Are comedians funny? | Matt Green wonders...

Are comedians funny?

Matt Green wonders...

Are comedians funny? At first glance the answer seems obvious. Of course they are. That’s their job. But are they all funny? All of the time? And if not, should we really be allowing them on panel shows?

Anyone who has spent any time in comedy, either as a comedian, audience member, promoter or (most valiantly of all) the partner of a comedian, knows that comedians are often not funny.

Offstage, comedians can be a mess of nerves or social awkwardness, sometimes disguised by over-compensatory brashness, otherwise known as ‘being a bit of a dick’.

Comedians are always thinking about their last gig or their next gig. What did they do wrong, what can they do better next time? Who do they need to call or email or tweet? Could that thought they just had about the difference between cats and dogs be turned into something funny? Is it worth trying it out in conversation just to see? Is that funny? No.

Of course, it is onstage that comedians are supposed to be funny, but even here the evidence is patchy. Every comedian has had good shows where they were funny. Even the most apparently deluded open spot has stormed it (on their own terms) at least once.  That is the drug that keeps drawing them back. That feeling of power, of control, of having a physical effect on a group of other people just using their words, appearance and (sometimes) hand-made props.

For some acts the experience of laughter is a rare treat, for others a regular occurrence. But every comedian has good gigs and bad gigs. Every car journey to a show is enlivened by stories of disaster and misunderstandings: rooms with no PA system, rooms with no audience, rooms with audiences who weren’t pointing in the right direction, rooms with large dogs wandering around or children sitting at the front, or stag parties or hen parties or office parties, or gigs that should have been lovely but somehow turned to catastrophe because of a mis-said word or an ad-lib that went wrong or because the compère called everyone a c**t. Funny stories about comedians not being funny.

So, are comedians funny? In preparation for this piece I did a bit of research (Googling) and found an article written in 1919 in which the exact same question is asked. It’s worth a read here.

With its mixture of weary, patronising befuddlement and giving away most of the punch-lines it could sit quite comfortably in the arts pages of any newspaper today, thereby proving that whether or not comedians/revues/panel shows are funny, there will always be a columnist ready to write that they aren't.

Matt Green's website is mattgreen.org and he tweets at @mattgreencomedy.

Published: 5 Mar 2014

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