The comics on Show Me The Funny are good – whatever TV tells you

Andy Kind on ITV's reality show

Last year, I was on (that thing that goes out straight after Channel 4 news). My topic was ‘Is anything sacred in comedy’. I had a lovely time filming it, and the people behind the cameras were amenable, hospitable human beings.

They interviewed me for about an hour, and I answered lots of questions from different angles, trying to speak about comedy in a way that was balanced, nuanced, and held in tension a number of differing perspectives. When the film came out, what they had me saying was essentially ‘People who make jokes about Jesus’ crucifixion are bad comedians.’

Now, it goes without saying that lots of them are bad comedians – but for other reasons. What I had actually been trying to promulgate was the idea that churning out ‘easy, uninspired’ jokes about the crucifixion made someone a bad comedian – in the same way that ‘easy, uninspired’ jokes about anything make someone a bad comedian. But what message you can weave over an hour-long interview, and how that gets reduced into a two-minute soundbite, are two conflicting things.

It’s obvious: the people behind the show needed something to spark interest within that timespan. They didn’t have time for nuance or middle-of-the-road platitudes. They needed some kind of polarity, and so that is what they came up with.

And so we come to the major problem with Show Me The Funny

Despite what numerous lobotomised troglodytes seem to be exclaiming within the blogosphere, it isn’t that the comedians on view aren’t, in fact, funny – they all are. It’s not even that they aren’t being funny on the night – again, to varying degrees, they all are. The insurmountable problem with Show Me The Funny is that these ten winsome comics have been thrown into a format that doesn’t come close to encapsulating what being a stand-up is about – and as a result, does nobody any favours.

You can’t blame the comics, for two reasons. Firstly, the chance for positive exposure, even without winning the massively lucrative £100,000 prize, national tour and DVD contract, is huge. Secondly, unlike real-life comedy, it is not up to them which narrow tranche of their characters gets screened to the nation. As a newbie back in 2005, I was told by older, wiser heads that ‘as a comic, you have control for as long as you let the audience think you have control’. Agreed, and hence the problem here: in the cutting room, the comedians’ control is cut and pasted.

What is certain, is that the fully-rounded personas that they all inhabit on- and off-stage are not going to come across, because the producers just don’t have the time for that. They are interested, not, in fact, with individual stories, but in a heavily formatted, easy to recognise, ITV storyline that gives everyone a designated role, whether they are right for the part or not.

Rudi Lickwood is a brilliant comedian. What do I mean by that? Well, I don’t mean that he can perform to any demographic, any age-range, any room. What I mean is that, when he gets on stage to do the job he’s been doing for the last two decades, he rips it. He makes the audiences laugh. He does his job really, really well.

It’s a ridiculous myth, even among comedians, that a truly great comic can play to any room. Bollocks. That’s not the point of comedy. Comedians are supposed to be specialists, not odd-job men. Salvador Dali didn’t draw The Persistence of Time and then think to himself ‘Hang on, this won’t appeal to the armed forces – I’ll just draw on a massive pair of tits.’ Likewise, a historian who picks The Napoleonic Wars for his doctoral thesis is no worse an historian than one who covers a broader era.

In comedy, you specialise; you find what it is that you do really well, and then you keep doing it. Kitson is no less great because he doesn’t do Jongleurs. In the same way, Prince Abdi isn’t a bad comic because the army don’t rate him; Cole Parker isn’t ‘a bit shit’ because he’s too contentious for school kids. Rudi Lickwood isn’t a loser because he doesn’t have great range. On the operating table, you want a surgeon, not a GP.

I should say, I really like the show. It’s healthy for debate, too. It’s got every comic up and down the country pondering how they would get on, and, should they choose to do another series, whether to apply or not. Alas, it’s also likely to spark a new generation of wannabes into saying things like ‘I could do better than that’, and so the circuit bottleneck will strain further still. Comedy may suffer as a result.

But the contenders all deserve huge credit for having the balls to take this opportunity. The ratings suggest that it’s a poor show getting poorer. The critical verdict is therefore that we haven’t, in fact, been ‘shown the funny’. And the comics will get some of the flack from that, whether or not they deserve it – which they absolutely do not.

We are a culture of pigeon-holers. We want bite-sized information that fits easily into the mental structures we already have in place. We don’t like nuance. We don’t want shades of grey. We are the X-Factor generation. We understand good and bad, heroes and villains. Comedy doesn’t fit into that. Show Me The Funny is like trying to ram an indefinable peg into a black hole.

And this is where the show fails monumentally: in its portrayal of comedy as a profession. The producers don’t want to show comedians being funny. They want viewers; the same viewers who slow down for car-crashes. This is obvious in the narrow tight-rope they make all the comics walk.

Patrick Monahan, who, on his day, is nothing short of a world-class performer, has failed to have his true qualities conveyed through the airwaves. Even Stuart Goldsmith, who has come across as nothing less than a man of wit, charm and genuine warmth throughout the series so far, has been unduly cliffhung with talk of being booted off before long if he doesn’t start relaxing.

Cole Parker was painted in almost pantomime tones as the villain of the piece, and was summarily ejected – something that looked predictable from episode 1. This, of course, made for a convenient story arc for the editors, though in fact, if you watch his full set from week 3 (something most punters won’t do) you find that, actually, he had a pretty decent gig – certainly on a par with most of the others on the night. Cole has roughly ten years experience of being a full-time comic. This fact, in and of itself, suggests that he is, at the very least, good at his job. But you need drama on TV, and so his decade of honing his craft on the circuit is spliced for the nation in the Copstick’s soundbite: ‘I think you are a bit shit’.

It won’t end here, either within Show Me The Funny or more generally. Sky One are jumping on the bandwagon now, and so it looks increasingly like even comedy is no longer immune from the long arm of reality talent shows. But it has created an interesting dichotomy, which wannabe hopefuls would do well to note: TV offers no genuine shortcut to getting good at comedy; and the comics on Show me the Funny are, in fact, good comedians - whether TV shows that or not.

Published: 12 Aug 2011

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