The man with the golden tongue: Alan Committie’s licence to jest
The jibes and rib-ticklers, quips and backhanded comments fly fast and furious in Alan Committie’s 25th solo stand-up show – the pace and the ceaseless sense of imminent mania are precisely the escape, the reframing of reality through a comic lens we need right now.
Quite likely, at some point during his 007-riffing-and-spoofing show, Live and Let Laugh, comedian Alan Committie will randomly identify someone in the audience who is clapping all alone.
Committie, like a kindly headmaster berating that one troublesome schoolchild, will delicately admonish the defenceless audience member with the stillborn clap, and then proceed to spell out more appropriate applause etiquette, which is to clap only once everyone in the theatre has caught the joke.
This improvised bit involving the solo clapper will become a running joke in the comedian’s 25th solo stand-up show, which is playing at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg from 6 through 16 April.
It’ll all be part of a ruse, an opportunity for Committie to sigh and dig his fists into his hips as he scans the audience for signs of intelligent life, signs that someone in that audience will know when to clap, when to laugh, when to recognise a good joke when it’s told. All the while, there’ll be just a hint of hysteria welling up from behind the comedian’s eyes.
By perpetuating this myth that the audience isn’t quite catching his jokes, Committie steers himself into the realm of meta-comedy: you don’t only get an evening’s endorphin rush from the onslaught of merriment, you also get a master class on how comedy works, how the mechanics of humour offer a changed perspective by reframing reality through the lens of time.
There are moments when, unable to help himself, Committie will throw a joke out in the middle of another joke: the need to purge an idea that’s just popped into his cranium will prove so compelling that he’ll be forced to pause one story so that the new one can be shared right away. It’ll happen again and again – a sudden observation, a plot twist or one-liner, a niggle or prompt from a misbehaving audience member, or a sudden reaction to this morning’s news or something he spotted on the pavement or in a mall that day. Whatever it is, it’ll get swift refashioning by Committie’s comedic brain, and then out it will come, quite possibly followed by that startled raised-eyebrow look into the auditorium, the comedian confronted with the notion that his jokes have gone right over our heads.
This sense of a comedian who is not only juggling multiple narrative strands but subject to regular interruption by his own jokes, is a side-effect of something in his brain that he says he cannot switch off: it’s that built-in comedy mechanism that illuminates the funny side of even the most banal, boring, basic or brutal situations.
“I think that most of us who practice the art and madness of stand-up comedy are built in with a kind of ‘non-switch-off-able’ way that we look at the world,” he explains. “I might be having a conversation with someone who is sharing horrific news, and there’s a little synapse in my brain that fires and I immediately think of a witty remark, snappy return or a joke around it. As most comedians will tell you, even the most awful disaster prompts a joke. I don’t think it is a switch-off-able thing, I think it’s just there, it’s a particular wiring in the brain.”
Aside from picking on the solo clappers, he’s good at dragging the audience into his show in other ways, too. He likes to remind you that live stand-up is exactly that: live. And it’s spontaneous and interactive, too, so you might be roped in. As Committie once reminded an audience member: “This isn’t Netflix; I can see you!”
Need to leave the auditorium to pee? He’ll definitely call you out, probably discuss you while you’re in the loo, watch you as you traipse back to your seat.
Such silliness works a treat, as do the various other excuses he creates to involve the audience in the show. He might verbally rap you over the knuckles for being too young, too old, from the wrong part of town or the right part of town, or for being undignified enough to clap when no one else is clapping. Or for not laughing when you should be.
“There is something that an audience quite likes when I kind of take them apart as a teacher might do with a slightly slower kid,” says Committie, who was in fact a teacher for a number of years during the start of his stand-up career. “Part of my clown essence on stage is the teacher figure who is ever-so-slightly looking down my nose at the audience, which is of course all faux and not real.”
He might pretend to sneer at the audience, but it’s an act. In truth, he feels nothing but love and appreciation for the people he gets to entertain. He says he’s loved making people laugh since he was a boy.
Committie was forged in Vanderbijlpark (“If that isn’t a reason to start looking at the funny side of life,” he says, “I don’t know what is!”), where as a boy he remembers being taken to the circus and “absolutely falling in love with the clowns, delighting in them”.
