Comedy Review – Daniel Kitson: The Impotent Fury of the Privileged
I’d sort of intended to go see Kitson’s new show at Warwick, but decided not to as I was already going down there to see Simon Amstell the same week and didn’t fancy two trips. Then I was going to go and see him in Manchester with a friend, but that show was sold out. Then I resigned myself to seeing him Edinburgh, for which I’m still not 100% sure I’ll make it up for anymore than a few days. So this morning, apropos of very little (it was sunny), I decided to get on a bus and go watch him over in Wolverhampton.
Now perhaps it’s because I haven’t seen a full-length one-man comedy show since Edinburgh last year (god, I miss living near Warwick Arts Centre) that on the way back thinking about writing this review I came up with no less than three ways of starting it. First I was going to go with the traditional route by opening with some comments on the venue linked to my previous experience there. Second I was going to start with “Daniel Kitson is this generation’s Bill Hicks” and the third slightly more stoic opening was “It was a bit preachy”. I wasn’t sure which to pick, the I realised I’m not getting paid for this and it’s my blog so I can do what I want. So I’m going to write three separate opening bits, then a closing bit, cunningly ignoring that always tenuous middle section.
I’ve watched comedy at the Wulfrun Hall once before, it was the first live comedy gig I’d ever been to – Bill Bailey on the Bewilderness tour. I was blown away at the time, though in retrospect the venue was an awful space for comedy and a credit to Bailey that he was able to overcome that, and still turn me into a massive fan of live comedy. Suffice to say, it hasn’t really changed. Kitson takes it in his stride, “this is the perfect middle ground between a village hall… and Wembley”. The ceiling is too high, there’s no tiered seating, so the poor people at the back struggle to see, and it’s not even sold out – apparently if it were there would be seats even further back, which frankly would be ridiculous. Knowing it was such a cavernous space, along with knowing that my home town of Wolverhampton isn’t exactly renowned for it’s fandom of quiet introspective comedy (well, quiet anything) I had some trepidation about it. In the end, it wasn’t that bad – while Kitson had some issues connecting with the crowd during the first half, later on this ceased to be an issue. While the large performer/audience divide probably caused the first half to suffer a bit, it was likely also to Kitson’s benefit: as a comic once known for his scathing heckle put-downs and verbally aggressive manner, a reputation he’s tried very hard to distance himself from, it was nice that there wasn’t even one heckle throughout the evening. People were polite enough to just shut up and listen.
Interestingly, this was the first time on the tour that the show was performed without an interval – apparently while it was written as a 1hr45 long show, with no suitable mid-point to break on, this was the first venue on the tour that had let him do the show right through.
For me though, it was a show of two halves. The first half seemed somewhat rambling and unfocused, and I genuinely struggle to recall many details about it. The second half meanwhile was a lot stronger, and some of the best stand-up I’ve ever seen.
Kitson’s new show was a bit preachy, but as he points out himself, what’s so wrong about preachy? It just so happens to be a technique used to often express quite horrible sentiments, but while blame the medium for the message? Kitson quite likes listening to a bit of entertaining and uplifting rhetoric, and so it would appear do his audience. So for two hours we get a hugely entertaining show which also requires you to think and engage with it, and maybe you even take something away from it.
Daniel Kitson is this generation’s Bill Hicks. I know that sounds a little crazy. After all, surely Brendon Burns or Marcus Brigstocke or even Steve Gribbin are this generation’s Bill Hicks? The shouty comedians that rant about the world like Hicks did. The very ones that Kitson decrys in this very act as being artificial constructs that can turn on and off their righteous fury on demand. Kitson points out that while he is angry as well, he can’t be as bombastic about it, as it comes from a position of insecurity and fear. It’s a much more personal anger. But in a time where everyone was too quiet and scared to speak out and make their voice known, Hicks was the voice of a generation, speaking the truths that others wouldn’t dare.
