At what point does political comedy tip over into a ranting polemic? And can one stop self-deprecation disguised as faux-arrogance from evolving into the real ugly thing? Nish Kumar walks these tightropes throughout his new show, Actions Speak Louder Than Words, Unless You Shout the Words Real Loud, and largely manages to stay on his toes with nary a wobble.
From the off, he bemoans the lot of the ‘critically-acclaimed’ comedian. By this he means he cleans up at the Fringe, while playing to empty rooms anywhere less metropolitan than our capital’s bustling August melting pot. This sets the tone for a breakneck hour, in which we see a ‘technically hugely accomplished’ (again, his own words) comedian deliberately submit himself to a straining elastic tension. On the one hand he acknowledges, and even takes pride in, his intellectualism. On the other, there is a constant deconstruction of his own routine simmering in the subtext.
While this constant ‘puff-and-prick’, inflating the ego just to pop it, is gripping to watch – the man’s in conversation with himself as much as the crowd – it’s crucially never at the expense of the joke. For every time he congratulates the audience for getting a complex joke, or is reflecting on how earlier mistakes now inform his routine, he’s making us laugh. He’s like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, hammering at the bottom line on his whiteboard: “Always. Be. Closing”.
While his personal material is lovely – particularly his reasons for why he stopped going to rock gigs on his own – it’s when he switches to the political sphere that he really catches fire. Of course, Brexit lurks like a Kraken waiting to scuttle the good ship comedy. If one topic is really going to shine a light on mediocrity through uniformity of discussion this year, it is the referendum and its fallout.
Thankfully, Kumar handles this knotty subject with customary erudition, focusing on the anger generated on all sides by the fallout. Of the result itself, he says it’s made comedians angry as they’ve all had to hastily revise their material or get lost in the dirt. He’s fiery and passionate on the subject, explaining how this material goes down a lot different away from the rarefied air of the Fringe. For the most part here, he’s going to be shouting into an approving liberal echo chamber. In the bear pits of the Comedy Store et al., it’s another story entirely.
Kumar is a thoroughly entertaining and technically marvellous comedian, even if one feels that he’s trying to temper his intelligence with a populist touch that may not ring entirely true as his best asset. This small scuff on his polish aside, there won’t be many to better him this year.