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David Hoskin on stage dressed up as a viking and has a boat attached to him.

Let’s Get Physical!

A man in an expensive suit briskly marches down the early morning high street. He leads with his forehead, brown furrowed with determination to catch the train. With a Huel branded rucksack held flush to his back, and new black shoes squeaking like curious piglets, his legs pump as fast as his mind can tell them. He turns onto the station approach and notices the cobbled streets are wet from the morning dew, but the desire for punctuality is so great he doesn’t heed caution. Inevitably, he slips.


Flying through the air, limbs flailing, he resembles an inflatable tube dancer you see at petrol stations or at a rodeo with problematic flags. Our hapless commuter crashes to earth, landing square on his branded rucksack, dazzled and tortoise-like. After a moment he turns over and coyly unzips it checking for damage through gritted, invisaligned teeth. Thankfully the Huel shaker bottle is unharmed, and not a single drop of the beige astronaut sludge has leaked onto his Steven Bartlett autobiography. What. A. Relief. He checks the time, he will still make his train. He slugs from the adult sippy cup.

“Mmm pea protein” he whispers to a plastic bag blowing across the street, which is in actual fact a man sleeping rough returning to his doorway, though our commuter does not have time to recognise this. In a flash he’s up and heading towards the platform.

But unbeknownst to him, his trousers have ripped clean open from the fall and with each step his soft little arse is appearing then disappearing from out of a prospector style bum-flap. As he struts in the early morning light the other commuters are forced to double take as they catch sight of his pallid cheeks intermittently coming into view, peering out at the world like a naughty pug dog, desperate for a spoon of pedigree chum.

Our commuter, none the wiser, boards the train and punches the air. He sits and sups his Huel like the total legend he is.

Now I know this hard hitting piece of socio-realist drama isn’t exactly revelatory content, but we, dare I say (I dare, I say), do like it. Quite a lot. The thought of this man falling over and ripping open his trousers feels good. But why? Why is this physical loss of control something which brings us joy and makes us laugh? The dusting of Schadenfreude obviously rings, and the sight of a bare bottom will never not be funny. Unless of course you’re in prison. Or frigid. But my suspicion is that in our scenario there’s more at play than someone who’s a bit of a bellend being taken down a peg (a metaphor, not a sex thing).

I’ve found physical comedy fascinating ever since I was little. Etched into my mind I can still see Rowan Atkinson hopping about on one leg wearing a sack on his head in Blackadder, or Julia Davies pole dancing at a wake in Nighty Night. These moments are as clear now as they were the first time I watched them. They had me bent double and howling with laughter more so than any of the written jokes. Physical comedy, if done right, can land its punches in a place that is gut wrenchingly hilarious. It hits a sweet spot somewhere between fight or flight, if you will a sort of ‘nervous system no mans land’, but not harrowing and full of grenades like an actual no mans land. For me its the pinnacle of humour, and what I strive for in my comedy, to produce that visceral, almost uncontrollable belly laugh for audiences. Ultimately I want to give back to others that special feeling I got from comedy all those years ago.

Physical comedy reminds us of our fallibility, our humanity and how even meaning itself is something we overlay on life, not necessarily the other way round. Because when we fall over, for a split second everything we understood unspools, control has been lost for a brief but integral moment. Then, providing we’re not actually hurt, it quickly re-spools back in, leaving us stunned but ultimately laughing.

All people by some degree encounter the puzzle of expectation, our physicality clashing with a world that doesn’t always work the way we anticipate it to. Top surgeons have bumped their heads whilst they give life saving operations, stoic monks have struggled to open doors for important rituals, I mean even the King had a right mare with his pen not so long ago, didn’t he? To me it’s beyond hilarious that a species which has created the internet and travelled to the moon, has also created a show like Takeshi’s Castle (which incidentally fewer people have won than landed on the lunar surface), which openly revels in the failed interplay of the world and body. I believe there’s something important happening when we watch a Japanese businessman get squashed by a giant polystyrene boulder. We connect to something which makes us human, that and the fact Japanese game show writers may well be psychopaths.

Physical comedy exposes how we are at constant odds with the world around us, no matter who we are or where we have come from. It tells us a truth, that life is a fragile balancing act where it takes only one perfectly placed banana peel to upend everything we knew it to be. It isn’t intellectual, needing an academic backbone to understand, merely delighting us viscerally, and exuding purity in the universality. I sometimes think of physical comedy as being more like a magic trick than ‘comedy bit’. It employs misdirection, manipulation of expectation, and things disappearing and re-appearing unexpectedly. We imagine objects behaving in surprising ways, though instead of a top hat and rabbit, it’s the human body falling off what you thought was a really solid chair.

There is a delightful re-embracing of physical comedy in live performance occurring right now. Mischief Theatre goes from strength to strength, Noises Off is playing for about the six hundredth time in the west end, and it’s common to see professional performers such as Nathalie Palamides, Bill O’Neil, Trygve Wakenshaw, Frankie Thompson and Elf Lyons, engorging their comedy with slapstick, mime, lip-synching and dance. I feel confident to say we will see this trend continuing over the coming years, and entertainment will be all the better for it.

If I am over stating the importance of all this, of someone misjudging their seat, whilst holding two pints, a packet of crisps dangling from their mouth, and collapsing in slow-motion underneath a wooden pub garden bench, getting soaked in beer, then being chased down the road by wasps, I don’t care. Because regardless of whether my uncle Gary deserved this humiliation (biiig racist, he did), the comedy does something which extends beyond the moral standings regarding ‘Gary “doing an accent” whilst on holiday to Turkey’. Though his wife has now left him, so think before you open your trap next time Gary.

Physical comedy asks us to embrace the shared sense of bewilderment from a world which is often overwhelming, confusing and unkind. It invites us to laugh and marvel at it in equal measure, though perhaps most importantly, it reminds us not to take ourselves too bloody seriously. Because, after all, you’re only ever a few steps away from a personal ripped trouser moment.


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