by Suzanne Azzopardi
What with TV schedules full of excruciating auditions and accident-prone home videos, you’d think we were just a nation of schadenfreude addicts. Yet despite our predilection for rejoicing in car-crash spectacles, there’s still something in us that identifies with the fallen and the humiliated.
When certain disaster befalls an individual and the laughter compulsively rises up through our chests, it’s followed by a sense of camaraderie; an understanding and a faint relief that it’s not us treading water in a small garden pond, fully-clothed.
We are naturally drawn to the underdog through recognition of our own foibles. Perhaps it’s that recognition that supports our inherent necessity to champion those whom misfortune favours.
If there’s one place where calamity holds its own, it’s on stage. The act of stepping onto a raised platform creates a chasm between you and the audience. The benevolence falls away and despite being metres from our fellow human they can seem strangely alien to us. It’s not easy being on stage in front of a crowd, they can smell your fear faster than my cat can smell the bacon hitting the pan.
Comedians in particular have the hardest challenge, competing in a sport that has an expectation of failure. It is said that comedians are not remembered for their successes but for the times they ‘died’. There’s no emotional prophylactic between you and the assembly; the drain of energy you feel as the throng collectively sinks into boredom, anger or, god-forbid PITY is one that it’s very hard to come back from. In that moment of abject terror, you quietly and painfully acknowledge that you’ve been awarded an invisible burden; one that is rarely spoken of in polite circles yet one that everybody knows is there. Every time you step back into the spotlight and no smiles face you, another pound of despair is laden upon you.
Feeling exactly that despair after 100 (mostly disastrous) stand-up shows in 100 nights, Viv Groskop decided that she needed to share her misery and profound self-loathing with those who had been through it too. She conjured the idea of The Night I Died, a live comedy chat show and a forum for performers to share with her (and *gulp* THE AUDIENCE) the horrors of their live performances.
There’s something in opening the forbidden floodgates, allowing those who have suffered at the hands of heckles to tell their stories, that washes away the wall of pain. Suddenly the audience are not the opposition, but an extended support group, revelling joyously in the sorry tales, but with a sense of compassion so far removed from the original event it’s almost as if the tales were borne from dreams.
The connection reestablished, the crowd are now sharing the weight of that painful burden, thankful that it wasn’t them and elated at the sense of relief, seeing their comrade cathartically laugh away their torment.
The Night I Died hosted by Viv Groskop featuring Joel Dommett, Sarah Morgan and Deborah Frances-White. Friday 7th, Library Gallery, 8.30pm £5
Suzanne Azzopardi is the producer of The Night I Died and also runs and hosts Literary Death Match.
© 2023 Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Stoke Newington Literary Festival C.I.C. is a company limited by guarantee.
Registered in England & Wales number 7990786. Registered Office: 52 Bayston Road, London N16 7LT.
Site by Zerofee. All festival photos©: www.davidxgreen.com. Ticket icon designed by Mateo Zlatar from the Noun Project