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Seriously Funny

Derek Walker

brigstocke.jpgWho wouldn't want a year of being Marcus Brigstocke? It could include performing on Have I Got News For You and QI; acting in Love Actually; snowboarding in the Alps or catching different snow in the Arctic for a first-hand look at the effects of climate change. To be accused of being 'on Radio 4 more frequently than the shipping forecast,' he must have the desirable combination of brains and charm.

When asked which part of this varied life Brigstocke enjoys most, he says, 'Whatever I'm doing at the time.' He had half a mind on the series of Argumental that he was about to record, but settled on stand-up. 'I'm touring the God Collar show and I'm really, really enjoying it,' adding that stand-up is the most directly personal thing he does. 'I research the show, I write it, I test it out and I go and do it on the road. If they laugh, I've done it well, and if they don't, I haven't.'

But in the tradition of the tearful clown, a comedian's life is rarely all fun. Now in his mid-30s, Brigstocke has experienced the frustration of dyslexia and in his teens went into rehab for an eating disorder compounded by drug and alcohol addiction. More recently, bereavement left its mark on Brigstocke, as his friend James died from a heart condition. This tragedy is the heart of the God Collar show.
'He was a very, very funny bloke, who I'd known since I grew up,' Brigstocke told me. 'We did all manner of appalling things together. On one occasion, a long, long time ago, we were both asked to leave the Ministry of Sound nightclub, because they thought we were too wasted. We were having it large, and they thought we had some sort of problem. I suppose we looked weirder than all the people on ecstasy and whatever else, because we were stone cold sober.'

The larger the character, the larger the hole they leave when they go. James's death had a huge effect on Brigstocke and he was unable to find any solace in his atheism.

The show that he has been touring since September has become a form of grieving. But for a man who put football into Room 101 when he was on the TV programme, Brigstocke has produced a classic 'game of two halves' with God Collar.

The first half rails at all systems of belief from Christianity to atheism, because of the inadequacies they manifested when Brigstocke needed to deal with James's death. He opens the show by picking up on the atheist bus slogan, stating, 'There's probably no God ... but I wish there was. I've got some things I need to ask him.' He then puts an inimitable spin on the idea of a God-shaped hole.

'Early in the show I am deliberately disrespectful to the political dimensions of belief systems that I believe to be offensive. Then in the latter half, the trade-off is, "Look, this is who I am; this is why this matters."'

While much of the early content features some expected targets within Christianity and Islam - paedophile priests and terrorists - Brigstocke earths it with stories about his experience of some insensitive, sandal-wearing vicars who seem to come from another planet, embarrassing him by singing in the vestry during marriage preparation.

The biggest surprise is his observation on atheism. Having read The God Delusion before James's death, he discovered that atheism has no intrinsic substance, but is anti-matter, leaving him the question, 'Where are you going to put your beliefs, which seem to me to be integral to human beings?'

'Maybe I was reading The God Delusion for the wrong reasons. There seem to be three reasons why people read it. The first, for most people, is so that they are well-armed in their next argument with somebody religious. The second would be because it's a best-seller and it's an interesting book. The third - my reason for reading it, and probably the worst - is to see whether it would offer some better and happier way of living your life. For me it absolutely doesn't.'

While he takes some very personal pokes at Dawkins as a self-satisfied character (The God Delusion turned Brigstocke from an atheist to an agnostic by its smugness) he doesn't disrespect Dawkins' work.

'If the reviews have said that I have a pop at Richard Dawkins, that's not exactly what it is. I'm just saying, "Look, if you thought that all of the answers to any sort of spiritual yearning or questions that you might have about religion lie in the pages of The God Delusion, then you are missing it by fucking miles". The book is fantastic, very impressive, and what he's doing is amazing, but actually, as a basis for a philosophy for living, I think it's bollocks. '

Even though he now counts himself among their ranks, Brigstocke prods agnostics, too. Casual ones get a lashing in the show for ignoring the self-evidently important question in life - that of its end. He mimics their attitude, 'I was going to look into it, but there is a new series of The Wire on'.

Unusually in the realm of religion, Brigstocke appears to be asking, rather than telling. Once he had conceived the show, he got stuck, because it had no resolution. He explained this to fellow comedian Daniel Kitson at a benefit gig. Kitson said,
'Everyone's used to hearing you blasting off on one subject or another and claiming to know everything there is to know. You should do a show where you have none of the answers. Make that the core of the show.'

Brigstocke is even-handedly complimentary and cautious about faith. 'What's good about religion? That's what I want to explore in the show. What's actually benevolent? There's loads, but I go to great lengths in the show to say, "Look, if you choose to bank with Barclays, you are investing in something that's connected to all manner of bad things." I feel the same way about that as I do with religion: there's a lot worth preserving in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, but - you'd better know what the politics attached to what you believe in actually are.'

'What I seek to do - in the first half especially - is separate belief from politics: any religious group needs to seek to disentangle the beautiful nature of belief itself from the retarded, old-fashioned, hideous, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, racist politics that are attached to most of the belief systems that are out there.'

Brigstocke ran the show past both believers and non-believers before finalising the script, and it is testament to his balance that he faces different reactions to the show, 'Some non-believers try to rescue me from what they see as a flirtation with belief; and some believers have tried to rescue me from what clearly is my angst about the world in which we live. All of which is good natured and very sweet.'

Brigstocke has aimed to be simultaneously thought-provoking and funny. He has largely succeeded at both. As to what people take away from the show, the range is as wide as people who watch it; but to challenge so many preconceptions even-handedly is probably as healthy as it is entertaining.

God Collar
will be showing in London in the New Year.