He found humour everywhere, he says, loved comics growing up, loved clowns, loved funny movies. And all through school, he tapped into an innate knack he had for making people laugh. “As a young boy, walking home from primary school, I remember making up stories for my friend. His name was Mark. And when Mark laughed, it was so genuine – a cry-laugh, really – that it hit me right in the sweet spot, encouraged me to keep going, and to make the stories wilder and more fantastic.”
He has a deep appreciation for all sorts of comedians: from visual comedians like Peter Sellers and Rowan Atkinson to the British “comedian’s comedian” Stewart Lee (whose brand of comedy revolves around a deadpan abrasiveness and the tongue-in-cheek notion that he despises his audience). “The guys who play with words in particular are the ones I love,” Committie says, “but everything and almost anything can make me laugh.”
This depth and breadth of funny-bone influences is perhaps why Committie is both an adept physical comedian and a master of wordplay, his eloquent use of language and gift for double entendres mixed up with gestures and expressions that in moments remind you of Chaplin, that most disarming and intelligent of clowns.
In Live and Let Laugh, Committie gets to simultaneously venerate and roast one of his screen idols. He appraises 007 from multiple angles: from a Bond for Dummies-inspired unpacking of the film franchise’s key plot points and obvious stereotypes, to an insanely funny set piece in which he transforms into a local PI – complete with bad hair, hideous teeth and untrendy safari outfit – who is set upon the idea of auditioning for the role of Bond, which is currently up for grabs. The latter is a real hoot – not only because the character Committie creates is so worryingly South African, but because Committie the actor disappears into this character so completely.
It bears mentioning that Committie is a trained actor with a string of successful roles under his belt. While he found his niche in comedy, he tries to mix his dance card by doing at least one surprising theatre performance every year or so – and he tends to pick parts that stretch him, keep him creatively agile. He says it’s good to step out of his comfort zone for a while, and the demanding dramatic roles help re-energise his stand-up stints. From playing the titular maniac in Shakespeare’s Richard III to his 2022 casting as the witty and acerbic but domestically nasty history professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he’s also appeared in operas (albeit not to sing but provide comic relief) and musicals like The Producers and Little Shop of Horrors. Invariably, he selects complex roles underscored by an uneasy tension between light and dark, comedy and tragedy.
Pulling a wannabe-Bond sketch out of the bag is therefore no biggie for Committie, but he says being on stage, no matter what the role, requires much the same focus and attention.
“All theatre characterisation and acting comes from a similar place, even when you are doing stand-up,” he says. “It’s about staying in the moment, it’s about working in detail and specificity, it’s about telling the story through attitude and behaviour and emotion. Ultimately, you’re trying to throw a light on slightly different shades and aspects of a character.”
In a world seemingly in full berserker mode, you might imagine that the job of comedians has been subverted by the insane spectre of reality itself: if the wrecking ball of 2022 is anything to go by, life has transmogrified into one endless black comedy. These days the Elon Musks and Eskoms seem to write their own comic dialogue, and just about every bit of bad news seems bluntly farcical or steeped in irony.
But comedians like Alan Committie aren’t there to rehash the obvious; his brilliance lies in helping us gain an altered perspective. His genius is being able to recontextualise reality, render it safe, benign, laughable.
“Try to reframe things,” Committie suggests. “Globally we’re in a pretty crappy situation, and so – for me – you’ve just got to take yourself out of a situation, step aside and try to look at it differently. Often when something presents itself as a seemingly impossible problem or without solution, it’s worthwhile reframing the question so that you can get an answer, because some questions don’t have an answer… But if you ask a different question, maybe an answer will come.”
It’s certainly sage advice, the wisdom of a jester who intimately understands the mechanics of making people laugh and says he gets off on helping to lift the human spirit.
And while he relishes the opportunities to bring joy into people’s lives, the congenital comedian says stand-up is its own reward: “It’s my little slightly cheaper therapy that I get to do every night, talking for 90 minutes or two hours on a stage and getting out some of my madness.” DM/ ML
Alan Committie’s Live and Let Laugh is playing at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre from 6 to 16 April 2023. Tickets are available from Computicket, or visit pietertoerien.co.za for more information.