Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  Proximity to death inspired the manic spirit of carpe diem in the Smiths. After Harvey died, my mother met a younger man in Africa and married him. The younger of my two brothers, Luke, went to Atlanta to pursue dreams of rap stardom. Both decisions sounded like promising pilot episodes for new sitcoms. And then I tried to ring in the changes by moving to Italy. In my empty kitchen, on the eve of leaving the country, I put my finger in the dust of my father and put the dust into my mouth and swallowed it, and there was something very funny about that—I laughed as I did it. After that, it felt as if I didn’t laugh again for a long time. Or do much of anything. Imagined worlds moved quite out of my reach, seemed utterly pointless, not to mention a colossal human presumption: “Yes, dear—if you like.” For two years in Rome, I looked from blank computer screen to handful of dust and back again—a scenario that no one, even in Britain, could turn into a sitcom. Then, as I was preparing to leave Italy, Ben, my other brother, rang with his news. He wanted me to know that he had broken with our long-standing family tradition of passive comedy appreciation. He had decided to become a comedian.

  It turns out that becoming a comedian is an act of instantaneous self-creation. There are no intermediaries blocking your way, no gallerists, publishers or distributors. Social class is a nonissue; you do not have to pass your eleven-plus. In a sense, it would have been a good career for our father, a creative man whose frequent attempts at advancement were forever thwarted, or so he felt, by his accent and his background, his lack of education, connections, luck. Of course, Harvey wasn’t, in himself, funny—but you don’t always have to be. In the world of comedy, if you are absolutely determined to stand on a stage for five minutes with a mike in your hand, someone in London will let you do it, if only once. Ben was determined: he’d given up the after-school youth group he had, till then, managed; he’d written material; he had tickets for me, my mother, my aunt. It was my private opinion that he’d had a minor nervous breakdown of some kind, a delayed reaction to his bereavement. I acted pleased, bought a plane ticket, flew over. Though tight as thieves as children, I’d barely seen him since Harvey died, and I sensed us settling into the attenuated relations of adult siblings, a new formal distance, always slightly abashed, for there seems no clear way, in adult life, to do justice to the intimacy of childhood. I remember being scandalized, as a child, at how rarely our parents spoke to their siblings. How was it possible? How did it happen? Then it happens to you. Thinking of him standing up there alone with a microphone, though, trying to be funny, I felt a renewed, Siamese-twin closeness: fearing for him was like fearing for me. I’ve never been able to bear watching anyone die onstage, never mind a blood relative. If he’d told me that it was major heart surgery he was about to have, on this makeshift stage in the tiny, dark basement of a London pub, I couldn’t have been more sick about it.

  It was a mixed bill. Before Ben, two men and two women performed a mildewed sketch show of unmistakable Oxbridge vintage, circa 1994. A certain brittle poshness informed their exaggerated portraits of high-strung secretaries, neurotic piano teachers, absentminded professors. They put on mustaches and wigs and walked in and out of imaginary scenarios where fewer and fewer funny things occurred. It was the comedy of things past. The girls, though dressed as girls, were no longer girls, and the boys had paunches and bald spots; the faintest trace of ancient intracomedy-troupe love affairs clung to them sadly; all the promising meetings with the BBC had come and gone. This was being done out of pure friendship now, or the memory of friendship. As I watched the unspooling horror of it, a repressed, traumatic memory resurfaced, of an audition, one that must have taken place around the time this comedy troupe was formed, very likely in the same town. This audition took the form of a breakfast meeting, a “chat about comedy” with two young men, then members of the Cambridge Footlights, now a popular British TV double act. I don’t remember what it was that I said. I remember only strained smiles, the silent consumption of scrambled eggs, a feeling of human free fall. And the conclusion, which was obvious to us all. Despite having spent years at the grindstone of comedy appreciation, I wasn’t funny. Not even slightly.

