Having since marked several dozen first year essays, Christmas is fast becoming a distant memory. However, one programme that remains in my mind – perhaps more prominently than I’d like – is Michael McIntyre’s Showtime (BBC, 2013). Broadcast near the close of play on the 25th, this 60-minute extravaganza would not have been my first choice to end the day’s festivities, but I had returned to the familial nest and, as anyone who saw my last blog may recall, in that happy sphere control of the remote rests solely with my father.
I seldom enjoy modern stand-ups, only watching them when someone else is in charge of the channel-hopping; Live at the Apollo (BBC, 2004- ) is another popular choice on family visits. While some of the material admittedly raises the odd titter, I find it difficult to get beyond the very clear formula employed by the vast majority of the comedians. They will, naturally enough, open with an acknowledgement of the audience that is designed to provoke an instantaneous sense of involvement, via either empathy (‘You’re so much nicer than the last audience we had!’) or insult (witness any southern comedian playing a northern venue, and vice versa). In Live at the Apollo, celebrities in the audience will regularly be singled out for acknowledgement and/or abuse, as television cameras close in to capture embarrassed reactions.
Some form of rapport thus established, the comic will now begin to individuate him/herself; setting out the stall of what makes them different from the multiplicity of other performers treading the boards. This is particularly important in a programme such as Apollo, where they will be part of a roster of acts with a limited amount of time to make an impression. Examples? Well, Shappi Khorsandi will play on her Iranian nationality, and – latterly – her status as a single mother and divorcee. Jack Whitehall may well discuss the ‘problem’ of being ‘posh’ (despite dropping more glottal stops into his act than the average EastEnders cast member), while Reginald D. Hunter might just mention his ethnicity.
Their personal identity/brand now firmly lodged in the audience’s minds, said comic will enter ‘observational’ and/or ‘anecdotal’ mode. This essentially consists of either humorously highlighting (supposed) facts of life (‘Have you noticed how anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster is a maniac?), or an amusing recollection that, while seemingly specific to them personally, can be appreciated and identified with by the entire audience because it taps into what are perceived to be universal truths/shared areas of experience: dating, work, health, and so forth. The comedy highlight of Michael McIntyre’s Christmas performance consisted of a routine based entirely around the removal of a wisdom tooth which went badly wrong, subsequently requiring a hospital visit. The humour centred round McIntyre’s inability to pronounce his name in hospital reception, due to his mouth being numbed by an injection (‘Yeth, ah’m Ackle Akinkaker’).
In the words of Homer (Simpson): ‘It’s funny because it’s true.’
A segment like this usually begins slowly, the comic adopting an intimate, conversational tone, in order to engender the sense of ‘We’ve all been there, haven’t we?’, and thus strengthen the audience’s involvement with the situational humour; even if it’s something we haven’t actually been through personally, we can at least imagine it, can’t we? While I myself have never required a hospital visit for dental work, I have had injections which left my mouth numb.
It’s funny because it’s sort-of true.
However, once this basic premise is in place, there will be a rapid sense of escalation. This can be achieved in several ways: via an increase in volume (when was the last time you saw a TV stand-up who didn’t raise their voice? Even the ‘deadpan’ ones usually end up shouting); physicality (the performer typically being situated on a theatre stage, this will now be circled repeatedly in order to address as many sections of the live audience as possible); and, alas, profanity (the crux of my father’s endorsement of McIntyre was that ‘He’s clean’, though I noticed the odd expletive slipped in that would never be encouraged at our dinner table). The comic’s mounting sense of frustration/anger/incredulity thus telegraphed, the fevered hilarity now reaches full pitch with the punch-line/denouement, to be followed by rapturous applause.
‘You’ve been a wonderful audience, thank you very much! My name’s Dara/Greg/Lee/Sarah/Sean/Omid (delete as applicable). Good night!’
It’s a formula, and for all I know it stretches way back to the days of music hall and variety. For all the artificial danger that the ‘edgier’ (and how I dislike that epithet) comedians seek to generate, it’s safe as houses; as familiar and predictable as the one about the dog with no nose (‘How does it smell?’ ‘It has a machine for that.’). For me, the problem with shows like Live at the Apollo is that I always feel at one remove. Watching at home, jokes fall flat that might just be a little funnier were I actually seated in the audience – though there would also be that element of being exposed to the peer pressure to laugh at material which isn’t particularly hilarious. What is essentially a theatre performance mediated via multiple cameras lacks true televisuality; like recordings of rock concert performances, it can never quite match the experience of being physically present at the live event.
Towards the end of the festive period, however, the BBC provided a pleasing alternative to all the Apollo-style artificiality and striking of poses. Dave Allen, arguably the master of television stand-up throughout the 1970s, was profiled in an evening of programming, starting with a repeat of last year’s documentary, God’s Own Comedian (BBC, 2013), and followed by a new compilation of archive material, The Immaculate Selection (BBC, 2014), each of which showcased comedy of a more relaxed mien.
