t stick to the script.  Or who subverted the script.

Shappi Khorsandi gave five minutes of well-rehearsed and good material. 

Michael McIntyre was gifted with following Katie Price and Alex Reid on the bill which would provide anyone with enough material to fill five minutes, but still delivered some great and original material of his own.

Bill Bailey provided a brilliant musical opening to the second half.

And – much as it pains me to say this – Lee Evans was actually very funny.  Obviously at home in such large arenas, he knows how to connect with a large crowd.

Given it was a charity gig – and that nobody was truly awful – I think it’d be wrong of me to pick out some of my least favourite acts and at an evening with so many comedians on the bill some are bound to resonant with my sense of humour more than others.

I would recommend watching on Monday though – but if you want to see what I mean above – buy the uncut DVD coming out later in April.  It’s for a good cause after all…

Monday, March 22, 2010

Popular science need not be patronising

I’ve read a lot of “popular science” books.  Put me in a book shop and I’ll be headed straight for the section filled with books called “Shrödinger’s Something” and have a picture of a cat on the front.  (*)

Time – and a lot of reading – has lead me to believe that many authors mistake the readers of popular science books for idiots and seem to think that making the science simple involves aiming for a simple readership.  To think that way is folly – most people pick up a book on quantum theory or relativity because they want to understand it – not because they want to read tabloid-style rantings about time travel and clocks slowing down in fast planes.  I’ve got a particular book in mind here which was so dire I was screaming at the pages during the last chapter…

The problem with most popular science books – and many science documentaries on TV – is that they aren’t created by people who understand the science.  If you want an accessible depiction of a scientific concept then find a scientist who understands and let them explain it to the target audience – whatever you do, don’t find some actor from Hollyoaks and give them a script to read out.

Fortunately, Brian Cox has appeared as our saviour in the mire of dull science writing and presenting.

I’m just about to finish reading Why E=mc² and it’s a fantastic book.  And even though we’re only halfway through “Wonders of the Solar System” it’s already astounded me with both the imagery and the presentation.

Let me illustrate my point with an example.  A week ago Saturn’s rings were the focus of “Wonders Of The Solar System” and in particular the gaps which appear in the rings.  Mention was made that moons are responsible for the gaps.  And that’s where most documentaries would’ve stopped.  Not this one.

It was a joy to hear orbital resonance being explained.   There was no hand-waving here, but an actual explanation of how moons outside the ring system can create gaps inside the ring system because of resonances between their orbital period and the orbital period of the particles which make up the rings.  Proof that it is possible to present the truth of science without making it either inaccessible or patronising.

I can recommend the book for exactly the same reason.  The maths is presented and a derivation of “E=mc²” is given in the book.(**) Even if you already understand Special Relativity, the Standard Model and the idea of spacetime curvature, you will still enjoy reading this book.  Trust me. You will.  Oh and watch “Wonders of the Solar System” on Sunday Evenings – you won’t be disappointed!"

* Brian Cox’s book does have a picture of a cat on the front but Schrödinger is not mentioned in the title.

** OK, it’s a bit of an approximate derivation but if you have a maths background you have enough information in the book to make it rigorous…

Monday, March 8, 2010

Seeing the world through my eyes

Everyone sees the world differently.  A shining example of modern architecture to one person may appear as a monstrous carbuncle to others.  This is how I see the world.

I was sitting in a café having lunch on Sunday, and there were four stools lined up against the wall opposite.  They were not spaced equally.  You may ask why I was looking at the spacing of the stools and the answer is that I wasn’t looking at the spacing specifically – I was merely glancing at the stools and the asymmetrical arrangement leapt out at me.

The imperfect arrangement of the stools looked wrong.  No – it didn’t look wrong – it felt wrong.  It was wrong.

It’s not an obsession with neatness – anyone who knows me will tell you that’s something I don’t suffer from – but simply something in my brain which tells me that an asymmetrical arrangement of stools is wrong.

There are other examples.  Hanging clothes out on the line on holiday once, I noticed that I was ensuring that identical clothes pegs were used on each sock from the same pair.  This wasn’t a choice for aesthetic reasons; do have mismatched pegs on a pair of socks would just feel wrong.  Uncomfortable. Unacceptable,even.

Whenever I buy a new pair of shoes, I am faced with a dilemma.  The laces are quite often not threaded and before you wear the shoes you have to lace them up.  The lacing of shoes is not symmetrical and so the question in my mind is immediately whether the lacing of the left and right shoes should be identical – or mirror imaged.  You may laugh – in fact I can hear that you are – but to me this isn’t an idle thought.  It matters. 

I count roast potatoes for dinner.  Every guest must get the same number of potatoes on the plate.  I don’t count the peas; but I do count the spoonfuls of peas.

I’m writing this on a train, and we’re currently speeding through Burgess Hill.  On the right, I have just seen a house with an asymmetrical roof.  I couldn’t buy that house.  It would be too uncomfortable to see the mismatched roof every time I came home.

I’m a scientist by nature though I think my love of science is a symptom of my obsession with symmetry and numbering rather than the cause.  Logic and order are at the heart of scientific thinking, and I think I feel at home there.

You may ask how I can appreciate art, if symmetry and order are important.  I can – and do – appreciate art.  The composition of the painting or the piece of music may be asymmetrical, but that’s fine.  What wouldn’t be fine would be if the art gallery had hung the painting unevenly.

I know other people who think the same way as I do.  It can’t be that unusual.  But surely not everyone sees the world like this.

I don’t hold with the modern obsession with labelling every behaviour or way of thinking as a “syndrome” and trying to analyse – and indeed change – it.  I certainly have no idea to change the way I think, I quite like my ordered and counted view of the world.  But I’m curious if anyone else sees the world like this – or does everyone think this way and yet nobody talks about it?

Don’t get me wrong, but…

There’s been a lot in the press recently about one of the James Bulger killers who’s been taken back to prison for breaking the terms of his release.

Also, stirred up by the tabloids, there have been increasing calls for him to lose his anonymity and face trial for these new charges under his real name.  There have also been people who really should know better claiming that the charges against him should be made public.

I can understand the anger in this case.  I can understand how emotional it is.  But I disagree entirely with the notion that anyone not involved in the case has any right to know the nature of the new charges.   We may want to know – and indeed I’m sure everyone is curious – but that does not in itself give us the right to be told.

Everyone in this country has the right to a fair trial for every offence of which they are accused.  The fact that Jon Venables has already been found guilty of a very serious – and truly horrendous – crime previously does not remove his right to a fair trial this time around.

If he were tried by jury under his real name, there is no way he would be guaranteed a fair trial.  No matter how disturbing we find the Bulger murder not how we feel about the punishment the two killers have received, the right to a fair trial for this new charge should not be up for debate.

Emotion is a very powerful thing, and the Bulger case obviously stirs up emotions in anyone who reads about it – but perhaps the people who need to make the decisions in this case are not the ones who are emotionally involved.  James Bulger’s mother is understandably upset, and may feel that – should Jon Venables be found guilty of the new charges – her suggestions that the killers were released too early was justified. 

But right now, Jon Venables has not been found guilty of any new charges.  The priority now should be to give him a fair trial for those charges.  Any raking over the coals of the previous case in light of the new one should only be done once we know whether he actually did what he now stands accused of.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ga Ga Ooh La La

I’ve waited a week or so before writing this, just to ensure that the sheer delight from seeing Lady GaGa at the O2 didn’t fade with time, it hasn’t.

I should declare now that I’m a Lady GaGa fan.  She’s completely nutty, but I like that in a pop star.

The show at the O2 was even better than I had expected – and my expectations were pretty high. 

There was a Rolls Royce with a piano under the bonnet, a fountain which shot flames, a grand piano which set itself on fire and of course the huge monster which she killed by shooting sparks from her breasts.  As you do. 

But, amongst all the silliness, every song was sung live, with a live band.  She spent the whole two hours in fully choreographed dance routines.   Not only can she sing, she can play the piano and she writes almost all of her songs.

I’m sick and tired of modern pop stars who seem to think a concert involves prancing around with a few dancers whilst someone back stage presses play on your latest CD and you move your lips in time to the music. 

It’s often claimed that you can’t sing and dance at the same time. Not true. Admittedly it’s hard to sing well whilst performing an energetic dance routine – but it is definitely possible.

I’m also tired of pop stars (and rock stars) who seem to think that if you lack any musical talent you can make up for it by drinking a lot and saying controversial things.   If I pay 50 quid for a concert ticket, I want to see an artist who’s sober enough to remember the words and I want to see them give the best performance they can.

And this is why I love Lady GaGa.  You can see from watching her perform that she spends many more hours in the rehearsal studio than she does in the bar, and that’s how it should be!