Skip forward to today. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone makes it known. TV news shows interview ‘the man on the street’ about their opinions on the latest developments. People use internet messageboards and blogs to annonymously attack and argue against those they disagree with, often with an anger disproportionate to the seriousness of the subject. The Daily Mail is able to say the most outrageous and awful things, armed with the pithy comeback of ‘political correctness gone mad’ to anyone that should dare challenge them. Amongst this cacophony of opinions, sits Kitson, calmly asking everyone if they could just be a bit nicer to each other. In a generation that has access to more opinions than they could ever understand (and that isn’t altogether a bad thing, as Kitson points out), he’s the lone voice that points out that while we might be able to argue all day about the causes of the world’s ills, we’re also part of that cause. And by being just a bit nicer, by caring just a little more about those around us, we can slowly, piece-by-piece, make things better.
At this point, it’s all a tad familiar. It’s Hick’s underlying message and belief in peace and love again. The oft-overlooked softer side of his angry, ranting comedy (and the side ignored by most of his imitators) was that he shouted so loudly because he wanted us all to be better people, do better things and help make the world a better place.
It’s not just in their underlying message that the two are similar, however. While on the surface their styles couldn’t be more different, they actually have a lot in common. Both have mastered the art of weaving comedy out of what basically amounts to just talking about their view of the world. If you actually go back and look at Hicks’ work, there’s very few recognisable jokes in there, and much of what there is is rather predictable. So much of Hicks’ humour came from the delivery, the style, the sheer ruthlessness of his venomous attacks on the authority he so despised. In later years he was criticised a lot for basically using the stage to espouse his own political opinions, and just making them funny. Rather than, y’know, writing jokes. Because for some, just being made to laugh wasn’t enough.
Kitson is eerily similar. Again, there’s little in terms of actual jokes in the show, something he’s happy to acknowledge himself. There are some funny annecdotes, but they’re generally only used as springboards for talking about a topic in general. Like Hicks, the humour isn’t in actual jokes, but unlike Hicks it doesn’t come from the delivery either. Instead it often stems from Kitson’s turn of phrase. He’s capable of pulling out hilarious descriptions, insults and off-hand comments that show a overwhelming command of the English language. He might be telling a story about how a guy harassing him on the bus made him realise how cowardly he was, in order to make a point, but when he off-handedly refers to said guy as a “fucknuckle” it becomes funny. I remember him using the phrase “a monumental level of fuckwittery” in a show a few years back, which still makes me smile. And it’s telling that many of the show’s laughs do come from these linguistic acrobatics.
That isn’t to say that it’s his only trick – he has a whole host of clever asides and a tendency to almost act out certain things or even use briefly use silly voices to provide exaggerated examples and mockery of things he makes reference to, and there are some actual jokes (though to me many seemed a little predictable but I may just be jaded). Likewise Hicks too had some killer lines. But both have mastered the ability to use something else to drive their comedy – Hicks had performance, passion and anger; Kitson has vocabulary, writing and stagecraft. But ultimately what they both did was talk to an audience about their view on the world, in a funny and hugely entertaining manner.
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Yeah, I think between the three I covered everything I wanted to say. The first half of the show didn’t really grab me, but I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s because it was weaker and less focused, because it’s so long since I’ve seen Kitson perform he was sinking under the weight of my expectation, or whether it was just the venue being a bit shit. But from around the halfway point it just grabbed me and didn’t let go. My only complaint is that while it delivers a message at the end, it didn’t all quite fit together in my head. It feels like seeing a piece of theatre or a confusing film where you have all the puzzle pieces but have to use your brain to arrange them. I guess now I actually want to go see it again, so maybe that was the point. Or the point was to make people think which was fair enough. But if the plan was to go on a fairly straight road to the eventual conclusion, structurally it wasn’t quite there.
It was still an exemplary piece of stand-up though, and I hugely suggest you go and see it. This whole ‘review’ was written from the perspective of having seen him many times before, and being a pretty harsh critic of stand-up. Most people will likely be blown away by how great it is. And since Wolves was one of the earliest gigs on the tour, there’s still plenty of chance to see him. Gig list here