  And now the compere was calling my brother’s name. He stepped out. I felt a great wash of East Anglian fatalism, my father’s trademark, pass over to me, its new custodian. Ben was dressed in his usual urban street wear, the only black man in the room. I began peeling the label off my beer bottle. I sensed at once the way he was going to play it, the same way we had played it throughout our childhood—a few degrees off whatever it was that people expected of us, when they looked at us. This evening, that strategy took the form of an opening song about the Olympics, with particular attention paid to equestrian dressage. It was funny! He was getting laughs. He pushed steadily forward, a slow, gloomy delivery that owed something to Harvey’s seemingly infinite pessimism. No good can come of this. This had been Harvey’s reaction to all news, no matter how objectively good that news might be, from the historic entrance of a Smith child into an actual university to the birthing of babies and the winning of prizes. When he became ill, he took a perversely British satisfaction in the diagnosis of cancer: absolutely nothing good could come of this, and the certainty of it seemed almost to calm him.

  I waited, like my father, for the slipup, the flat joke. It didn’t come. Ben did a minute on hip-hop, a minute on his baby daughter, a minute on his freshly minted stand-up career. Another song. I was still laughing, and so was everyone else. Finally, I felt able to look up from the beer mats to the stage. Up there I saw my brother, who is not eight, as I forever expect him to be, but thirty, and who appeared completely relaxed, as if born with mike in hand. And then it was over—no one had died.

  The next time I saw Ben do stand-up was about ten gigs later, at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He didn’t exactly die the night I turned up, but he was badly wounded. It was a shock to him, because it was the first time. In comedy terms, his cherry got popped. At first, he couldn’t see why: it was the same type of venue he’d been doing in London—intimate, drunken—and, by and large, it was the same material. Why, this time, were the laughs smaller? Why, for one good joke in particular, did they not occur at all? We repaired to the bar to regroup, with all the other comedians doing the same. In comedy, the analysis of death, or near-death, experiences is a clear, unsentimental process. The discussion is technical, closer to a musician’s self-analysis than to a writer’s: this note was off; you missed the beat there. I knew I could say to Ben, honestly, and without fear of hurting him, “It was the pause—you went too slowly on the punch line,” and he could say, “Yep,” and the next night the pause would be shortened, the punch line would hit its mark. We ordered more beer. “The thing I don’t understand—I don’t understand what happened with the new material. I thought it was good, but . . . ” Another comedian, who was also ordering beer, chipped in, “Did you do it first?” “Yes.” “Don’t do the new stuff first. Do it last. Just because you’re excited by it doesn’t mean it should go first. It’s not ready yet.”

  We drank a lot, with a lot of very drunk comedians, until very late. Trying to keep up with the wisecracks and the complaints, I felt as if I’d arrived late to a battleground that had seen bloody action. The comedians had the aura of survivors, speaking the language of mutual, hard experience: venues too hot and too small, the horror of empty seats, who got nominated for what, who’d been reviewed well or badly, and, of course, the financial pain. (Some Edinburgh performers break even, most incur debts and almost no one makes a profit.) It was strange to see my brother, previously a member of my family, becoming a member of this family, all his previous concerns and principles subsumed, like theirs, into one simple but demanding question: Is it funny? And that’s another reason to envy comedians: when they look at a blank page, they always know, at least, the question they need to ask themselves. I think the clarity of their aim accounts for a striking phenomenon, peculiar to comedy: the possibility of extremely rapid improvement. Comedy is a L
azarus art; you can die onstage and then rise again. It’s not unusual to see a mediocre young standup in January and, seeing him again in December, discover a comedian who’s found his groove, a transformed artist, a death defier.

  Russell Kane, a relatively new British comic, is a death defier, the sort of comedian who won’t let a moment pass without filling it with laughter. I went to see him on the last night of his Edinburgh run. His show was called Gaping Flaws, a phrase lifted from a negative online review of his 2007 Edinburgh show, which, in turn, was called Easy Cliché and Tired Stereotype, a phrase lifted from a negative review of his debut 2006 show, Russell Kane’s Theory of Pretension. All these reviews came from the same man, Steve Bennett, a prominent British comedy critic who writes for the Web site Chortle. The problem with Kane was class—the British problem. A self-defined working-class “Essex boy” (though, physically, his look is more indie Americana than English suburbia; he’s a dead ringer for the singer Anthony Kiedis), he centers his act on the tricky business of being the alien in the family, the wannabe intellectual son of a working-class, bigoted father. To his father, Kane’s passion for reading is deeply suspicious, his interest in the arts tantamount to an admission of sexual deviancy. Kane’s dilemma has a natural flip side, a typically British ressentiment for those very people his sensibilities have moved him toward. The middle classes, the Guardianistas (readers of the left-leaning liberal newspaper The Guardian), the smug elites who have made him feel his class in the first place. Can’t go home, can’t leave home: a subject close to my heart.

