Comedy can't thrive on Britain's Got Talent

Angelo Marcos explains why...

Michael McIntyre holds a unique position in British comedy. To some he is the saviour of stand-up, to others he is an agent of its downfall. He is certainly the face of stand-up for most people.

Which is why the news that he is to be a judge on Britain’s Got Talent is interesting. This is not a show that has previously been associated with stand-up comedy – and for good reason. Even though I’ve competed in my share of stand-up competitions, winning a grand total of none, I honestly believe that stand-up cannot thrive on a TV talent show.

The reason is that stand-up is about appearing as though what you’re saying is off-the-cuff; being hilarious but appearing as though it’s all effortless – you’re just naturally funny. Hours of work go into what we say and how we say it: we write, edit, refine, practice, try, fail, try again, fail again, ad infinitum. But the audience never sees any of this. The end result of our hard work is, hopefully, a performance that looks like you just made it up.

On the other hand, Britain’s Got Talent is about having a ‘talent’ that has a definite beginning and a definite end. The audience needs to be able to see and, in a sense, quantify exactly what it is they’re supposed to be impressed by: How many chainsaws can he juggle? How many golf balls did he swallow? How long can she hold that note?

Contestants on the show walk onstage, answer a few of the judges’ questions, talks a bit about themselves and then do their ‘act’. There is a definite line between them and their performance. This is fine if you’re a fire-eater or an acrobat, but if your act is essentially talking and being funny, then doing this when the judges say ‘go’ doesn’t look particularly impressive if you’ve already done it for three minutes.

It’s a lose-lose situation. The better a comedian you are, the more natural you appear. The more natural you appear, the less you look like you’ve got a ‘talent’ at all. We know you’re funny, but what’s your actual ‘talent’?

And if you’re not funny in the pre-act interview, then the audience are going to be less inclined to enjoy your act. How can you be unfunny for three minutes, then win the audience back in the same amount of time? In a comedy club this is possible, but Britain’s Got Talent isn’t a comedy club. It’s not even a gong show.

Which leads to my next point: being a funny stand-up isn’t enough for Britain’s Got Talent, you need a gimmick. Funny songs, funny voices, turning up wearing a chicken outfit telling variations of ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ jokes, something.

Britain’s Got Talent isn’t just about talent any more than the X Factor is just about singing. It’s a TV show, it’s about spectacle and an atmosphere akin to a carnival. But by its nature, I don’t think stand-up comedy can work in such an environment.

Paul Burling is the closest person to being successful for stand-up on the show, but he did impressions. This meant it was clear when he was ‘on’ – the audience knew what his talent was and could quantify it.

Another potential problem is the status of the judges. They want a clear distinction between themselves and the acts they are commenting on. Can you imagine Simon Cowell giving sarky comments to a stand-up? It’s basically a heckle, and so as an act you respond in kind, and destroy the heckler. This would never work on this show as the judges can’t allow themselves to be bested or they lose their status. Not to mention the fact that 'destroying' one of the judges probably isn't going to help your chances of advancing – even if it did make the televised edit.

Whether Michael McIntyre’s introduction will encourage more stand-up acts onto the show remains to be seen. But if a bunch of comedians do enter and triumph, then I will happily admit I am wrong. And most likely apply for the next series myself.

Published: 23 Dec 2010

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