In his 1964 autobiography, Charlie Chaplin described a childhood of ringworm and vicious beatings in a south London workhouse, with a mother incarcerated in a mental asylum and an alcoholic father. For decades, this has remained the template for the comedian’s memoir, the glistening tear on the cheek of the laughing clown. No longer: after five decades of misery-to-mirth life stories, it’s not enough. Had Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy been published even a few years ago, for example, it might have been presented as a similar tale of triumph over hardship, with the death of his mother, his errant father and his own troubles with drinking and depression followed by grand success. Instead, appearing in 2017, it’s a guidebook for male feminists.
Blame Lenny Bruce, the politicisation of alternative comedy in the 1980s and the birth of the hour-long themed show for the Edinburgh Fringe in the 1990s. Blame also comedy’s rise to commercial supremacy, encouraging its practitioners, like the rock stars whose arenas they now fill and the actors whose roles they’ve taken, to turn entertainment into a mission. For a while now, stand-ups have been dealing with politics, history and science, but it’s little wonder that their favourite self-improvement topic is a 21st-century growth industry to rival their own: mental health. Where once they were happy to stand on the side, pointing and laughing, they’re now telling us how to live. And it’s not altogether certain they’re the people for the job.
Russell Brand has form here, of course. He was last heard preaching political revolution, but his new project is treating our addictions. In this he includes not just drugs and alcohol but also the many vices of Western consumerism: “sex, relationships, food, work, smoking, technology, pornography, hoarding, gambling, everything”. The solution, he proposes, is to follow the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous. Recovery is, in effect, a personal commentary on AA’s 1939 handbook, the so-called “Big Book”, which outlines its method for overcoming addiction.
After tight trousers and music-hall verbosity, a one-time heroin habit is Brand’s defining characteristic. There’s no doubting his history here, and no reason to question the sincerity of his stated desire to make “spiritual principles accessible to a whole new demographic”. To start, he gives us his updated version of the AA steps, in most cases trading the frequent (and off-putting) use of the word “God” for something about being “fucked”.
If his aim was to make the programme more approachable, however, it might have been better to begin with a tough editor. His rambling, Shakespeare-goes-to-Shoreditch flights of fancy may take off in performance, but reading them on the page is like untangling spaghetti. What are we supposed to do with a sentence such as: “I now attest to the presence of a conflagratory condition that awaits the substance to ignite it”? Compared to the compact, poetic clarity of the Big Book (old-fashioned as it is), Brand’s synapse-leaping thoughts, stream-of-consciousness grammar and fleeting references to swamis, Hindu deities, Eckhart Tolle and Joseph Campbell are a hangover waiting to happen.
If it was stand-up, this wouldn’t be a problem. Comedy comes without responsibility – indeed, that’s part of the point. Self-help books, on the other hand, are bought by people in need. There are snatches of a different book here when Brand switches from instruction to narratives about fellow addicts or episodes in his own life, describing the aching tedium, absurd terrors and small triumphs of his efforts to live a sober life. Here he shows rather than tells, and encourages rather than hectors.
A previous incarnation of Brand crops up in Simon Amstell’s Help. “I enjoy this clown work,” Revolutionary Russell says, “but I think I’m probably also Gandhi.” Amstell’s reply is: “I didn’t know that was an option.” Unlike Recovery, there are laughs to be had here, though they’re almost all at the author’s expense. Once an enjoyably abrasive TV presenter, Amstell is now the very essence of the modern stand-up, deeply uncertain of his role. Is he a clown? A sage? A martyr? Eventually, after his brutal experience of coming out as gay (his mother thinks he’s joking, his father suggests therapy, his aunt cries for two hours), he reaches the conclusion: “The point of me, if I’m here for anything, is to help young gay people know that they’re OK.” He’s not altogether convincing, though.
He comes closer to the truth, perhaps, when he writes that it’s “good to have all these stories out of my head”. Where Brand assumes we’re all made in his image, Amstell holds himself alone and removed, living in his thoughts, over-analysing every moment. This makes it hard to identify with him as he tries to connect with the world, visiting a Paris clown school, a sweat lodge, a residential therapy course, and finally taking a hallucinogenic safari in the Amazon. At the end of the book, he declares himself changed. It’s hard to see how, and it doesn’t seem to be any of our business anyway. Although he’s funny, and lovable in a way Brand will never be, reading his book is a rather uncomfortable experience. It’s not entertainment, it’s not helpful, and any catharsis is purely on his part. That leaves little beyond car-crash watching and Schadenfreude.
