A man wearing a hat and a suit, holding a microphone on stage, with dramatic lighting in the background.

Joz Norris, live on stage. Photo supplied by the author


Absurdist comedy is uniquely brilliant at conveying human pain

Joz Norris, live on stage. Photo supplied by the author

by Joz Norris + BIO





On stage as Mr Fruit Salad, I’ve seen how the bizarre and ridiculous can convey deep meaning in a way that resonates

In 2019, I had a comedy show that managed to make a bit of noise around itself at the Edinburgh Fringe. Having performed various weird and wild shows at the festival for years, I had no expectation that my latest might become a hit, but it ended up winning the Comedians’ Choice Award for Best Show.

If you’d asked some of the journalists covering the Fringe that year what my show was about, they might have said something about it being a metatheatrical exploration of grief and loneliness and anxiety and mental health. But if you’d gone to see that show, what you’d have been met with is the sight of me in a rubbish false beard and a floppy hat and cheap sunglasses capering around to elevator music, pretending to teleport myself across the stage and singing in falsetto about my bum. As for the Comedians’ Choice Award, this sounds like a very cool and impressive accolade, but my modesty requires me to step in and add the caveat that comedians are really weird judges of what’s funny. Beneath the buzz, my show was total nonsense.

People who haven’t seen much absurdist comedy might have wondered how the appearance of the show equated to the things people saw in it, and the things they said about it. How did the content of one give rise to the feelings expressed in the other? Why did anyone think that me screeching the words ‘I’m Mr Fruit Salad’ over and over for five minutes was in some way moving?

Absurdist comedy runs counter to conventional standup comedy, which relies on logic, and/or the deliberate subversion of logic. Absurdism is founded on the outright denial of logic, on impulses that are chaotic and random. It grew out of the art movement of Dadaism in the 1920s, and moved through the surreal worlds of The Goon Show and Monty Python in the 1950s and ’60s, the Airplane movies in the 1980s, up to the trendy weirdness of The Mighty Boosh in the 2000s or BoJack Horseman more recently. Today, weirdo comedians such as Sam Campbell, John Kearns and Natalie Palamides keep the absurdist flag flying. But, for me, this potted history doesn’t get close to the function I feel absurdist comedy serves on a psychological level.

I remember learning the word ‘qualia’ during lockdown; it refers to the subjective experiences of consciousness that we cannot express – the redness of an apple, the flatness of concrete, Proust’s madeleine, Anton Ego’s mother’s ratatouille, and so on. I felt a thrill to learn there’s a word for this thing which, in my mind, has been at the centre of the comedy work I’ve been making for years.

He then stood on a table and started swinging a rubber snake around his head while blowing into a kazoo

Absurdism is a language. A shortcoming of most languages is that they’re logical whereas our human essences – our jealousies and rages and fears and euphorias and anxieties and ecstasies and petty foibles – are not. Occasionally, we can give voice to these parts of ourselves – ‘I feel angry’; ‘I feel sad’; ‘I feel scared’; ‘I feel happy’ – that kind of thing. But more often we can’t, and then the only thing we have recourse to is instinct. That’s when we seize a tin of cat food in the middle of an argument and empty it onto the dinner table and smear it into the wood with our bare hands (a friend of mine actually did this in the middle of a breakup, and it probably sealed the deal, if we’re honest). We don’t do these things because we’re willingly choosing to act like a weird little kid. (Nor do weird little kids.) We act this way when logic has failed us, and when the things we’re feeling have become too big to be contained in the languages we have access to. So we resort to the language of absurdism instead.

I remember watching Tony Law in 2015 explain during a standup routine that, since having kids, he had lost the ability to communicate normally with other humans. He then stood on a table and started swinging a rubber snake around his head while blowing into a kazoo, occasionally removing it from his mouth to shout: ‘This is the only language I understand now!’ It brought the house down, but, in between fits of laughter, I also found it astonishingly beautiful and honest. I knew exactly what he meant.

You almost certainly have relationships that operate the same way. You’ll have friends or loved ones where your shared language has largely devolved into a series of vocal tics and goofy shared jokes or abbreviations. I have two friends who for a while referred to chocolate exclusively as ‘choc choc’ and pockets as ‘pock pocks’ and would gleefully look for opportunities to steer a conversation towards ‘stashing a bit of choc choc in our pock pocks’. Some other friends of mine and I used to sing ‘Big lunch, no need for dinner’ or ‘Have you been to the pumpkin-picking patch?’ at one another at ear-splitting volume apropos of nothing.

My girlfriend and I have a specific face we make at each other when we’re worried about something, which involves a specific curl of the lip, a specific baring of teeth, a specific knotting of the eyebrows that makes us laugh. I couldn’t tell you what it means, but we both know (it’s not a sex thing).

All any of these things really mean, when reduced to simple everyday language, is ‘I care about you,’ but somehow the songs, the tics, the faces, the mangling of language, say it with more sincerity than the words allow.

