You had to be there...

Ralph Jones on why comedy is always best experienced live

The best comedy to experience is, and always will be, in its most raw of forms: the live show.

Let me qualify that sweeping generalisation by assuring you that viewings of comedy masterpieces like Life Of Brian or The Office were phenomenally important to my burgeoning interest in comedy, and that they are prominent memories of my childhood and teenage years. I was interested in on-screen comedy long before live comedy. Works like these – or like Airplane!, The Simpsons or Peep Show – rely on televisual or filmic features to such an extent that without them they would either be significantly inferior – imagine Peep Show in a theatre – or totally impossible.

My thoughts are simply that to have been there, on the set of Life Of Brian when filming took place, or in the audience of any of the Blackadder episodes, would have meant laughing harder and appreciating but above all feeling the comedy more than when watching it later through a screen. And comedy is about feeling, about atmosphere; to be part of a live comedy show in full swing or at the point at which something new is being created in front of your eyes is what lies at comedy's very core.

The reason comedians go into their industry is that they love the idea that an audience is laughing because of something they have created – more than this, the majority love physically being there to see and hear this laughter. Nothing compares to the instant feedback of an audience in the same room as them.

You may argue that it is not rocket science to concled that comedy is best experienced live, but it is something we are in danger of forgetting in the midst of programmes like Russell Howard's Good News or Live At The Apollo. Millions of people are watching comedy on television and either bemoaning its quality or believing that television is the only place you can see good comedy. We sit at home and, if unimpressed with a comic or a routine within the first minute of stage time, it is all too tempting to mute or change channels.

At a live comedy night these options are not open to us. At times we may wish with all our heart that they were, but for every act that has you squirming in your seat or clutching your head there will be one who makes you rock back and forth and cheer until your throat is sore. You don't cheer at the television. No one cheers at the television.

Because of my involvement with my sketch group (what? Oh yeah. The Awkward Silence. Stop going on about it) I have now experienced more live comedy in the space of a year than I had during the previous 20. This means that I now know of lots of comedy nights that I would recommend to anyone wanting a fantastic evening out. You don't need to be a performer to appreciate that live comedy is a different beast, separate from the world of radio, film or television. There is, without attempting to sound too cheesy, a sense of community to these nights, and a feeling that every moment you experienced will never happen again.

At a live comedy night you could genuinely be seeing a future star tentatively performing their first ever gig, or a world-famous comic performing to thirty people. Both of these things are wonderful things to experience, and neither can be replicated on TV.

Ross Noble is a comedian I have always admired enormously not just because he's one of the funniest performers I have ever seen but because he is a stand-up who functions almost entirely in the live setting. He will appear semi-regularly on programmes like QI or Have I Got News For You but his prioritisation of live stand-up is to be commended.

Perhaps he has never been offered a real TV series of his own; more likely he would find it difficult to transfer the unique skills he uses onstage over to a studio-set sitcom or something similar. With Noble, and of course with countless other comedians, one gets the feeling that he is 'feeding' off his audience as well as the excitement and risk that comes with it. For similar reasons I am always happy when I remember that Paul Merton still performs improv weekly at the Comedy Store, however irrelevant the money is to him.

I was struck recently by how much more I enjoyed Stewart Lee's stand-up when I saw it live than when I saw it on TV through his Comedy Vehicle. Lee, of course, acutely aware of the chasm between a 'live comedy audience' and a 'TV comedy audience', plays with this concept deliberately and vociferously. Even the title of the show is a wonderfully blunt take on the way in which the arts industry views TV projects. There is never going to be a televisual vehicle that adequately suits Lee's talents, just as there wasn't for other obscenely gifted comedians like Peter Cook or Spike Milligan.

And yet even with Lee's talents, this playfulness, this acknowledgment of the living-room audience, doesn't make up for the fact that we're not in the same room as him. We are always going to be missing out on something unquantifiable. However close the camera gets, however good the microphone, you have to be there, really.

  • Ralph Jones is a member of The Awkward Silence comedy troupe

Published: 27 May 2011

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