Sarah Millican is clearer in every conceivable way. In How to Be Champion, she describes the revelation of seeing Linda Smith perform stand-up: “My life was just as shit as when I went in but I’d had a breather, a release, a bloody good laugh.” Coming from comedy’s Live at the Apollo mainstream (that is, successful but not cool) and the northern tradition of Victoria Wood, Millican presents herself as a modest, down-to-earth striver.
Wanting her autobiography to be “a bit self-helpy” and “the sort of book you wish someone had given you at 16”, she doles out plenty of practical, old-school advice that boils down to getting on with it and not letting the bastards grind you down. The concept is that behaving in this way will make you “champion”, which, for all the difference in her approach, is a state that sounds rather similar to the Zen and 12-step aims of acceptance, kindness and living in the moment to which both Brand and Amstell aspire.
The difference is a matter of degree. In among the cosy talk of Greggs and “Marksies”, the knob gags and stories about farting, Millican is all grit. She has experienced poverty during the miners’ strike, school bullying, divorce and sustained problems with self-esteem, and has found a way to deal with them. You can certainly see this book helping the people she is talking to, those who think that counselling isn’t for them, whether or not the self-helpy bits are there by her choice or as a result of the comic-memoir arms race. She is, however, careful to steer clear of the grey area where mental illness takes over from tough times. And while her chin-up cheerfulness makes Brand and Amstell look like a pair of southern softies, there’s the chill of the Victorian nanny about lines such as: “No one likes moaning Minnies but other moaning Minnies.”
You’d expect the American stand-up Marc Maron to be Millican’s polar opposite, fluent in therapy and the 12 steps. His routines and TV show revolve around his inexhaustible supply of neuroses and inability to deal with everyday life, but somehow he has learned to shed the jargon without losing the honesty that comes with it. He made his name with an interview podcast called WTF, which he began when drug addiction had beached his stand-up career. Waiting for the Punch, co-written with his producer, is a collection of “words to live by” from eight years of guests, most of them fellow stand-ups but with a few musicians and one president thrown in.
Divided into chapters called “Growing Up”, “Relationships”, “Mental Health”, and so on, it’s a long way from “Haven’t you got a funny story about that?” sofa chat. Maron is a brilliant interviewer, capable of extracting truths that no one else gets near. As he explains, the secret lies in his own issues. He over-shares and forces his guests to do the same: “They have to engage on a personal level.”
Though most are unknown over here, those quoted include Lena Dunham, Mel Brooks, Amy Poehler and Robin Williams. There’s a chapter on success but even that manages to focus on difficulties, and the emphasis throughout is on anxiety. The book title comes from an interview with the multimillionaire director-producer Judd Apatow and refers to his constant expectation that something bad is about to happen.
Maron mentions that people often contact him to say how helpful they’ve found the podcasts, and it’s easy to see why. There’s the safe-space honesty of the therapy couch or AA meeting, with people whose greatest talent is intimate storytelling talking about their most significant experiences. A few stop you in your tracks, such as Chelsea Peretti telling him: “I just stare at people with small noses, and I marvel and I think, ‘God, your life must be so easy.’” Even better is a pathetic, sordid story recounted by Louis CK, now one of the biggest comedians in the US. He tells Maron about compulsively spending all the money he has on a trumpet he can’t play, and then being overcome by an equally powerful need to visit a peep show. There, having done what men do in grubby booths while watching naked women, he realises: “If I had come to this peep show first I could have saved $1400.”
For anyone but a stand-up, the episode would be too shameful to share, but it gets to the heart of the matter – the hole in the soul, lack of connection, addictive personality, whatever they choose to call it – more directly and more clearly than anything in the other books here. It comes with no explanation and doesn’t need any.
Sarah Millican appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on November 25
Bluebird, 288pp, £20
How to Be Champion
Trapeze, 304pp, £20
Square Peg, 224pp, £12.99
Waiting for the Punch
Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald
Flatiron Books, 388pp, $27.99
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia