Laughs through a lens

Emma Lennox on capturing stand-up for the screen

There is a forbidden quality to a good night of stand up; it's best suited to small dark rooms where comics dare to whisper their unspeakable thoughts. But transferring these moments to the screen has proved difficult. TV execs grapple with formats and schedules but somehow the bright studio lights burn out comedy's most intimate qualities.

It's not impossible, it's just not very profitable (unless you're Ricky Gervais or Peter Kay), so circuit comedians are limited to panel games and the occasional ten-minute spot on variety shows. But true stand-up, so Jerry Seinfeld says, is hours not minutes, and something isn't right when even in this media-rich world there is no room for comedians outside the light entertainment spotlight.

It's a problem that occurred to Chris Evans of Chapter Art Centre in Cardiff and the solution seemed radically simple. Film his favourite stand-ups in his local theatre and produce DVDs dirt cheap.

Now a year old, Go Faster Stripe, began with Stewart Lee's 90's Comedian, a show no major distribution company risked even glancing at without fear of retribution from the fundamentalist Christian Right. Yet it’s a critically acclaimed show, one which Time Out enthused 'should win the Booker prize' and that Evans thought needed recording for posterity.

‘Sometimes when you are watching a show you realise that something special is happening, and that's how I felt watching 90’s Comedian for the first time,’ he said. ‘It was very, very funny. And yet occasionally painful to watch.’

Would the show have worked on a bigger scale? Lee's relationship with the audience lends particular venom to the last half hour of the performance. It's hard to imagine him clambering down into the audience of the Hammersmith Apollo and talking off mic.

‘Stand up is about the night and the moment’ agrees Lee’s former double-act partner Richard Herring, another Go Faster Stripe comic. ‘It's so immediate, it's kind of private.’

This privacy, obliterated on the grand stage of television, can be most effective in the modest setting of a small theatre. Filming lo-fi style in the intimate Cardiff Art Centre means there is high potential to see comedians die – but thankfully these stand-ups are old pros.

Evans says: ‘The people we are filming are at the top of their game so it's nice that we occasionally get to show off their skills at dealing with people. We can always edit it out if it doesn't work – and it doesn't always work. The show we are working on at the moment has a whole section that descends into madness, and two hecklers end up walking out. We cut it out of the main show, and put it in as an extra.’

Other Go Faster Stripe DVDs, including Richard Herring's Someone Likes Yoghurt and Simon Munnery's Hello, offer different examples of working the crowd. Herring’s act is an exercise in audience bating, with tedium and inanity his weapons of choice, and if you think Lee's attempt to get charged with blasphemy is 'a bit edgy' then wait till you see what Herring does with a trout.

Munnery meanwhile literally wraps his audience in a knitted scarf, inviting everyone into his mind to subvert the norms of comedy in 96 minutes of stand-up, characters, and poetry readings.

These are gig recordings that understand the fleeting immediacy of stand up; they are a memento of something already past and proof, if needed, that stand-up is almost too personal for a ratings-reliant format.

Comedy can exist without cue cards, so forget the grand finales of swivelling cameras and flashing lights; there's no need for Chris Rock style balloon releases on the final punchline. Let's just have the comedian standing by the mic, feverishly perspiring from making us laugh. That’s entertainment.

>> Go Faster Stripe home page

Published: 16 Dec 2007

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