Primates // Tessa Coates

A stack of hefty hardback books wobbles next to the microphone throughout Tessa Coates's stand-up show. An aged academic tome sharing the title Primates is there, but also Girl's Own Adventures and the Famous Five - and is that a Harry Potter towards the bottom of the pile? Yes it is, and despite the initial suspicion that these books have been chosen solely for their looks, it turns out that they are all pertinent to the show.

Coates begins by thanking the audience profusely for coming, establishing her persona as an earnest, prudish and perhaps rather posh anthropology graduate who is going to share with us her passion for the study of humans, in particular the study of penises. But she adopts an alternative persona - a cool American - in order to express this as 'I love dick'. And she plays another character, her former lecturer, to introduce the subject. With a background in sketch comedy, Coates is a natural at putting on funny characters, but there is surely an anthropological angle to why it is easier to say certain things sincerely only when playing at being someone else.

Anthropology is the frame for the show. While we learn the reason for the human penis having the shape it does and why some sperm have been called 'kamikaze' by scientists, the content is mostly observational comedy about sex, dating and relationships. Perhaps that is a large part of anthropology, too. But if we understand modern human behaviour as simply the results of past evolutionary pressure and biology, does that reduce our experience of life and love? Like scientists from other disciplines (such as neuroscientist Anil Seth), Coates grapples with this dilemma, and earnestly concludes - in the character of the professor - that while life is essentially meaningless, we are all special.

- Michael Regnier


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Primates - Tessa Coates

Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? - Huffington Post

Nothing to Be Afraid Of (Anil K. Seth) - Granta 

The Meaning of Life and the Search for Happiness - Popular Social Science (2013) 

Debating Self, Identity, and Culture in Anthropology - Current Anthropology (1999)

Is the Presented Self Sincere? Goffman, Impression Management and the Postmodern Self - Theory, Culture and Society (1992)