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John Fleming on success vs originality

Appear on TV or fail as a comedian

That is not quite the situation, but it is, alas, very close to it. It depends on your definition of ’success’.

To make money, to be really successful, you currently pretty-much have to do TV. (The internet may enter more into the equation at a later date.)

Of course, creative and aesthetic success is not the same as making lots of money. But, if you are the greatest artist/creator/performer in the world and no one sees what you do, then there is little point in doing it – you are doing it for yourself. Making money is a sign of acceptance and appreciation by a large section of the population.

But, when I go to the Edinburgh Fringe, I tend not to see the already-famous, already-financially-successful acts because I prefer to find what I perceive as more ‘original’ acts. To get any form of mainstream success, I think you have to homogenise your act to some extent and lose some of the unpredictable originality.

I am not saying that is a good or a bad thing. I just happen to prefer to see less well-known acts. I am prepared to plough through 90 per cent mud to find a diamond rather than watch perfection in plastic. And, to an extent, you learn more watching imperfect shows than perfect, homogenised shows.

I was recently in North Korea, where the level of stage and event professionalism makes shows on Broadway, in Las Vegas and in London’s West End look like amateur night at the village hall. But – hey! – I could not face seeing those OTT North Korean mega-shows too often…

For the British comedian, struggling to eke out a living and get more than three people to come to their show, television is the Holy Grail. And it is simple mathematics.

If you do a shit TV series that is an appalling, disastrous failure and ‘gets no ratings’, that means it may be getting 300,000 viewers. That is no audience at all in TV terms. But, to be seen by that number of people in sold-out 100 or 150-seater venues would take forever, and have less impact.

If you play the Edinburgh Fringe for 29 nights and sell out your 100-seater venue every night, that is a massive success in Fringe terms, but it is only 2,900 people over the course of a month compared to 300,000 people in one night on a failed TV show. And those 300,000 people are possibly seeing you in each of six episodes of the TV show and are more likely to pay to see you live and to buy your DVDs…

If you appear on a successful TV series, you may get five million viewers or top-of-the-range nine million viewers in one night. If only 1 per cent of them like you, that is 50,000 or 90,000 people as opposed to 2,900 in a smash-hit, month-long Edinburgh Fringe show. If half of the TV show’s audience like you, it is 2.5 million or 4.5 million new fans aware of you, possibly in a single night. And, of course, in actual awareness terms, it is 5 million or 9 million who have suddenly seen you ‘selling’ your ‘product’.

The best thing Michael McIntyre ever did in career terms was go on Britain’s Got Talent as a judge. He was already well-known by live comedy fans and TV comedy fans, but Britain’s Got Talent has phenomenal ratings across the board.

TV creates wider awareness.

But getting a TV break, of course, is well-nigh impossible – especially if you are a truly original act.

You have to be able to replicate the act for the TV director or, at least, make a good stab at it. On a big show, the director is maybe going to see the act rehearse twice in the afternoon and then shoot the show in the evening. In the rehearsals, he needs to see where the pauses are, where the glances are.

So, if you have an only-average comedian who performs a set script, who can do the words and pauses exactly the same then – to a lot of TV directors and producers – that is preferable to a really, really original act who is totally unpredictable. And, if the only-average act’s material runs to the same duration within five seconds every time it is delivered, then Christmas, New Year, the director’s 18th birthday and the Royal Jubilee have all come together.

A not-utterly-brilliant, not-utterly-original but OK act that is dependable is ‘better’ for TV than an utterly original, unpredictable act that is not going to be the same every single time it’s done.

With TV shows, you are talking about large amounts of money, even on the cheap ones. And, if you are talking about a peaktime show on BBC1 or ITV1 – which is where the large audiences are – you are talking serious, serious money. You cannot waste it by risking it on people who are brilliant only 60 per cent or even 75 per cent of the time.

Some acts – maybe not the best acts – CAN deliver good dependable performances and acceptable material 100 per cent or 98 per cent of the time.

You can edit an act’s material in theory but, with some of the best, most original, most unpredictable acts, it is very difficult to edit out material and keep up the TV pace.

Televised performances tend to need a faster pace than stage performances because there is no ‘atmosphere’ as such. In a live show, you can feel the atmosphere in the air. The adrenaline in the air keeps you ‘high’. On TV, the ‘atmosphere’ that keeps you ‘high’ on interest and excitement is artificially created by the timing of the visual cuts and the mixing of the sound from various microphones.

I know one comedian who has been on TV a fair amount, but he is never likely to become a major star in his own show, or even headline a big show, because he does not know, even when he starts to perform, exactly what he will say. If you give him a script, he may diverge from it.

A TV stand-up comedian is someone who can deliver two minutes to camera. Or someone who can be on a panel show delivering some pre-scripted lines and perhaps ad-libbing one or two short sentences in a sequence. Brief. Succinct. With a traditional punchline every time. Guaranteed laugh-laugh-laugh material.

Being a personality-based comedian is great on some TV shows, but not for stand-up comedy shows. TV wants sound-bites. It wants sequences which can be edited to fit into a greater Jigsaw.

Comedians who are brilliant at long-form storytelling have no real outlet on TV at the moment.

There is one comedian who always gets amazing reviews. Amazingly-stonking reviews. You could die happy if you got even one of those reviews. You could not write better reviews for yourself. And, I think, a lot of other acts do not understand why this person gets those reviews because they have only seen bits-and-pieces of this particular act.

At 5 minutes, the act is nothing special, because they’re not a gag-based act. They’re not Jimmy Carr or Milton Jones or Tim Vine (all of whom are superbly creatively successful in the gag-based comedy genre which TV requires).

At 20 minutes, the act is fine. But doesn’t stand out totally from other acts. But at 60 or 90 or 120 minutes it is amazing. Utterly brilliant. But this is not an act which can be shoe-horned into Live at The Apollo.

To get a useful TV break, by and large, comedians with true originality have to compromise. To a certain extent, they have to choose between lots and lots of money by appealing to a wide TV audience… or being able to do totally original stuff on stage (but not on TV) with quite a high risk of failure.

There is an act, famous on the circuit and among fans of alternative comedy but unknown by the woman standing in a bus queue in Leamington Spa.

This performer’s act used to contain maybe 5 per cent of extraordinary, near-genius originality. But there was often 40 per cent that did not work at all, 40 per cent that was average and 15 per cent that was quite good. I liked seeing the act. But that sort of act would never get on TV because it has 80 per cent of nothing exceptional, 15 per cent of sort-of-so-so-OK material and 5 per cent of really good stuff.

That particular comic has evened the act out a bit more now: maybe 85 per cent is good and 15 per cent is average.; occasionally maybe 1 per cent of near-genius peeps through. So he has much more likelihood of getting TV success. But I preferred watching the old act where you got 5 per cent of amazing near-genius with 40 per cent of stuff that didn’t work at all..

To be cynical, it is a choice between compromised financial comfort with the added bonus of ego satisfaction… and creative satisfaction over something which is likely to be widely unseen and unknown by audiences.

Posted: 22 May 2012

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