  In 2006, Kane played this material too broadly, overexploiting a natural gift for grotesque physical comedy: his father was a hulking deformed monster, the Guardianistas fey fools, skipping across the stage. In 2007, the chip on his shoulder was still there, but the ideas were better, the portraits more detailed, more refined; he began to find his balance, which is a rare mixture of inspired verbal sparring and effective physical comedy. Third time’s the charm: Gaping Flaws had almost none. It was still all about class, but some magical integration had occurred. I couldn’t help being struck by the sense that what it might take a novelist a lifetime to achieve a bright comedian can resolve in three seasons. (How to present a working-class experience to the middle classes without diluting it. How to stay angry without letting anger distort your work. How to be funny about the most serious things.)

  Audiences love death defiers like Kane. It’s what they pay their money for, after all: laughs per minute. They tend to be less fond of those comedians who have themselves tired of the nonstop laughter and pine for a little silence. I want to call it “comedy nausea.” Comedy nausea is the extreme incarnation of what my father felt: not only is joke telling a cheap art; the whole business of stand-up is, in some sense, a shameful cheat. For a comedian of this kind, I imagine it feels like a love affair gone wrong. You start out wanting people to laugh in exactly the places you mean them to laugh, then they always laugh where you want them to laugh—then you start to hate them for it. Sometimes the feeling is temporary. The comedian returns to stand-up and finds new joy in, and respect for, the art of death defying. Sometimes, as with Peter Cook (voted, by his fellow comedians, in a British poll, the greatest comedian of all time), comedy nausea turns terminal, and only the most difficult laugh in the world will satisfy. Toward the end of his life, when his professional comedy output was practically nil, Cook made a series of phone calls to a radio call-in show, using the pseudonym Sven from Swiss Cottage (an area of northwest London), during which he discussed melancholy Norwegian matters in a thick Norwegian accent, some of the funniest and bleakest “work” he ever did.

  At the extreme end of this sensibility lies the anticomedian. An anticomedian not only allows death onstage; he invites death up. Andy Kaufman was an anticomedian. So was Lenny Bruce. Tommy Cooper is the great British example. His comedy persona was “inept magician.” He did intentionally bad magic tricks and told surreal jokes that played like Zen koans. He actually died onstage, collapsing from a heart attack during a 1984 live TV broadcast. I was nine, watching it on telly with Harvey. When Cooper fell over, we laughed and laughed, along with the rest of Britain, realizing only when the show cut to the commercial break that he wasn’t kidding.

  There was an anticomedian at Edinburgh this year. His name was Edward Aczel. You will not have heard of him—neither had I; neither has practically anyone. This was only his second Edinburgh appearance. Maybe it was the fortuitous meeting of my mournful mood and his morbid material, but I thought his show, Do I Really Have to Communicate with You?, was one of the strangest, and finest, hours of live comedy I’d ever seen. It started with neither a bang nor a whimper. It didn’t really start. We, the audience, sat in nervous silence in a tiny, dark room, and waited. Some fumbling with a cassette recorder was heard, faint music, someone mumbling backstage: “Welcome to the stage . . . Edward Aczel.” Said without enthusiasm. A man wandered out. Going bald, early forties, schlubby, entirely nondescript. He said, “All right?” in a hopeless sort of way, and then decided that he wanted to do the introduction again. He went offstage and came on again. He did this several times. Despair settled over the room. Finally, he fixed himself in front of the microphone. “I think you’ll all recall,” he muttered, barely audible, “the words of Wittgenstein, the great twentieth-century philosopher, who said, ‘If indeed mankind came to earth for a specific reason, it certainly wasn’t to enjoy ourselves.’ ” A long, almost unbearable pause. “If you could bear that in mind while I’m on, I’d certainly appreciate it.” Then, on a large flip chart, the kind of thing an account manager in an Aylesbury marketing agency might swipe from his office (Aczel is, in real life, an account manager for an Aylesbury marketing agency), he began to write with a Magic Marker. It was a list of what not to expect from his show. He went through it with us. There was to beNo nudity.

