Too old to be funny?

Ashlea Dutton, 16, wonders if comics have a sell-by date

Does the comedy scene belong to the younger model? In the showroom are the flashy Porsches named Whitehall, Kane and Donnelly, revving up technology-based gags, fueling themselves with controversial topics, while the 40-year old written off bangers languish at the back, cast away for rasping out tired one-liners and spluttering about their mother-in-laws?.

Frankie Boyle says that ‘after 40, very few comedians are very good’ and has already announced his farewell tour next year. It’s possible to suggest that the 37-year-old has simply risen to the level of fame where excessive touring is no longer needed.

He has cracked TV, and confessed to a dislike for touring, stating he’s not a ‘performance junkie’ and pulling out of the stand-up round on Mock The Week for the first time in its seven series. But what exactly is Boyle predicting? That on the morning on his 40th birthday he will suddenly wake-up and that any comedy spark will have been extinguished overnight? Of course, this article is not a fan’s attempt to keep Boyle touring until his death, merely an observation.

I recently went to see Bill Bailey on his Origin Of The Species tour. Bailey did not fail to delight, the show was fast, furiously funny and well orchestrated (in both senses of the phrase) but at times, it was saddening. He appeared to be an elderly man. At 45, Bailey can hardly be considered a pensioner – despite being past Boyle’s sell-by date– but his rambling and whimsical style  often contorted into what appeared to be an old, confused man ranting to himself outside a pub.

Although Bailey confronted this as part of his act, in my 16-year-old eyes, it was somewhat disturbing, like glimpsing into the morbid future of my comedy idols. This is what Boyle has to fear. Not the number, but often the swerve in style that can be associated with the big 4-0. It’s starting to take root now, almost.. It can be seen on Mock The Week. It shocked me on You Have Been Watching.

He’s famed for his rants, but they seem to be becoming angrier and more frequent. Boyle is swaying dangerously close to ‘old man ranting’ territory of stating his opinions in a funny voice, occasionally emphasizing words. That, in my mind, is not comedy, despite what Grumpy Old Men might have us believe.

But that’s not to say every older comedian descends into this. Many 40+ comedians are still reeling in the masses without being the angered elderly. Phill Jupitus, Frank Skinner, Stewart Lee, and, of course, the ultimate example: Lee Evans. Although not a massive fan myself,  at 45, Evans still has consistently sold-out arena tours. Many of my friends regard him as their favorite comedy performer, despite the fact they are young enough to be his children. Maybe  it’s his upbeat nature or welcoming stage manner, but something entices audiences, both young and old.

Billy Connolly’s still a crowd pleaser, too, at 66. In both cases their material approaches ‘classic’ topics such as families and holidays but incorporating a strong mix of the contemporary. Audiences are engaged without being startled by the contempt the comedians hold; eyes bulging, temple pulsing, face reddened and voice increasingly strained voiced. And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony that this article is becoming a rant about ranting.

Older comics also face the issue of not attracting new fans, as their audience ages with them. But once established, they should be able to retain their existing fan base. Also associated with aging is the loss of TV exposure as rising stars tend to be favoured over existing ones, but even then, to counter the youth-obsessed Never Mind the Buzzcocks there’s always QI; the perfect platform for still-hilarious comedians over forty.

Michael McIntyre is still hailed as a rising star of comedy – but at 33, he’s hardly a child. If Boyle predicts a loss of talent at 40, McIntyre’s days are numbered.

But comedy takes much longer to crack into then other fields of entertainment. While your singer/model/actress/whatever-the-hell-Jordan-is can hit the pinnacle of their success in their early 20s, comedians tend to hit the heights at 34, or older. They need the experience of life and of gigging. That would give those who do survive the brutal climb up the circuit just six years at the top, under Boyle’s law – surely few would want to then give it all up at 40.

Truth is, there is no set ‘funny age’, old or young. You can be past your prime at 40, but it’s just as easy to be approaching it.

Published: 21 Sep 2009

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.