Telly trouble

Michael Monkhouse on why comedy's better live

Newman and Baddiel used to have a running gag about MTV Unplugged. It was characteristically simple-but-effective. ‘We present artists who eschew technology and play live… Tonight: The Chemical Brothers’. Or Aphex Twin. Or… You get the point.

Now I don't want to spoil the fun and search for profound meaning in a very obvious joke. But if humour has an underlying truth, the truth here's apparent: Music's better live.

But so is comedy.

Because the beauty of stand-up is its purity. As performer/instructor Logan Murray opines, it's a naked medium. And as I opine, theatre may be better than cinema because it plays out in real time, but stand-up's best of all because it's real time and there's no one to hide behind if it goes wrong. If something unexpected happens, the comic's got to react. If some drunken dingbat starts shouting, they’ve got to shut him up. If technical problems encroach, they have to have the wile and the bile and the style to take it in their stride. Or even better, turn it to their advantage. Because when you're up there anything can happen.

Yet most comics yearn for a show on the telly. The polar opposite of what made them great in the first place.

Take one-time circuit giant Alexei Sayle. He may or may not be the inventor of alternative comedy, but the fact he can claim to be and not get lynched should tell you something of his prowess. I remember his early days at the Comedy Store - towering (literally), kicking hecklers up the butt (literally too), exploding into delightful expletives long before they were standard fare… And ultimately heading towards three series for Auntie Beeb.

Now don't get me wrong, Alexei Sayle's Stuff had moments of genius. But it also had trad sketch-writers diluting the anger; cameras artfully arched to make the great man less intimidating and more drawing-room-friendly; and - horror - a damper on the extremity so he'd get past the censors, into said drawing-rooms and safely over to this month's pay-cheque. Mild example: The Super Heroes routine, leading to ‘But remember kids, although Superman can fly you can't… Not unless you take lots of drugs.’ On TV: ‘…Not unless you drink a lot of beer.’ Mild indeed.

Another classic example is Jack Dee. I’m not going to get all 'Ooh-I-liked-'im-before-he-was-famous' on you, but I first saw him in the back of a pub in front of about ten punters. And I marvelled for an hour as he spat out the one-liners and got more laughs than many get in an entire career… But six months later it was a Channel Four series where he dragged said hour out over six thirty-minute shows.

I saw the show being filmed and God, telly's a hoax. Telly recordings mean a studio audience determined to enjoy it no matter how poor it is. Telly is warm-up acts who both get you in the mood and win laughs that'll be cunningly mixed into the main number afterwards (it's the same audience, who's goung to notice?). Telly is directors ordering you when to clap, producers flailing their arms to tell you when to chortle, agents promising the loudest laugh wins a bottle of bubbly… And the stupidest thing is, the funniest moments are the audience interaction, precisely the moments that'll be cut for 'deviating from the script'.

But the best stand-ups don't have scripts. Eddie Izzard may have a headful of ideas when he walks onstage, but he's willing - happy - to throw them out of the window if he suddenly thinks of something funnier. I saw him twice on the same tour and it was barely recognisable as the same set. No wonder he was so reluctant to take on telly: as he said himself, ‘Playing live, I can just get up and have fun. On television you've got to fit in with time limitations and it hampers your creativity.’ It was years before he'd even consent to videos - and while they remain stupendous, they just don't compare to Eddie in the flesh.

Similarly, Bob Monkhouse took aeons of convincing before he'd allow filming of his no-holds-barred cabaret. Which is why I - and countless others - spent so long as Bob-baiters instead of Monkhouse-maniacs. Check Live And Forbidden, and when you've stopped laughing you'll surely forgive him Family Fortunes.

Still not convinced? Then try angry young man Ben Elton, settling cosily into Man From Auntie pussycat. Or jeering Jo Brand, padding out her Channel Four show with yawnsome soap opera parodies. Or even Omid Djalili, the hottest thing at Montreal, now worryingly close to being just another comedian on the telly…

Or try a stand-up venue near you. You won't see the slickest acts, but you might see the swiftest.

Published: 4 Jun 2008

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