  No juggling.

  No impressions of any well-known people.

  No reference to crop circles during the show.

  No one will be conceived during the show.

  No tackling head-on of any controversial issues . . .

  And finally, and I think most important—

  No refunds.

  I recognized my father’s spirit in this list: No good can come of this. He then told us that he had a box of jigsaw puzzles backstage, for anyone who became dangerously bored. Later, he drew a graph made up of an x-axis, which stood for “TIME,” and a y-axis, for “GOODWILL,” on which he tracked the show’s progress. Point one, low down: “Let’s all go and get a drink—this is pointless.” Point two, slightly higher up: “O.K., carry on, whatever.” Point three, still only halfway up: “We could all be here forever. We think this is great.” He looked at his shoes, then, with mild aggression, at the audience. “We’ll never get to that point,” he said. “It’s just . . . it’ll never happen.” By this time, everyone was laughing, but the laughter was a little crazy, disjointed. It’s a reckless thing, for a comedian, to be this honest with an audience. To say, in effect, “Whatever I do, whatever you do, we’re all going to die.” When it finally came to jokes (“Now we go into the section of the show routinely called ‘material,’ for obvious reasons”), Aczel had a dozen written on his hand, and they were very funny, but by now he had already convinced us that jokes were the least of what could be done here. It was an easy and wonderful thing to believe this show a genuine shambles, saved only by our attention and by chance. (We were mistaken, of course. Every stumble, every murmur, is identical, every night.) In the lobby afterward, calendars were on sale, each month illustrated by impossibly banal photographs of Aczel in bed, washing his face, walking into work, standing in the road. Mine sits on my desk, next to my father in his Tupperware sandwich box. On the cover, Aczel is pictured in a supermarket aisle. The subtitle reads, “Life is endless, until you die”—Edith Piaf. Each month has a message for me. November: “Winter is coming—Yes!” April: “Who cares.” June: “This is not the life I was promised.” There is pl
enty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us!

  On the last night of the Edinburgh festival, in another small, dark, drunken venue, I waited for my brother to go on. It was about two in the morning. Only comedians were left at the festival; the audiences had all gone home. I feared for him, again—but he did his set, and he killed. He was relaxed. There was nothing riding on his performance; the pause had been fixed. Then a young Australian dude came on and spoke a lot about bottle openers, and he killed, too. Maybe everybody kills at two in the morning. Then the end of the end: one last comedian took the bar stage. This was Andy Zaltzman, a great, tall man with an electrified Einstein hairdo and a cutting, political-satirical act that got its laughs per minute. He set to work, confident, funny, and instantly got heckled, a heckle that was followed by a collective audience intake of breath, for the heckler was Daniel Kitson, a rather shy, whimsical young comedian from Yorkshire who looks like a beardy cross between a fisherman and a geography teacher. Kitson won the Perrier Comedy Award in 2002, at the age of twenty-five, and his gift is for the crafting of exquisite narratives, shows shaped like Alice Munro stories, bathetic and beautiful. A comedy-snob thrill passed through the room. It was a bit like Nick Drake turning up at a James Taylor gig. Kitson good-humoredly heckled Zaltzman, and Zaltzman heckled back. Their ideas went spiraling down nonsensical paths, collided, did battle and separated. Kitson busied himself handing out fliers for “Our joint show, tomorrow!”—a show that couldn’t exist, because the festival was over. We all took one. Zaltzman and Kitson got loose; the jokes were everywhere, with everyone, the whole room becoming comedy. There was a kind of hysteria abroad. I looked over at my brother and could see that he’d got this abdominal pain, too, and we were both doubled over, crying, and I wished Harvey were there, and at the same moment I felt something come free in me.

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