It'll all end in tiers

Kate Fox on why the comedy scene is so narrow

The person of certainty will respond to any criticisms about the limited range of backgrounds of those in stand-up with pursed lips, folded arms and the statement intended to refute any wishy-washy relativism: ‘At the end of the day, funny is funny,’ they’ll pronounce.

I agree that there’s a fundamental democracy of stand-up comedy. If somebody consistently makes audiences laugh a lot, then they will do well. However, I think this doesn’t take into account the three levels where stand-up comedians typically begin their careers – and ‘funny is funny’ only applies to the top tier:

Top Tier:These start off with a fully formed comedy voice. They may begin with an innate or learned self-confidence which makes them resilient to early failures and knock backs. A higher proportion of public school folk start in this tier. A higher proportion of this group than any other had good relationships with parents or primary carers and carry that sense of trust with them over to audiences.

Thus a virtuous circle of comedy learning is able to take place. Crucially, a lot of this work has been done before they start doing stand up. They are comedy-literate when they start, having consumed and discussed a large amount of comedy, though not necessarily stand-up. They may have already been writing or creative in other arenas.

Many will be in their later twenties/thirties. They’re able to learn quickly and hone their sets using audience feedback. Also helps to have life circumstances which give a sense of urgency around the need to progress quickly and commit – and the means for them to do so.

They have a stable and clear persona and a good awareness of what it is and how to use it. Will be able to do well at competitions straight away and seamlessly progress through longer sets, Edinburgh shows and telly exposure. No matter what other obstacles they face, this group will appear to prove that ‘funny’s funny’.

They’re the top five per cent. Will be described as ‘naturals’ Examples include John Bishop, Sarah Millican, Russell Howard, Jack Whitehall.

Bottom Tier: This group are more like deluded X Factor contestants. There is always something missing in their relationship with an audience. A jarring.

They’re comedy illiterate but incapable of recognising it. No matter what other natural advantages they have, they will never make it. For them, funny’s never funny. They may hang around the open mic circuit for years. Some of them become promoters. The bottom fifteen per cent.

Middle Tier: Most of us start stand up somewhere in this middle tier. We vary across a spectrum of neediness and our ability to communicate with others and can use stand-up comedy to improve at this (Though sometimes it hinders us).

We’re anywhere from comedy geeks to utterly unaware of comedy outside our own experience of laughing with people, but it may take a lot of practice before being able to translate this into our own comedy voice. For the first few years we may still be working out who we are, how we sound, even how we dress, due to age, life experience or social circumstances, so our persona may be in constant flux.

We may have had parents or carers who didn’t accept us, or ones who thought we could do no wrong, but we will need a lot of stage time to work out where our own and our audiences boundaries are and how to trust each other. We may find that families, jobs, poverty and geographical distance hamper our ability to get stage time and therefore we may stop and start doing gigs.

Those of us in this tier benefit most from development opportunities offered to comedians- workshops, clubs like The Stand that offer clear progression, competitions (when we’re ready), internet forums and peer feedback. We’re also particularly vulnerable to audiences or other comics criticising or not accepting aspects of our persona or material.

Too offensive, too bland, too girlie, too blokey, too hack, too off the wall... Those in the middle tier need the safe spaces created by well-run comedy nights who recognise that stage time (and sometimes being crap and/or offensive) are part of the process. Those in this middle tier suffer most from reductive arguments about what comedy ‘should’ be, also from comparisons with the paths of those in the Top Tier and from fears that, after all, we may be in the Bottom Tier.

Given a good following wind and the advantages offered by social and cultural factors surrounding stand-up comedy at any given moment, we can make anything from excellent high profile careers in comedy, to happy hobbyists. Without those factors, a higher proportion of working class people, women, unlucky people and minority groups will fall by the wayside.

I would argue that for about 80 per cent of the people who start out doing stand up, funny isn’t just funny at all...

Published: 21 Aug 2012

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