Big is beautiful

Matt Whiteley in defence of arena gigs

A recent article in this section argued that comedy should be kept out of big arenas, but having seen Eddie Izzard at the O2, I just can’t agree with an opinion that would exclude such events from the comedy spectrum.

One of the key arguments against arena gigs seems to be that they don’t bring anything extra to comedy that you can’t get at a small show, or that in trying to inflate a performance to fit the vast space, comics lose the essential connection with their audience.

But that’s always the case; Izzard did little more than be himself and despite his own definition of the performance as ‘messing around in an aircraft hanger’, he still had the 20,000-plus audience hanging off his every word. There were some absolute show-stopping roars of laughter, and some more reflective moments where he waxed lyrical on topics more genuinely interesting than hilarious. But all the time we were captivated; he lost nothing to the scale of the evening.

Perhaps Lee Evans’s move away from his usual set-piece to a pure musical finale reflects his acknowledgement of a sense of occasion, an opportunity to end on something more emotive than a verbal flourish. Tim Minchin makes his ‘straight’ finishes work very well, adding texture once you’re done laughing for the evening. But if something like this is not well received, then that would be because the act made a misjudgement, rather than the format itself not being valid.

Of course, there are some more obvious black sheep amongst the big venue acts. The return of Peter Kay may be marked by the raising of many a cynical eyebrow after his track record of profiteering from his past DVDs. But if he fails to live up to the hype, then the fun I had with Izzard suggests to me that he’s more the exception than the rule.

I would certainly worry if arena gigs were ever the ‘raison d’etre’ of a comedian, rather than a spangly feather in the cap of an already successful career. If Kay is doing this on his accountant’s request, rather than to revitalise his reputation, I would imagine it to be the final nail in the coffin of his long-suffering and over-exploited fans.

Obviously, there are some styles that you would struggle to imagine working on such a large stage; Josie Long’s sweet musings punctuated by the distribution of home-made badges, and an audience cheering Ray Presto through his fifth minute of cracker jokes at the Comedy Store gong show, although lovely moments to witness (for original and bizarre reasons, respectively), will probably not be in the mind of any agent looking to get an act into the O2.

But the fact that original comedy from Izzard, Noble (in his Australian arena tour) and Monty Python (at the Hollywood Bowl) can command such venues assures us that arenas aren’t just reserved for the acts considered more ‘mainstream’. Russell Howard has already performed arena, proving that they are also welcome to relatively newer acts,

The success of such TV shows as Live At The Apollo’ and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow have shown that there is space in the mainstream media for formats that present ‘natural’ stand-up comedy outside of the universal comedy adaptor of the panel show. These are the shows that build the fan-base, and maintain the demand for the big comics and the big gigs. Arena gigs aren’t necessarily a ‘cashing-in’ opportunity; they are a logical step for a comedian whose efforts have built them a massive following.

It has been said the really special moments can’t happen on these big stages, that they are exclusive to small clubs or theatres when you can peer straight into the whites of a performer's eyes. But special moments are not location specific; they are a measure of a performer’s ability to interact with a crowd whatever the size.

For example, the groan that greeted a pun Eddie Izzard slipped in was met by a delightful riff, demanding to know exactly how often we’d come across similar jokes about badgers, thumbs and evolution. Whether this riff was actually prepared or otherwise is irrelevant, it felt in the moment, and it was shared and enjoyed by everyone there without any dilution through the volume of the space.

So, these big gigs, then. They’re still very entertaining, they’re not void of their own special moments and we have the proof that there is enough mainstream appetite to fill these gigs with adoring comedy fans. Finally, as a performer myself, sat amongst tens of thousands of Izzard fans at the O2, I reminded myself that yes, this is part of the dream. These are the opportunities I would love to have.

Scale should never be a substitute for quality, but let’s not take one of the pinnacles of performance, for any art form, away from the comedian because, one day, that could be you stepping up on to that stage… just imagine the feeling. It’d be worth it for a thousand naysayers.

Published: 14 Dec 2009

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