While I am too young to remember the glory days of Dave Allen at Large (BBC, 1971-76), as a teenager I thoroughly enjoyed Allen’s 1986 and 1990 series on the BBC. What I admired most was the combination of his laconic delivery, seated on a stool while alternately puffing on a cigarette and supping a whisky (not accoutrements it is easy to imagine even the ‘edgiest’ – tsk! – of modern day comedians allowing themselves to be seen with) and intelligence. Allen, who died in 2005, typically combined his monologues with pre-filmed sketches, each of which frequently tackled his favourite targets: organised religion, and in particular the Catholic Church. These meant little to me (like Allen, I considered myself a ‘practising atheist’), but, for one weaned on the alternative comedy of Saturday Live(Channel 4, 1985-1987), I found the relaxed, ‘man on a stool’ school of humour strangely appealing. It was a style with which I was already familiar through Jasper Carrott; however, while Carrott’s more topical routines derived mainly from a team of writers (though I wasn’t aware of this at the time), Allen penned much of his own material, providing a genuinely personal perspective on the topics under discussion.
It is perhaps unfair to hold Allen up as superior to the Apollo stand-ups, since the format of his show, specifically designed for the medium of TV, meant that he was better able to vary and pace his material. His was not the simple ‘one man with a microphone’ set-up, in which an audience’s attention had to be engaged as quickly as possible and clung to for dear life. Indeed, his adoption of the stool and incorporation of sketches might technically mean that I shouldn’t even term him a ‘stand-up’; if I do, should Kenny Everett (always at his funniest, in my opinion, when performing for the camera crew alone at LWT) and Ronnie Corbett (another performer who works best seated) not also be included in the canon? In addition, Allen’s performances in fact followed several of the formulaic tropes critiqued earlier, the Irish comic frequently playing on his roots in a manner that might be unlikely to find favour today (‘Did you see the Irish feller who bought a pair of water-skis? He’s still looking for a lake with a slope.’). The ‘stool’ routines would often culminate in an escalation of perplexity/outrage, and in later years his humour became increasingly observational, often using his family as a source of material.
And yet, even the brief compilation of material in The Immaculate Selection (culled, admittedly, from 15 years of TV work), shows that there was a difference; an edge, if you will (and I use the word here in the sense of possessing some advantage over or superiority to the norm). Allen was frequently outrageous (for the time), his programme being banned at least once in his homeland after a sketch in which he performed a Papal striptease. He also used profanity, which in 1990 led to a withdrawal of support at the BBC following public outrage at his use of the ‘F’ word. In his later work for Channel 4, he even abandoned his trademark stool and whisky, adopting more traditional ‘stand-up’ approach that would not look out of place at the Apollo.
Yet Allen had something the majority of the Apollo comics lack; he was (or at least seemed to be) both genuinely witty and supremely comfortable in his own skin. When he shocked viewers, it was a by-product of his humour; not an end in itself. This view was supported by many of the contributors to God’s Own Comedian, who attested that Allen was never straining either to please or offend a particular share of the audience, or to appeal to a demographic; as one relative observed, he was the only comedian they’d seen who made audiences want him to like them. In addition, when Allen made observational jokes, they actually were funny because they were true; witness the routine about his daughter’s talent for effortlessly pulling sheets of cling-film from the roll if you don’t believe me.
Humour is of course highly personal, and many will take issue with this reading of Allen’s particular appeal. However, I find it hard to imagine the man who, once … at Large ended, was far from ubiquitous on UK television screens wishing to be part of today’s endless conveyor belt of stand-ups, whose at times desperate attempts to distinguish themselves from the preceding act merely confirm their ultimate sameness. This situation is compounded by the fact that few comics today are allowed the comparative freedom of Allen’s series format; quiz shows now form the most frequent outlet for television appearances, and even the hosts of Live at the Apollo are essentially part of a package deal.
A few rays of hope present themselves, however. Tim Vine’s rapid-fire, gag-based routine leaves little room for the ‘Have you ever noticed…?’ anecdote, while his bizarre home-made props are pleasingly reminiscent of Steve Martin in his rubber chicken heyday (if, like me, you discovered Martin in your teens via videos of The Jerk (1979) and The Man with Two Brains (1983), his live CDs provide a surreally interesting counterpoint to the film work). Stewart Lee is another performer whose entire act seems predicated on an antipathy towards the easy laughs of observational humour, while simultaneously utilising and subverting its norms. While Lee would probably be chary of identifying himself as Dave Allen’s successor, he has expressed admiration for the Irishman’s work, and like him pens his own material; his Comedy Vehicle (2009-11) featured a blend of stand-up and sketches that was happily devoid of show-business hutzpah. By lucky hap, I have a ticket to see Mr Lee perform live this coming weekend, and if Wikipedia is to believed (which it never is, should any of my undergraduates be reading), Comedy Vehicle has been renewed for a further run – which at least offers an alternative to the frenetic excesses of the Apollo.
All he needs now is a nice, sturdy stool.
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Recent publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2, and ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed.), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (2013, I.B. Tauris).