Comedy Promoter Graeme Watson's Infinite Jest
Diversity is key for comedy promoter Graeme Watson, who hopes to gives Northern Irish audiences something funny to chew on
I'm sat with Graeme Watson, founder of The Infinite Jest, Belfast’s premier comedy promotion company – or so he tells me. It is a sultry day and we are drinking delicious beers that he has paid for.
With his dark glasses and brusque manner, Watson is every inch the shifty showbiz shark, and, despite the fact that he shelled out for the first round, I begin to fear for both my wallet and my gold fillings.
As it transpires, however, I needn't have worried. Spend some time with Watson and it becomes clear that he as far from the Machiavellian mobster roll that he perhaps purposefully perpetuates as a man can possibly be. It's all part of the game, really. Conversely, I begin to see Watson as more the midwife of mirth.
The Infinite Jest as a company 'producing, promoting and developing innovative comedy and spoken word entertainment in Northern Ireland', as the blurb goes, is young. It grew out of the work that Watson did with Big Laughs Belfast, a loose collective of comedians and performers who kick-started the grassroots scene back in 2008.
In 2011, Watson launched The Infinite Jest from a desire to bring to Northern Ireland acts that exemplify the kind of surrealist, on-the-edge comedy that he loves – the likes of Kevin Eldon, Simon Munnery and Michael Legge – as well as providing a platform for local talent to experiment and emerge.
In 2013, The Infinite Jest is still going strong, regularly providing acts to fill the Black Box Green Room stage at their monthly The Mix Up session and more. Those who have attended those sessions will know that not all of the comedy performed there is particularly sophisticated, yet the inspiration behind the name certainly is.
'The name The Infinite Jest is a bit of nod to the dead jester in Hamlet,' Watson explains, with a hint of justified sarcasm. 'Infinite Jest is also the name of the famously humongous David Foster Wallace novel, the working title for which was A Failed Entertainment. I like the ambivalence there, and also the big themes that the phrase invokes. And I like saying it. That's important.
'I think the name sums up the spirit of the kind of work that I like in comedy and spoken word,' he continues. 'I like people who are bold and experimental and open to failing and trying new things. I like comedy to be thought-provoking and interesting, and I think it deserves to be recognised as an art. It's about more than just being funny.'
Some fans of humour and wit would run a mile from such a statement. There is, of course, a fine line between comedy and more serious concerns like performance art. Sometimes performance art can be funny for all the wrong reasons, and sometimes comedy can seem like the worst type of performance art – pretentious, confusing, vapid, divisive.
Though Watson is keen to invite everyone to his comedy charges' gigs, he obviously takes his comedy quite seriously. Some might even accuse him of being elitist. Ultimately, however, that could turn out to be a good thing for the Northern Irish comedy scene.
'I think that great comedy teaches us something about life,' Watson argues. 'The vision for The Infinite Jest in the long run is to help develop and find opportunities for really interesting comic talent – not just stand-up comedians, but spoken word artists, writers and performance poets – and I would aim to develop it into something that produces work across different media outlets.'
The Infinite Jest would certainly fall into the category formely known as 'alternative comedy'. Watson would like nothing better than to see stand-ups, jugglers, Pinteresque character sketches, the unhinged and the woefully under-prepared all on the same bill.
Alternative comedy revolutionised the British comedy scene in the 1980s, but has been utterly eclipsed by a new mainstream scene led by young t-shirt clad lad comedians presenting much more traditional fare: exactly the sort of materiel that Watson dislikes. But does he think that Northern Ireland is ready for his brand of anarcho-cabaret mummery?
'I think Northern Ireland has been terrible at developing local comedy and comedy writing talent generally,' is Watson's heartfelt response. 'I'm not sure why this is, but I think part of it is to do with what could be a Northern Irish fear of failure. It possibly explains why live stand-up hasn't flourished here as in other parts of the UK, and why the choices made on Northern Irish radio and television also tend to be very safe and conservative.'
As an example of the type of comedy The Infinite Jest champions, a series of Edinburgh preview shows were organised during June 2013 at the Black Box in Belfast, with the likes of Michael Legge, Chris Kent and Mary Bourke all displaying their idiosyncratic wares.
It was, it's fair to say, quite different to the type of comedy one regularly comes across in long-running open mic nights in pubs and clubs across Belfast, and even at the Empire Comedy Club, which, though it often features emerging voices, somehow manages to remain stale and peppered with the same old faces.
Beyond that Watson is heavily involved in the Belly Laughs Comedy Festival, which runs from September 25 to October 7, 2013 and features such illustrious turns as Stewart Lee at the Grand Opera House, Ruby Wax at the Waterfront and Adam Hills in the Ulster Hall, as well as our own Jake O'Kane at Crumlin Road Gaol.
And there are sure to be many more big names and quirky upcoming acts taking to the stage in Belfast and beyond in the months ahead thanks to the hard-working Watson and his team. For now, however, we’re down to the suds. How to wrap it up? Perhaps Watson could sell The Infinite Jest as a pithy five-word pitch? I should be so lucky. In his passion, understandably, he over-runs slightly.
'Great comedians have usually offered more than just easy laughs, like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks,' he muses. 'What's interesting about all of those is that they were giving a very unique view of the world. Lots of people can be funny, but to be funny and profound is what makes comedy great, I think, and that’s what The Infinite Jest is all about.'