I remember the moment vividly. I was second on the bill at a stand-up night with Harry Hill headlining at the Brighton Ballroom in the early 1990s, and I was dying. My one-liners were falling flat, as were my attempts at surreal impressions. And then it happened. An attractive, dark-haired women at the front of an audience of about 200 people said in a quiet voice, that only her handsome partner and I could hear: "Anyone could do that."
If I had been an elite sportsman, you would say I choked, but I wasn't an elite anything. I was a nobody. A giant existential wormhole opened up beneath me, leading down through a whirling black hole of comedy hell and out to the beginnings of the universe, where I found myself briefly trying to locate a self-assembly bedside table in IKEA before my atoms spontaneously combusted. Some strange part of my brain – the detached, all-seeing part that somehow always believes you are going to win a game of table tennis – floated up into the sky and looked down. I saw myself standing on this pathetic little stage with my pathetic act, not even managing to provoke interest, never mind make anyone laugh, and every organ of my being was suddenly sluiced in shame. That night, on the long drive home, I began to reflect on the similarities between evolution and comedy. My death that night, and everything I've witnessed since leads me to an inescapable conclusion. Anyone who wants to understand the pressures that drive a species to change over time could do a lot worse than study the peculiar species that is the comedian in their natural habitat.
Darwin tells us that for evolution to work, more offspring must be produced than can survive. Those who has been to an open mic night will be aware that the number of people who want to be stand-up comedians is significantly greater than the number that has any chance of making a living out of it. It’s pure survival of the fittest. If your act doesn't meet with audience approval you are likely to be rapidly erased from the public record. The night I died on stage in Brighton some 20 years ago, Harry Hill came on and not only survived but brought the roof down. Variability of traits between individuals is also important for evolution by natural selection. Well, there is no doubt that we see great variability in comedy. I, for example, have seen everything from a young woman climbing into a suitcase and zipping it up behind her to a grown man lighting a firework and firing it from his behind. They don’t call it "variety" for nothing. And saliently, evolution requires reproduction. If a stand up is successful he or she will get to reproduce their act at other comedy clubs or possibly even on television. In fact, I understand that the latest advances in quantum computing are going to enable brain implants so that our every waking moment is accompanied by a Michael McIntyre observational comedy routine. Scientists have proposed a variety of evolutionary theories of humour that mostly boil down to comedians trying to get laid. The American evolutionary biologist Richard D Alexander, for example, suggested in his 1986 book Ostracism and Indirect Reciprocity: the Reproductive Significance of Humour, that the point of telling jokes was to raise one’s own status, lower that of certain other individuals, and enhance camaraderie or social unity. And to get laid.
Comedy itself also goes through its own evolutions. Not only do old comedians die and new ones emerge, but also comedy styles and cultures change. Maybe it all started with cavemen being unable to contain themselves when one of their number was sat on by a woolly mammoth. A century or so ago everyone would collapse into hysterics at the sight of men in face paint driving around a big top in a collapsible car with square wheels. There was the exaggerated, physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, moving through Morecambe and Wise, Monty Python and the slapstick of The Young Ones and Fawlty Towers. As with climate trends we get a certain amount of variability, but the longer-term trend seems to be for each generation to move towards an ever more minimalist, naturalist style. So we end up with the documentary-like formats of The Office, The Thick Of It and Ross Kemp On Gangs.
Oh, wait a minute – that last one’s meant to be taken seriously. Homo sapiens have engaged in humour for thousands of years. There were jesters and joke books in Ancient Greece. Funny conversations were observed by the first anthropologists to have contact with Australian Aboriginals who had at that time been genetically isolated for some 35,000 years, providing a minimum age of humour in our species. Though as anyone who has ever sat through a Shakespearean comedy will attest, not all jokes keep their allure down the centuries. Apart from when that mammoth sat on Arg – that really was funny.
Comedy is essentially a form of oratory, of poetry, with its origins at the very beginnings of civilisation. It is rooted in our proximity to our ape ancestry and the fact that we find it ridiculous. It is very much bound up with our sense of limitations as organisms. The way comedy has evolved towards increasing minimalism makes me wonder whether comedy will eventually die out as our species evolves towards greater sophistication. Perhaps as humans becomes more advanced it is a trait whose evolutionary rationale will become less and less relevant.
