Solo performer Chris Williams channels the greats, and more importantly the not so greats, of comedy in I Never Told Joke In My Life at the Tristan Bates Theatre, giving us a (mainly intentional) comical insight into all the things that can and have gone wrong in the world of stand-up.
The title for the show is a quote from late great alternative comedian Andy Kaufman who often took glee in bemusing and downright irritating his audience at every turn. Williams doesn’t quite reach the heights of this American legend, but the show is full of bizarre surprises and surreal turns much like the early comedian’s work. It’s a list show with a difference as Williams explains all the ways he could mess up his act, and invariably ends up doing some of them himself – he could vomit all over people’s shoes, he could force the audience into a mass sing-a-long, he could freeze with terror and forget all his lines or, like magic comedian Tommy Cooper, he could simply pop his clogs live onstage.
It’s a simple concept that grows in awkward pauses and absurd twists as the short performance continues. Perhaps the funniest moments are when Williams, a little like Kaufman, deliberately gives volunteer members from the audience (and one or two sneaky ‘plants’) awkward and ambiguous tasks to complete and then leaves them standing in front of us, confused and uncertain, not sure as to what they’re supposed to be doing next, if anything. Their increasing despair in their unplanned yet pointless involvement in the act raises several chuckles and creates an anarchic tension that Kaufman himself would no doubt revel in.
Williams tries to introduce moments of darkness amongst the awkwardness too which, whilst perpetuating the atmosphere of detachment and alienation, don’t quite slot in as well as the moments of spontaneous offbeat absurdity, although do add some grounding for all the lighter, sillier moments. Unless you know your comedians too sometimes it’s hard to recognise which real life epic fail Williams is relating to – could short archive clips of different failed performances be used to highlight and earmark each section more? As it is, the concept itself is a compelling one, if not yet completely fully formed. However, with some fine tuning this intriguing and original performance piece on all the seemingly endless ways you can tell a joke wrong should soon have them laughing in the aisles, even as Williams stops speaking, drops the mic, and abruptly leaves us all in awkward shared hilarity.