As camp comic and entrepreneur Ted Bovis once chanced to remark: 'The first rule of comedy, Spike, is context.' Pub bores and professional experts (they’re the same) will tell you that a good joke is a good joke regardless of circumstances; it will survive by its own merits, by its flawless, bullet-proof structure.
But I suspect you would get a very different response to the same joke if you told it to your mates in the pub or to a child burying her first pet at the bottom of the garden. I think she would be, at best, confused. Context, you see.
And so we find ourselves in the unusual confines of the Belmont Tower as part of the inaugural East Belfast Arts Festival. We’re in the café. There are letters from school children on the walls. There is no stage and it’s a bring-your-own-bottle, sand-box coloured affair.
Talk around the tables is of CS Lewis, local boy made good, and there are bus tours around this part of the city as part of the festival. There are old skool school radiators. It’s not a standard comedy venue and all three turns tonight struggle to work a room full of middle-aged bohemians who seem strangely reluctant to laugh.
First up is TV’s own Matthew Collins, a one man assault against Alexi Sayle’s dictum that you can’t do comedy with a beard. His Open University lecturer chic is a vital part of his comic persona: he is a computer scientist and, given his side-kick gig on Colin Murphy’s Great Unanswered Questions, something of a professional nerd.
The jokes are unapologetically smart, crafted and erudite, and Collins comes straight out of the traps with a self proclaimed 'pseudo intellectual dick joke', before launching into a lengthy sojourn on phobias. The crowd seem disquieted. The girl in front of me actually turns around to look at me when I snort at one of his radiation gags. (It was a very good radiation gag).
The material is strong and the jokes should be landing, but polite chuckling ripples around the room with every punch-line. Collins should be applauded just for multi-tasking – he manages a convincingly tight, short set while simultaneously completing a Rubik’s cube!
Lauren Kerr is from east Belfast and as such she realises that should she meet any of the audience in Tesco’s the next day, no one will say anything about it. They wont even make eye contact. She is engaging and cool, her delivery nicely pitched behind the beat with a languid drawl.
Kerr tops and tails her set with two paranoiacal body-horror gags, the second of which sees her in a backless gown viewing her own colon on a plasma screen. It is an oddly delightful scene the way she tells it, and has me snorting a borrowed glass of pinot through my nose. Surely the highest accolade you can give a comedian.
If Belfast's Shane Todd (pictured above) is cowed by the lack lustre response of the audience it doesn’t show. He is a story-teller, not a gag man, and sets great store by only having one proper joke in his entire set, revealed to be a long, dubious shaggy dog story with a painfully punning punch-line.
This is the point: Todd is discursive, with a natural charm. The comedy is in his seemingly artless chat, which is surely the hardest thing to pull off. Anyone can tell a joke, the art is in getting people to like you. The crowd relax enough to heckle him, and when they do they are given roles of aunts at a Christmas dinner, drunkenly boasting that their sons are doctors while he is a mere comedian.
Todd's previous life as an actor for Belfast film auteur George Clarke, in the 2008’s The Battle of the Bone, is played for laughs, with Todd trotting out the fact that the film, somewhat over-stocked by HMV, is currently available 'free with any purchase' from the store.
He also pokes fun at the film’s cover quote: 'The greatest Irish martial art zombie movie ever made.' Though I defy you to think of a better one. Or worse one for that matter.