Where's the Kurt Cobain of comedy?

Adrian Thompson says the scene needs a shake-up

Much has been written over the past few weeks about the shifting landscape of British comedy. From the post-war, music-hall acts through to the alternative scene of the Eighties, a broadening of the genre could be observed.

Once gags prefaced by ‘My mother-in-law’s so fat…’ would have been taboo, no doubt greeted by: ‘I can’t believe he’s talking about his mother-in-law like that! What’s she going to say?.’ But they became stale. The comedian had to change to secure the same shock reaction, meaning so-called ‘end-of-the-pier’ acts were survived by the abstract, eccentric sketches of a Soho scene, bewitched by yuppies and Thatcherism. They engaged their audience with fresh, alternative ideas.

As performers matured, settled down and had families, the concept of a day job on a sitcom set was no doubt appealing, and saw the raucous basement and loft comics of yesteryear, your Ben Eltons, your Rik Mayalls, sanitised and pushed into forward-thinking (but PG-rated) shows like Red Dwarf or the now iconic Blackadder.

While the stinging wit of recession-born, working-class acts like Elton was, to some extent, diluted by more middle of the road folks like Richard Curtis, the BBC and ITV schedules were starting to embrace the format of the panel show. With successes like Whose Line... and Buzzcocks proving a couple of consistent faces, two or three guests, a few jokes and no massive cash-prize giveaway, COULD be a ratings hit, mainstream producers went into overdrive.

They commissioned clone after clone following the same blueprint. Some argue that this replaced the sitcom. Between the ages of 18 and 30, a stand-up hits the circuit, builds up a decent 30-45 minute set and then hopes that he or she can secure employment in sociable hours when they get on the telly.

What this left vacant though, was a gaping hole for stand-up. Everyone remembered that golden age where the likes of Billy Connolly, Victoria Wood and Jack Dee all broke through with prime-time shows, blending orthodox stand-up with sketches, the odd musical guest. But there was no one that didn’t seem to fit conveniently into that post-Soho roster. Cue the entrance of the Christmas DVD comedian.

I’m sure we don’t need to name names at this point, but we’re all aware of those same faces, appearing on every panel show across the schedules, week in, week out. A veritable revolving door of pre-written, rehearsed stand-up, repackaged and sold to the viewer as an off-the-cuff answer to a quiz-show question.

These were the guys that, back then, were storming the circuit. They owned it. Every Friday or Saturday night at the premium venues, you would see these exact individuals doing their set, working their way up the ladder, to where you see them now; Have I Got News For You, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Mock The Week, Would I Lie To You…

The antidote the industry provides is the Christmas DVD, of course. So should you grow weary of a question, buzz-in, funny answer, question, buzz-in, funny answer format, you can at least watch one of these same guys on Live At The Apollo or their cellophane-wrapped, solo release, all titled in the same font as one another, all telling the same Post-Office queue jokes, all to the same demographic.

So where does comedy go from here? Are we destined to see it run into the ground? Are people just going to tire of the panel show, stop watching it, roll their eyes at the dwindling DVD market and focus on Breaking Bad and Downton?

Unlikely. There will always be a place for comedy. It will always adapt and evolve. Far from it being a spent, saturated hole of an industry, comedy is possibly at its most exciting tipping point in a generation. When something is ripe for parody, as it is, it’s a sign that something fresh is just around the corner.

So in an age where comedians can see their one-liners stolen and exhausted over cyberspace in seconds, where the world is a gloomy, cruel place and where we have a very real vacancy for a charismatic stand-up to step forward and deliver something less median and more meaningful than jokes about internet dating – the only real question is where that talent exists.

Anyone who frequents the open-mic and new material circuit will be familiar with the breed of comics out there. They’re invariably a reflection of what’s popular already. The first act on will be wearing a smart suit, delivers his gags around a double meaning and will leave the stage with whispers suggesting he wants to be Jimmy Carr. And probably rightly so.

The second act on will start with a standard ‘Are you well?’ before asserting ‘Now, I know what you’re thinking, wow has really let himself go…’ and do his or her level best to resemble a melting waxwork of either Bill Bailey or John Bishop. But on occasion, the third or fourth, maybe the very last act on, will have something different. I’ve seen it before and I’m sure you have too. They’re a very rare breed though. That comedian that comes on the stage with no fanfare, who starts off calmly and talks us through some slightly off-centre story about their cousin moving back from Uni, or the time they tried to buy a canvas painting for their new flat. Something that’s so inexplicably un-funny, that it’s fresh - and the sheer craft of the comedian is enough carry it. A storyteller. An observational, cutting comic with a stage-presence that both doesn’t wish to be part of the mainstream, but cannot escape being embraced by it. A Kurt Cobain of comedy, I suppose.

None of us can say who the next superstar is. Nor can we do much but speculate what the next fad is going to be. But we can learn from history, look at where we are and take comfort (or solace) in the fact that here, in 2013, in this industry, we have a very real chance to see or be part of something special. Let’s hope we don’t miss it because we were smirking about a post-office queue.

Published: 25 Jan 2013

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