MATTHEW OSBORN grew up in the well-heeled surroundings of Sussex on the southeast coast of England, where lie the bones of 500,000-year-old hominids and Hastings. Not much going on in those parts, he says, with the exception of bubbling bourgeoisie tension.
“It’s quite pleasant, but it’s very sterile and sanitised. The whole of the south-east of England is like a theme park, really. People live behind a curtain. Everything’s pretence; behind that veneer is a chaos of humanity. It’s paper-thin. The slightest thing could make it collapse at any point, whence barbarianism will ensue. When there are sales going on people start going nuts, fighting one another. Whenever IKEA has a sale, there are riots.”
Osborn left Sussex at 18 and has been working around the London circuit as a full-time stand-up comic since his 20s, having been propelled on his way by a win at Edinburgh’s prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? competition in 2002.
He’s an acute observer of the subterranean communication that goes on during a live stand-up gig.
“Performing comedy has taught me how peculiar people are, how much people work on their emotion rather than their reason. A lot of comedy is about emotion. What people find funny or offensive is based on their emotional reaction to it whereas if they analysed what they were listening to in the cold light of day they’d react completely differently.
“People are often offended by things that aren’t offensive just because there’s a word in it that triggers something in their head. Years ago, for example, I used to do a joke about fox-hunting that mentioned Princess Diana and it wasn’t in any way derogatory or insulting — it just happened to reference her in passing — but it would always get a boo because people would assume that I was mocking her.
“If you say the word ‘black’ on stage everyone tenses up. The joke won’t work as well because everyone thinks you’re going to say something racist even though you’re not talking about race, only describing something that is black. It creates that tension in the room. Because it’s a very taboo subject everyone’s mind goes to that area. They’re thinking, ‘he’s going to say something racist. Is it right? Is it wrong? How should I react?’ By which stage, you’ve done a joke that’s nothing got to do with race but it’s completely ruined because everyone’s mind is in another place.
“When you’re in a group of people laughter is a form of communication. You’re communicating to everyone else in the room. That’s why with a live audience there is much more laughter than there is when people watch the telly on their own because they’ve got to communicate to the other people in the group. So when it’s a difficult subject communication becomes more awkward.”
Osborn has got some awkward feedback from audiences over the years. A guy once threw a glass at him at a gig in Battersea, London. The glass missed Osborn but hit a woman on the side of the stage and cut her head. He says the near miss didn’t give him pause for thought about the vocation he’d chosen. “It was always what I’d been expecting. I remember thinking this is what I thought it would be like every night. I’m surprised this is the first time it’s happened.”
Matthew Osborn performs as part of the Bulmers Comedy Festival tonight at the Laughter Lounge in Dublin.
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