As admittedly somewhat thin evidence for my hypothesis, I would point to the more advanced cultures we have on Earth. The Swiss, for example, don’t have an embarrassment of top comedians. In fact I’d struggle to name even one Swiss comedian. At the risk of causing a diplomatic incident, I'd suggest there are few people on the planet who’d be willing to part with hard cash for a night at a comedy venue in Basel.
Comedy is essentially a form of oratory, of poetry, with its origins at the very beginnings of civilisation
Again, the Germans are also very advanced, yet they don’t have much to emulate when it comes to humour. The comedy they do like, at least what I have seen of it on the internet, seems to mainly involve people being nude in public places.
In Britain, comedy is one of the few things we’re still good at. I think that’s because we've fallen from grace. Comedy always works best when it is looking up, and I’d say the current boom we’re going through is largely because in previous centuries we attained giddy heights, and now we’re licking our wounds and finding ourselves a bit ridiculous. The giant gap between the way people in other countries see the British as sophisticated, upstanding and well mannered, and our knowledge of just how far from that perception we really are, also helps us to see the funny side.
Of course it is hard to predict what the future evolution of comedy will bring. I see the style becoming ever more minimalist until one day we are so sophisticated that being funny will no longer be of use in obtaining food, shelter or making us attractive to the opposite sex. If pushed I'd say this will take place over about a couple of hundred generations, which means the death of comedy will occur in approximately the year 6000.
It's interesting that only our species has developed comedy, or at least as far as I'm aware we are alone in telling jokes. It raises the interesting question of whether comedy is a by-product of intelligence or whether it is a coincidence that human intelligence and comedy have walked hand in hand, from the Blombos Cave to the 24-hour pubs of Willesden? I have seen chimps in the zoo laughing at each other, but it’s hard to tell what that means because pretty much everything chimps do looks as if they're laughing at something. But I’d say we’re still pretty unique when it comes to comedy in the animal kingdom. You don’t see a lot of antelope stand ups, for example.
The death of comedy will occur in approximately the year 6000
Perhaps our facility for comedy is connected with social instinct. There is research that suggests human culture is a by-product not so much of the power of our individual brains but of networks of human brains, and that it was only able to really get going once we began farming and formed societies.
Inevitably comedy is also a part of an appreciation and understanding of networks. It feels to me as though comedy is very much bound up with our particular kind of intelligence, society and culture. While some other animals appear to have culture, it’s certainly more developed in humans. Whereas once we thought that our life-sustaining Earth was a one-off, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope have in recent years discovered that there are vast numbers of planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy. Many of these occur in the stars' "habitable zones" where conditions may be conducive to the emergence of life. There is a growing view that as life got started so quickly on Earth, perhaps it is commonplace elsewhere in the universe. If intelligence and culture are by-products of increasing complexity in organisms, this raises the interesting question of what other forms of comedy have evolved on other planets. It’s also great news for Lee Evans’ promoter, as it means there are a lot more venues for him to tap.
It’s a common observation among teachers that every class contains certain personalities, such as the sportsman or the nerd. So it hardly takes a huge leap to imagine that somewhere out there on the planet Kepler 22b there’s another Russell Howard doing his own Alien Good News show, an Andy Parsons doing some biting alien satire and a Frankie Boyle being castigated by an alien public network broadcaster for offending their alien audience.
Astronomers using the Kepler space telescope have in recent years discovered that there are vast numbers of planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy
Of course it is possible that other civilisations have evolved without comedy. Perhaps we are the only lifeforms that huddle around someone in the darkness hoping they will make us laugh. If that’s the case then perhaps when humans have evolved into more sophisticated and advanced beings there will come a day around the year 6000 when there is just one comedian left on Earth. His or her plight will be like that of Lonesome George, who, for over 40 years from his discovery in 1971 to his death the other day, was the last of the Pinta Island tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
Except by then we’ll probably know where in space other intelligent civilisations are and hopefully will have mastered the ability to travel faster than the speed of light. So our last comedian will presumably board something that looks like the Starship Enterprise, and be blasted off at warp speed to the furthest reaches of the universe to some other beautiful Earth-like planet that will be lush with greenery thanks to the abundance of water and a temperate climate.
Upon arrival, having been given the chance to freshen up after the journey, our intergalactic comic will get up onto a little stage where there will be a little microphone. Earth's last comedian will lovingly pour out an act about the differences between men and women, some observations about cats and dogs, and the traumas of travelling on the London Underground. Our brave evolutionary relic will be just building up towards the climax of his or her act when a little alien in the front row will say in a still, quiet voice, "Anyone could do that."