This review will consider Girls with Jokes, a night of stand up comedy recently performed at the King’s Head Theatre in London. Comedians included, in set order: Sarah Tattersall, Kat Ronson, Katerina Robinson and Victoria Garofalides.
Perhaps the most important thing after jokes and punchlines in standup comedy is persona: the little idiosyncrasies, the personality, the habits and speech patterns that we so regularly associate with our favourite comedians. This is important because it gives the audience an understanding of who this person is or what they might say next – especially useful when alternative interpretations or character POVs are at play – and permits the comedian to earn engagement, respectability and charisma. In other words, a persona makes people want to listen. There is a difference, however, between persona and character. Not all comedians must have a character but all must have a persona. I write all of this because this crucial element was severely absent from all of these comedians’ work, with the short exception of Garofalides.
Garofalides presents her audience with a licentious, abusive and drug addict-esque persona, veering closer towards an outrageous character. She uses this persona to generate a semantic field, something which was hit-and-miss for other comedians, which an audience can instantly acknowledge and easily comprehend. This enables the audience to focus solely on the humour, rather than on trying to work out what she’s about, so to speak. Garofalides should be used as an exemplar of how persona can and should be used as a grounding touchstone from which humour can be successfully and coherently generated.
It is important to note here that I am not suggesting the other comedians need be as caricatural or as debase, but that they focus on their delivery style: not necessarily what the jokes are but how the jokes are conveyed. As for Robinson, whilst persona was still rather lacking, her jokes were very good. She was aware of the sociopolitical context of her stories and of how the majority of the audience would interpret them and was able to use this knowledge to form a relatable and identifiable comedic palette. Ronson’s humour was slightly less refined and her material seemed to extend to many different areas of thinking, making her overall work confused. I will say, however, that her blunt and hard-hitting introduction to her set was excellent. Tattersall’s material, unfortunately, was all over the place, and there was not a clearcut thread running through it all to tie it together. This was met with a nervous and introverted stage presence and a range of jokes which did not quite hit the mark.
All comedians decided to use – what is presented as – autobiographical material, primarily [ex-]boyfriends and sexuality. Even this warrants, again, a persona. It is impossible to present one’s “true” self (especially on stage), and so appropriate personae are needed to extract anecdotes and experiences from one’s life. No-one wants to hear someone prattle on about their ex (something even acknowledged by the comedians themselves several times) unless it is felt that there is something to gain from it, e.g. the way this comedian gesticulates or articulates this story makes it worth listening to. When one is dealing with personal material, it must be seen to come from a person, someone who reacts to things in a certain, specified way, and this way becomes humorous. This was almost achieved by Tattersall when she demonstrates that her techniques for getting over the loss of her ex are really techniques to get him back. This denotes an obsessive/needy person who has not gotten over their ex and whose ridiculous actions the audience can laugh about, and this is effective.
Not only was personality lacking for the comedians but for the night itself. There was clearly a theme of sex and body, freedom and youth, yet these failed to come together as one coherent performance. There was a lack of structure, and the beginning and end seemed much too abrupt and ungiving. An audience wants to feel as though they have gained something from the performance, that the performance was for them and them only; as it stood, this lack of ceremony, which would have surfaced in a proper intro and outro, made it feel as though there was little given to the audience to appreciate their time. It was much too rushed, clamorous and disorganised. I would recommend a main comedian who hosts the night or just a clearer introduction of what is to come. This would have added personality to the night.
It did feel as though this night was some sort of rehearsal simply experimenting on its audience, benefitting in its rapidness its performers more than its spectators, and this was accentuated by having the performers sit off stage, watching the performance from within the audience. I would recommend that the comedians leave the performance space completely or, at least, sit on a bench on stage together. Sitting in the audience makes for both awkward entrances and exits but also for a seeming disengagement on the performers’ behalf.
All comedians had good energy and, on the whole, a good sense of timing, but I must admit that there are many minor faux pas in this performance which all add up to create a hectic sense of unpreparedness and bad quality. For example: checking watches; writing prompts on wrists; saying, “What else can I say?”. There was also a massive problem with projection and diction, unaided by the quiet and tetchy microphone. I suppose this was down to nerves, for which I highly suggest some group calming techniques before going on stage, but these became quite impedimentary and dampened what could otherwise have been snappy, potent punchlines.