The story so far – What goes around comes around – number two of two storytelling nights, this time in the round.
One of my favourite stand-up albums is Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, a wonderfully funny true story of a comic’s career, relationship and debilitating sleep disorder. Birbiglia’s first album that I heard, Dog Years, is a pretty standard, but still amusing, grab-bag of his best bits. No narrative, few call-backs – similar in construction to most American stand-up specials. His next two albums focused much more on his experiences, rather than his observations, and drew from his ‘secret public journal’. Listening to SWM (his fourth album) after Dog Years, the difference is astounding – he’s become an incredibly skilled storyteller, jumping around in time, braiding the narrative, and pulling everything back together at the end. I consider it a masterpiece, and is my go-to when people who ‘don’t really listen to comedy’ ask for a recommendation. I whole-heartedly suggest that you spend 70 minutes in his company: https://open.spotify.com/album/2Eawhb5HaFqFAARajud7hu
As Kurt Vonnegut discusses his struggle to write his ‘war novel’ in Slaughterhouse Five, there are stories that are important to the teller, but that they find difficult or impossible to tell. Whether that’s the rawness of them, the suitability of the content within their field, or their willingness to be open with a listener or reader – they may find that it takes not just practice, but time. You can see how Birbiglia has progressed, absorbing influences, honing facets of his comedy that interest him, working hard on creating something that is truly him; but I believe that SWM is only as good as it is because he waited. Dog Years-era Birbiglia could not have told that story.
As soon as I had told the story of the Paris incident at the Barefaced Gala, I wrote down outlines of a couple more things that I wanted to share on stage. One of those was about a doctor’s appointment when I was 15 – the story which this year’s show tells. Having written it down, I doubted that it could ever be amusing, or that I could tell it on stage. There are shows that have made hilarious the most upsetting of events – Andre Vincent is Unwell, Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone, Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It. It wasn’t that the subject matter wasn’t suitable for comedy. I just wasn’t funny enough.
Performing at the 2015 Barefaced Stories Gala
So, a year after my first on-stage story, when Andrea and Kerry asked me to perform at the Barefaced Stories Gala once again, I reminded myself that it didn’t have to be funny, as long as it was engaging, and said yes. Flawed memory excepted, writing the story was simple. I added to the outline, asking my parents to send me letters and scan results that would help in checking the facts, and questioned my dad about what he recalled. There was plenty of stuff that wouldn’t fit into my allotted 8 minutes, but as you discover throughout comedy, it’s wise to edit down before you build up, getting to the essence of a story and then adding frills (he says, on the fourth of twenty five blog posts about Chris Turner: XXV – incidentally, there are some really interesting theories as to why clock faces often read IIII rather than IV, you can find them here).
On long car journeys to and from gigs, I’m often accompanied by the New Yorker Fictionpodcast where editor Deborah Treisman is joined by a writer who reads a short story from the magazine’s archive, before they discuss it. Though I’m hardly an avid reader, I’ve always preferred short stories to novels. Treisman is a brilliant interviewer, and always gets the best out of the authors, but it’s the stories themselves that I think have a lot that stand-ups can learn from. It’s not just the language of many of the writers – Tobias Woolf’s Bullet in the Brain read by T. C. Boyle is a masterful example – but the amount of information, character, narrative and world-building all contained in such a short space of time. The writers don’t necessarily have to ‘waste time’ on jokes, but still, they condense conflicts and concepts into lone sentences, establishing a platform from which the story can spring.
From talking to various storytellers, I learnt that a lot of humour emerges through the live performance, the audience acting like ten seconds in a microwave to a shrivelled lemon. That was the case on the night, as about a hundred people, seated in the round, heard my story for the first time. I enjoyed it less, as there was a much greater sense of pressure – I had named the show XXV several months prior, and the blurb hinted at the story – if it didn’t fly, I’d be hard pressed to find a new way of telling the same set of events in an interesting manner. Despite not fully throwing myself into the telling, standing rather static behind a microphone, performing with a constant 270º swivel to accommodate the seating arrangement’s sight lines, it went well, and it was pleasing to read a review of the night in the days following.
“The evening was capped off by UK comedian Chris Turner, who was funny and charming in his revealing conversation about being told he might have Marfan’s Syndrome as a teenager, leaving the audience on a cliffhanger.”
– PerthNow, January 28, 2015
A cliffhanger – how cruel.
Next time…Opening night! A kind audience, a patient tech, and a very inconsiderate comedian.