It's tough for everyone, not just working-class comics
I was initially sympathetic when I read Chris McGlade's Chortle Correspondents piece yesterday about class in comedy. I know how difficult it is to get into comedy clubs and it can take many years to get established. I also know what it's like to be working class and feel intimidated or patronised by those with ‘posh’ accents. I respect the fact that Chris has been around for such a long time and have no doubts as to his technical abilities as a comedian or his genuine love of making people laugh.
I also recognise that there are more comedians now than ever and a lot of similarities between us all. We all appear to have the same comedy CVs too. If you go to an open mic night, you can immediately see the typical comedy types: The suited guy; the guy with thick glasses, jeans and T-shirt guy; big trendy hair guy.... the list goes on. The newest of acts all talk about their careers after a matter of weeks and ‘image’ and ‘defining your product ‘seems to be vital if you want to progress.
This applies even more if your ambition is to get on the television and if anything, the industry is biased towards people who are young and based in London. This is where most of the important industry folk are for most of the year and the agents/producers appear to want the next big TV star, who always seems to appear from nowhere. Overnight success or comedy sensation sells a lot better than ‘trawled the circuit for years and years before getting a break’. The latter is an old-fashioned ideal that has been superseded by the X-Factor generation.
Unfortunately, the other type of comedian that I see is the hack type. The lacklustre, unimaginative, ‘get the job done’ comic, which is often a source of debate within the comedy community. I will grant you that the job is to make the audience laugh, but if you lack originality and flair then there are those who would claim that there is no place for you on the comedy circuit and certainly not TV. Stick with your sportsmen's dinners would be their advice. They take a tremendous amount of skill to play and they pay well, but don't expect fame and don't expect your experience to mean anything in the world of modern circuit comedy.
To be fair, I have seen many copycat acts from all walks of life. The posh character who thinks that putting on a sweater and talking about his butler gives him the skill of Will Smith. Or the edgy, tattooed bad boy who forgets that when you look closely at Brendon Burns's work, it is always very well thought-out and, above all, funny. Stewart Lee is a wonderful comedian who has spawned many awful tribute acts in recent years. These great acts couldn't be any more different in their outlooks, presentation or background.
Kevin Bridges is a classic example of a working class and naturally gifted comedian. He has (by TV standards at least) a thick Glaswegian accent and is wise beyond his years, looking and sounding nothing like his floppy haired, university-educated peers. He is an original voice and is destined for even greater success. John Bishop is working class and a former salesman, who I anticipate will be on the BBC for the next 30 years. Ross Noble, Peter Kay and Frank Skinner are all working-class too.
Jim Jeffries doesn't make racist jokes and neither does Frankie Boyle. They will always offend someone and the irony of what they do. I feel. is in the contradictory ways in which audience members take offence – it's OK to joke about a subject so long as it's not about me or someone I know, is an argument I have heard many times. In contrast, Jim Davidson has admitted his prejudice in interviews and Bernard Manning, who was as skilful in his manipulation of his interviewers as he was on stage, was a racist.
The great comics in my opinion all have authenticity in common. They are distinctive and often instantly recognisable, whatever their background. Not all make it onto television and I wonder as the circuit becomes increasingly saturated, how many will miss their opportunity or be overlooked.
This is far more discouraging than a class prejudice in comedy, which I really don't believe exists.
Published: 7 Jul 2010