Stand-up comedians: is there anything they can’t do? Not only do they make up a huge proportion of chat-show guests — and of chat-show hosts — they also present Horizon, give us guides to the night sky, utterly dominate panel shows and regularly pop up on Question Time. Recently, they even set up their own news discussion programme in the as yet formless shape of Ten O’Clock Live.
And that’s just television. In the lead-up to Christmas, Dawn French saw off Stephen King, John Grisham and Maeve Binchy to have the country’s bestselling hardback novel, while the fastest selling DVD in British history is Michael McIntyre’s ‘Hello Wembley!’, whose title is a clue to the type of places he and many of his fellow comics play these days. So how on earth did all this come about — and what effect has it had on the sort of comedy on offer?
It’s hard to imagine now, but, as one BBC producer puts it, ‘The received wisdom a few years ago was that you couldn’t put stand-up on telly. The feeling was that it’s not very visual, it’s just someone talking — and, in the jargon, television should add value.’ But then came BBC1’s Live at the Apollo and, in particular, that Friday night in November 2008 when the show was hastily chosen to stand in for the suspended Jonathan Ross. Having gone on a chorus girl, Live at the Apollo came off a star — and the BBC wasn’t slow to learn the lessons. The host that night soon got his own spin-off programme, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow (yes, him again), but this time in Saturday-night prime time. Comedy Rocks with Jason Manford has duly followed suit on ITV.
The good news for television is that stand-up is also cheap and easy to produce — especially compared to sitcoms. The good news for the comics is that TV is the perfect shop window for even more lucrative projects: the £20,000-a-night corporate gigs, the advertising voiceovers, the 100-date tours, the arena shows and the DVDs of the 100-date tours and arena shows. (This Christmas, 45 British comedians had DVDs out.) As even the distinctly non-corporate Johnny Vegas has noted, ‘The people who come to see me now are not a live comedy crowd. They’re people who want to see someone off the telly.’
Given how effortlessly the change has occurred, the more business-minded among you might be wondering why comedy took so long to realise this vast money-making potential. (Comics who were at their peak in the 1990s must feel a bit like footballers who played in the days before the Premiership.) The answer, I’d suggest, lies deep in the roots of modern stand-up. When Alexei Sayle and his famously non-racist, non-sexist cohorts declared their ultimately successful war on the old guard in the Eighties, comedy sternly set its alternative, punk-inspired face against the whole slick showbiz game — putting in place values that proved surprisingly hard to shake. Not that long ago, British comics at the Edinburgh Festival were incredulous that American stand-ups had business cards. Now there are very few who don’t know how to exploit every medium in the quest for ‘branding’, including personal websites (‘Click Here for Merchandising’), YouTube and Twitter.
At which point, it’s traditional to lament the increasingly bland or cynical nature of the comedy that results — a lament that’s certainly not without its corroborating evidence. Exhibit A: the recent British Comedy Awards. Older readers might remember a time when these ceremonies were reliably controversial affairs, as the cheeky comic scamps took their well-aimed pot-shots at the establishment. This year, there was no disguising the fact that what we were watching was the establishment, with all pretence to outsider status long vanished.
Exhibit B: Mock the Week and all the other panel shows featuring little more than the same consensual ‘jokes’ on an endless loop. You know the kind of thing — gags about how David Cameron is quite posh, Ann Widdecombe isn’t terribly good-looking, people in Norfolk all marry their cousins, people in Scotland never eat any vegetables, and so on. How the ruling class must tremble!
As for the chief prosecution witness — Stewart Lee is routinely described as ‘a comedian’s comedian’, and remains unfashionably proud to be a guardian of the alternative-comedy flame. (Much to his annoyance, mind you, he’s probably best-known for co-writing Jerry Springer: the Opera.) Sure enough, his recent book How I Escaped My Certain Fate savages the new commercialism as a betrayal of a fine and noble art-form. It also comes complete with full-throated attacks on Michael McIntyre — who for comedy purists is now virtually the Antichrist — and all those panel-show regulars: ‘When TV’s Russell Howard cites Bob Dylan’s mantra “every artist needs to be in a permanent state of becoming”, one wonders what relationship this profound phrase has with appearing on Mock the Week and making fun of Susan Boyle for having a hairy face.’
And yet, for all its exhilarating idealism, could it be that Lee’s book isn’t quite the final word — and not just because he so often feels like a man fighting a battle that’s long lost? At the risk of being heretical here, it has the odd effect of making you grateful not just for Stewart Lee, but also for the fact that not all comedians are as high-minded as he is. After all, McIntyre may stick to the well-trodden path of observational comedy (defined by Lee as ‘when the comedian pretends to have the same life as you’) but, let’s face it, he does it pretty well — and, as that same BBC producer admits, ‘People do respond to funny stuff done in a likeable way. We get hung up on doing something new, but maybe people just want to laugh.’ And only in the serious world of comedy, perhaps, would that have the status of a revelation.
Which brings us to the other central culprit for the current infestation of comedians: the British public — possibly including ourselves. When comics do appear on Question Time, they may often be out of their depth, but which of us doesn’t secretly prefer to hear from them rather than the three politicians parroting the party line? Likewise, TV bosses mightn’t be the most imaginative lot, but for precisely for that reason, they wouldn’t keep serving up the same roster of stand-ups in every conceivable situation without the ratings figures to back them up. In the end, it seems, we get the comedy we deserve — and maybe even want.