Ascend the steps of the double decker bus just off Bristo Square, emerge into its celestial light and you might hear the voice of “perhaps Britain’s greatest-living anti-comedian” (Guardian, 2010) speak to you. “Oh, look. Another one.” Take your seat, and the voice repeats itself to another latecomer. Funny how we are all just ‘another-ones’ in a big fat zero.
“Not that it matters, but to start this set I will be telling four jokes” says the voice. “The first: reasons to keep doing standup.” It lays out several bullet-pointed reasons, among them “to keep me from staying home and watching the snooker.” Some uneasy titters. A pause. “Right, that’s that joke done. Now for the second one.” A more assured collective laugh. “Remember, none of this matters.” Silence. Welcome to the abyss. Let’s have a laugh.
Not mattering is Edward Aczel’s raison d’etre. A performer at the Edinburgh Fringe since 2008, his chief vague concern has something to do with the possibility that nothing is of importance and a lot to do with questioning the application of such a notion. What is comedy if there is no axiom of absorbed chin-stroking and sincere head-nodding with which to contradistinguish it? Why point out the absurd if the absurd is already the case? What is the point of pointing if the words that enable us to do so are mere pointers, and so miss the point itself? Aczel’s act is less that humor can be found only in what is decidedly unfunny, and more that funniness and unfunniness are interchangeable, so deciding what is funny is a futile exercise. But remember, these are all vague concerns. None of it matters, really. Seriously.
Aczel’s calculated, composed chaos ensures his ‘unfunniness.’ Each joke is painstakingly scrawled across pages and pages, arranged at random. Numbers are key to his anarchic failure. Their use is so trivial that even the ‘jokes’ seem concrete in some way. “Here are ten things I could do a joke about.” Azcel rattles them off, shuffling through his papers as a solicitor might. He asks if anyone has heard of a celebrity game show host, popular in the 1970s. One person has. The ‘joke’ is a five minute monologue about the time he met them. Can anyone tell him how many James Bond actors there have been? 7, an audience member ventures. The ‘joke’ is Aczel convincing him to list them in order of preference. Has anyone recently suffered a near-death experience? Somebody beat cancer. The ‘joke’ is Aczel asking them if they “feel alright now?” All is slow and understandable, and nothing makes sense.
It would be comforting to imagine some sort of Brechtian Alienation technique at work here, where the distance the audience feels with the artist brings about a kind of cognitive internal insight into the value of the art in question. But even this seems an overestimation of Aczel’s engagement. Indeed, the actual ‘comedy’ is so disengaged that all things decidedly not Edward Aczel themselves becomes funny. The size of the wad of papers, for example, against the wasteland which is his dialogue. He rifles through his crumpled sheaf and selects a page seemingly at random, peering over his glasses and reading something out in a thin deadpan like a school presentation cobbled together at lunchtime ten minutes before. The funniest things are the most painstakingly sincere? Or maybe that nothing can be sincere, so we might as well laugh at something.
Azcel only ever feels authentic when completely fake, sincere when ulterior-motivated, himself when someone else, full when entirely empty. Ultimately, you are left considering the fact that this talking man on the top deck of a bus has been given a microphone and a time slot and people have paid to come see him. One underestimates just how anti-funny he can be. It’s as if he has realized that the only solution to his insoluble comedic double binds is to throw in the towel. And there’s humor in that. Watching Azcel, you could be anywhere right now. So why is this so uniquely absurd? Goodness, perhaps that’s the point!
Alternatively, the problem is that to ask yourself whether he is actually funny is both futile and to miss the point. He’s asked himself for you already, and decided it doesn’t really matter. He has combined the ingredients of cynicism and detachment (harmless individually) and created a deadly meta-ironic cocktail. You can’t read into something unreadable, nor criticize what already criticizes itself. Further, you can’t judge something that has disposed of the idea that there is something to judge. Imagine criticizing a child actor for forgetting his lines and breaking down on stage, sniveling and crying for his mother. The crumbling wreck that is Edward Aczel has rendered himself invincible.
But what’s funny about that? Are we just expected, as an audience, to laugh? And even to laugh in spite of, not because of, the act we have paid to see? Forget the possibility of ‘bursting out laughing.’ Bursting out implies there was a mould to burst from in the first place. Aczel’s anti-comedy is as cold and cognitive, overwrought and overthought, as it is absurd and meaningless. He shows what stands at the end of the line for the hip, transcendent ironist. Turn the irony back on itself, and the initial clarity, relinquishment even, that comes from a rejection of the concrete and accepted, is lost. Rejection becomes reactionary. Echoes fade into nothingness.
Are these meta layers of detachment an act of attempted liberation from the status quo? Or the bars of a cage that Aczel has become a bit too cosy hiding behind. Is he risking the gasp of shock? He’s not even risking the ironic eye roll. One big inverted comma, the all-knowing meta comic? Or a painful example of irony’s endless, tiring infinity. Tiresome or not, the questions raised by Aczel’s comedy prove that he remains an essential counterbalance to a generational regression toward comedic anesthesia.
Aczel seems to like everything neat and tied down; smooth and by the numbers. So quite a funny one would be four. Four stars out of five. As he repeatedly assures us, it doesn’t matter.
Press Image courtesy of Ed Aczel.