Poetry versus Stand-Up Comedy.

Does it have to be one or the other?

Reviewing submissions to the Friendly Street New Poets 14 competition, judge, Ken Bolton said:

“Too often people write varieties of stand-up comedy”.

 Hmm. Not sure he’d like my stuff.  Glad he wasn’t judging last year when I entered.  He may have a point. But then again, what’s wrong with being a poet  AND a stand-up comic?  What’s the difference between a poem that makes you laugh and an imaginative joke?

Last week I watched a film about a stand-up comic, Bill Hicks. It’s called American: The Bill Hicks Story.

Bill Hicks started appearing in stand up comedy clubs whilst he was still at school.  His material evolved to be truly challenging and confrontational.  Unfortunately he contracted pancreatic cancer and died in his early 30s.

To me, seeing Bill in full flow is performance poetry. It’s challenging, it’s entertaining, it’s creative, it’s moving, it’s insulting. It’s language used in a thought-provoking way.

Here are a few Bill Hicks one-liners:

Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.
We all pay for life with death, so everything in between should be free.
Your denial is beneath you, and thanks to the use of hallucinogenic drugs, I see through you.

To me, they are a class apart from your average stand up comedian’s material. A bit of rearranging and a few random line breaks and there’s poetry in there.   If Bill was a haiku poet he might have written:

Watching television

black spray paint

on my third eye


The cost of life

is death and all between

must be free

And what about someone like Spalding Gray?  Gray, who died in 2004 was an American actor, playwright, screenwriter, performance artist and monologuist, known for his “personal narratives”. He had a role in the film The Killing Fields.  His play, Swimming to Cambodia, describes both his experience in making the film, and how the Pol Pot regime came to power.

Is he a comedian, a monologuist, a poet or all three?  I dare anyone to categorise this tour de force:

Charles Bukowksi and Alan Ginsberg often had their audiences in stitches, yet many regard them as great poets.

Of course, there are people who will pass off a joke as a poem or a speech, and there are people who try to be funny, but really shouldn’t.

Your thoughts?


3 thoughts on “Poetry versus Stand-Up Comedy.

  1. my thoughts? I enjoy performance poetry as much as stand-up: they occupy a similar space. The insights of both are precise and merciless but always projected with a sense of humour. In my performance poetry I consciously move towards stand-up. I always wanted to be a stand-up comedian — i ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A ROCK STAR TOO: so who am I kidding? — but was always told I was too pathetic. Doesn’t stop me writing and performing my poetry. So I enjoyed this blog

    • What, you too John? Always wanted to be a stand up comic AND a rock star!

      A friend of mine, Russ, just sent me this quote from Bill Hicks:

      “Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love”. -Bill Hicks, comedian and social critic (1961-1994)

      well, nice to see he’s getting recognition.

      He was raised a Baptist – I think his description was that his parents were more fundamental than fundamentalist.

      So i presume his quote is a questioning of fundamentalism, but could doubly be interpreted as pro-fundamentalist. I suppose that’s what makes him different.

  2. okay I know Spalding Gray; I’ll check outb the Bill Hicks clip in the next 24 hours and read and comment on the new blog. cheers

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