National pride

Papa CJ: Why Britian is best for comedy

It is SO good to be back doing stand-up comedy in the UK. Having moved back to India 18 months ago, where there is no ‘circuit’ so to say, I am either doing corporate shows and one-off theatre shows or travelling abroad for six to eight months a year to gig. This travel has made me appreciate the joy of doing stand-up in the UK and increased my respect for British audiences.

In America, stand-up is a means to an end. It is all about ‘I’m gonna do my seven minutes, someone is going to notice me and I’ll get my sitcom’. In the UK on the other hand, live stand up comedy is appreciated as an artform in itself. Audiences will listen to one man talking for an hour. They will listen to a three minute long story with a payoff at the end.

In the UK comedy is a bit more like fine dining and in the US it is very much like McDonald’s: Here’s a joke. Here’s a joke. Here’s a joke. Also in the US, you have to give it to them on a plate. You can’t expect the audience to work for it. You have to play by their rules and cater to their viewpoint. And beyond two and half minutes, they really can’t laugh at themselves.

The joy of performing in Britain is the freedom to do intelligent comedy. Political comedy. Comedy that is facilitated by the fact that the audience has some knowledge of the world and has the ability and willingness to exercise their brains and ‘get’ the joke. There is a pause and then the ‘aha’ moment when they get it. In fact I would go so far as to argue that more than comedians, it is British audiences that are responsible for raising the bar of comedy.

The next key difference between British and American comedy is that in Britain you can talk about almost anything. Make it funny and the audience will let you push boundaries. The singular area that British audiences are very sensitive around is race. An American friend of mine was down to perform in London recently and was running through his stuff with me and I told him he should drop some of the accents he does of other nationalities.

When he asked my why the UK was so sensitive, I told him my best guess would be colonial baggage. The US on the other hand, while being a lot more flexible on race (often to a level that I find most uncomfortable), is a lot more PC. They like their comedy cleaner. It is still Bill Hicks versus the Christians in many places.

The third difference is that in the UK you can actually make a living doing live stand up comedy. A 20-minute set at a club can fetch you in the region of £200 whereas often a headliner doing 45 minutes at a club in the US would get maybe $150. The only money in the US is in the college circuit or the corporate circuit.

Which brings me to the fourth difference, which is being on the road. In the US when you are on the road, you are really on the road. And you travel alone. At least in the UK when you go to a gig, on most nights you can make it back home, albeit at 4am. Also the circuit being so small, eventually you tend to know most people on the circuit and this builds a great sense of camaraderie.

Finally the most important difference from across the pond is that of standards. With the number of people wanting to be comedians in London alone and the multiple opportunities to perform without having to bring five friends who must buy at least two drinks each, some new acts on the London open mic circuit have gags with far more substance than some experienced performers in other parts of the world.

In fact I’ve seen experienced performers elsewhere doing 20 minute sets and thought that some these guys wouldn’t last five minutes on a stage in the UK – or possibly two minutes if it were a gong show.

This is why it is a joy to be in Edinburgh. The bar is high. The audiences expect more and as a performer you have to raise your game. I love it.

Now all I need is a one star review to come out after this piece is published so I look like a complete idiot...

Papa CJ is performing at PBH's Free Fringe at the Voodoo Rooms at 19:15

Published: 11 Aug 2009

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