On Jack Whitehall’s Performance Comedy
-I am only 21, I am not a comedy expert, I took one module on Psychology of Humour at uni but don’t feel like I learned anything from it. I am not telling you why this is good, I’m telling what I like about it and why I think it works. Interested to hear why it does/doesn’t work for you.
-This is not to condone Jack Whitehall’s career or disparage it, in the interest of viewing it objectively I’m ignoring my perceptions of the rest of his work and character, just focusing on this short clip.
-Required viewing: https://youtu.be/Hc1JXRNuTQw Someone DM me if the clip goes down and I’ll link a new one hopefully
Have you watched the clip? Good. Now, when I first thought about why I liked this so much I considered that maybe it was just a funny story but, in all honesty I don’t think the barebones of the tale of a man answering Jeremy Kyle’s questions well a few times before fucking up massively is that funny, imagine, if you will, that you were just watching that episode of Jeremy Kyle instead of watching Jack Whitehall tell you about it, I’m not gonna tell you how to feel but when I put myself in that frame of mind maybe I am mildly entertained for 10 minutes and facepalm at Spider’s motto if I’m still watching at that point. There’s no mounting sense of pressure building to a climactic toppling of a hero, it’s just a bloke on Jeremy Kyle. I also like to imagine what my response would be if I just read the transcript of Jack Whitehall’s story (admittedly, doing this with almost any stand-up comedy bit will be less funny but that’s kind of the point of this essay, to think about all ways of performing stand-up, just using this as a benchmark), again, pretty decent, but doesn’t hit nearly as hard, certainly not laugh-out-loud funny. So, I was left with the conclusion that he told an alright story in a hilarious way, eking extra laughs out of every story beat he could, mastery of the art of one-man stage comedy.
Clearly, even if you know nothing about Jack Whitehall and Jeremy Kyle, you know why this routine is funny conceptually, it’s the idea of a posh lad going to a working class show of people talking and relishing it like Caesar watching gladiators fighting in a colosseum, when it is clearly not something that merits that response, put simply, it’s funny because he cares way too much about it. Everything Jack Whitehall does is in service of this premise, he wants to invoke the idea of “How funny that this is so trivial and trashy and unimportant and he’s making it such an odyssey”. I think for this reason, combined with the fact that it has an effective punchline at the end, makes it very hard to go too over the top with his retelling of it, so he is justified in using all the tools at his disposal to heighten the drama and surrealism of this situation, including impressions, physicality on stage, poetic language and recounting his over the top reactions that bring you back to the reality of how funny it is that this is all just a silly thing he’s taking too seriously.
One of my favourite aspects of this performance was the way he gave characterisation to these people in the story, that, for me, was one of the things that really made you feel like you were there and gave you a sense of the surrealism of this with the exaggerated accent of spider and the way that Jack animated himself differently when representing different people in the tale. Initially, when describing Spider, he slips into a manc accent to associate the character with that voice and the body language of the “chav” that Jack uses of slouching, gesticulating in a lazy way and holding onto his trouser waist. This accent, body language and him very succinctly and comprehensively describing his stereotypical outfit places the image of the man in our collective heads in about the space of 2 seconds so that every time he goes back to this character it is already established and comically exaggerated.
What subtly distinguishes him though, is at 1:08 when he snaps quickly from standing over the chair building up Spider’s response, he shifts so quickly into the seat and the new persona that it had the double effect of being humorous as a rapid contrast between Jack’s posh southern persona and accent narrating and Spider’s northern shellsuit persona being in the story, as well as making the characters more distinct to make the story more tangible. It also means he doesn’t have to keep saying “and then Spider said” which is pretty basic but keeps the flow of the story going obviously. The stool is a really useful prop here as well, to enhance the difference in the two characters and make it feel like much more of a squaring up between Spider (on stool), Jeremy Kyle (stood across from him) and Jack Whitehall (going all over the stage reacting and telling the story in a kind of ethereal state of narration). Examples of the quick switches in and out of the character can be found at 1:25, 1:56, 2:10 (I especially like the dramatic change between Spider’s proud claim and Jack’s over the top reaction), 4:15. The last one in which he goes from sitting to standing is really impressive staging because he manages sink slowly into the chair when introducing Spider, so the audience subconsciously thinks of Spider as sitting down again but also expects his response imminently so it builds up to the punchline just that extra bit more while allowing Jack to stand up in persona as Spider so the punchline is a more monumental occasion.
Another small touch given to heighten the stereotypicality of the character and get some small laughs out throughout the buildup, is the elongations and exaggerations of certain words in a really thick accent, used sparingly throughout so as not to make it Spider’s whole character and overwhelm with it. (1:24, “deserrrve”), (2:00, “deeemons”) and (2:03, “A A A A A A A A meetings”). These small moments are such great value, he does them on a story beat generally of Spider just getting one over Kyle, which really makes the audience react to Spider and pay attention to what he’s saying, letting the switch back to Jack for the big joke reaction hit harder. But the elongations also take the piss out of Spider, being used in conjunction with caricature, often smug, faces when he says a kind of cliché thing and is really proud of himself for the very hackneyed response that is winning the fight against Kyle. It’s still very much joke of “look how much this guy is chuffed with himself when it’s all terribly silly and stupid anyway”.
This essay is getting way too long and if I try and talk about every aspect of his performance I’ll never finish it, so I’m gonna stop there, hope you gained something from reading my point of view. Also didn’t proofread it cos I know I’d hate what I’d written and wanna delete it so sorry if it reads badly. Reply to my tweet or on in the comments below here if you have any thoughts about this clip or if you wanna engage me in discussion about any other comedy.