In the same way, I think absurdist comedy is better placed to give voice to the parts of ourselves that cause us pain than any other art form. In 2018, the year before I made the Mr Fruit Salad show, my life stopped working. I hesitate to use the word ‘breakdown’ or any of its synonyms because, again, the language doesn’t map on to my experience. Nothing dramatic had happened to me. I’d just become bored of my life and desperate for it to change, yet I was completely incapable of enacting that change. For a couple of months, I even found it difficult to leave my flat. I’d stopped performing, so my primary source of income was at risk, and I wasn’t doing the one thing that historically had given me the most joy.

Then one day I agreed to do a gig for a friend and decided to pretend to be Neil Young for it, because there was a grand piano in the venue. I hid my face behind an enormous wig and a pair of sunglasses, and put huge woollen mittens on my hands and tried to play Neil Young songs while answering the audience’s questions (I cannot play piano even when I am not wearing mittens, so this sounded bad). It was really, really funny, to the extent that I found it difficult to perform because I was laughing so hard.

People saw that somewhere in the image of this masked figure indulging in lunacy was a lonely soul trying to heal

I completely agree with you that this sounds really self-indulgent and obnoxious – it was, but it was for my friend’s avant-garde arthouse scratch night, and I never performed the set again. It did, however, show me a way out of my self-perpetuated misery and paralysis. Something about hiding my face from the audience made me laugh, the sheer temerity of trying to connect with an audience while giving them absolutely nothing of myself.

That’s what inspired me to make a new show where I hid my face behind a beard and sunglasses and pretended I wasn’t even there, that I was in fact an irritating cartoon character called Mr Fruit Salad. I let myself become a conduit for the language of absurdism. People saw that somewhere in the image of this masked figure indulging in lunacy was a lonely soul trying to heal. And they were right.

At one stage in the life of this show, I was more direct and honest about why I was doing what I was doing – I stepped outside of the performance to make sure the audience knew what I was trying to explore about my own mental health, what I was trying to say about mental health more broadly, and to make sure they were on the same page as me. But, one night, a wise comedian friend rightly observed that pretty much all of that stuff could go – it was already obvious from what I was doing. Everybody could see that the show was about feelings of isolation, because I had built it around a central image where I was isolated from the audience behind an impenetrable disguise. Nothing else needed to be said. So I removed nearly all of the autobiographical elements and left the odd flicker of their afterimages, their ghosts. That was all I needed in there. The rest of the show could be me pouring wine into a bottle while standing on one leg and shaking, and people would understand.

If any of it made me laugh, that meant there was something funny in there somewhere, and if I could express it in the right way, someone else might find it funny too. And if they found it funny, then maybe it meant they felt the same way, or had done at some point in the past.

When we make art, all we’re really trying to do is to say: ‘This is what the world looks and sounds and feels like to me. I don’t need you to see it the same way, but I hope you can recognise it.’ I think absurdism is the perfect mechanism for articulating this fundamental truth that sits at the centre of every creative impulse. You don’t need to be presented with an image that reflects your own experience, or one you could have come up with yourself. Because the best absurdism doesn’t speak to the specifics of one person’s life, it speaks to the big generalities that we all move through. Happiness, sadness, joy, fear, shame.

Last year, I watched Kim Noble shove a maggot down his own penis, then fire a vacuum-cleaner bag full of a dead man’s dust into space, then spray himself with fox shit and live in a sewer, and it’s safe to say I don’t think I could ever have thought to do any of that stuff in a million years. But despite that, Kim didn’t look like an unfathomable alien to me. He looked almost familiar. I’ve known how it feels to be lonely too.

Of course, the great thing about art is that its forms are limitless. It would be foolish of me to insist on absurdism as a formally recognised language for all creative expression. In fact, part of the beauty of absurdism is when it takes us by surprise. The history of comedy is full of amazing stories and routines that were driven by logic and craft and intelligence that needed to be told in exactly the form they were, and to suggest that all comedy should be reduced to the most primal, ludicrous forms would be moronic. But I will always have a special place in my heart for the kinds of comedy that wriggle away from easy definition, that resist categorisation or logic or sense.

Absurdism is like smoke – it shifts before your eyes and takes on strange, beguiling patterns, but if you try to close your hand around it, it will disappear. Other moments in life that seem to contain the most meaning – when the world reveals itself to you – are like this too. Whether it was the specific way the light bounced off the water, or because of the specific way that crow shook its head, or that time the saxophone was playing in the distance. You could try to close your hand around these moments, capture them somehow, but open your hand and find it empty. Yet, for a second, there really was something there. You could almost see it.

I find that these days, due to some sort of Pavlovian response honed by years of working in my field, the way my body responds to these fleeting moments of profound, unexpected meaning and connectedness is automatic. I start to laugh.





26 February 2024