I was a stand-up snob... until the Liverpool scene converted me | Ben Heal on ditching his elitism to embrace the comedy of working-class life, not middle-class neuroses

I was a stand-up snob... until the Liverpool scene converted me

Ben Heal on ditching his elitism to embrace the comedy of working-class life, not middle-class neuroses

It’s never easy is it? The moment you fall in love with live stand-up, you want more. You become a knowing customer, comparing performers, and shamelessly seeking an even sexier stand-up alternative.

You struggle free of the new slapstick, Peter Kay-ish, everyday observational ‘style’. You’re ready for the leading-edge of the live comedy circuit with its view of the comedy mountains. Go on, give them a good climb. Why? Because they are there. Oh, and because you’re becoming a comedy snob.

This snobbery means you will be dragging baggage up a less-travelled route to the comedy heights. Baggage full of carcinogenic comic prejudices, branching unbidden and unknowing through your future stand-up choices.

Reader, full confession: I was that arrogant, overly-woke, overly-educated, long-term lover of long-form, sit down and nod sagely, stand-up fan. Brushed against, I gave off a fragrance of Edinburgh Fringe elitism. Yes, I’m the one you’d want to punch.

Give me surreal, dry, informed stand-up laden with cultured bon-mots. Not laddish, short-form comedy, surfing on a half-cut audience. Short-form seemed alcohol dependent. Drinking heavily, they say, is no laughing matter, but it was.

Being liberal, I recognised that laddish stuff, despite its horrendous shortcomings dahlings, can be brilliant - every dog has its day. But at the end of that day, I believed such stand-ups were mostly rough journeymen not elite stand-ups bravely probing the perimeters of the perceptible.

Being British, I complained about the socio-geographic accident that one economic high tide left me stranded living next to Liverpool. The bad luck of being a stand-up connoisseur stuck with Liverpool's comedy scene.

Spoiler: I now realise this was elitist nonsense. Rather than seeing the comedy strengths on my doorstep, I demanded local access to high-ranking, posh, themed, stand-up. Soured with self-pity I ran a comedy caste system in my head.

Surely this is just middle-class snobbery, not a caste thing?

Compared to the veneer of snobbery, caste is cast in steel. Class is more flexible. Stand-up-strewn panel games demonstrate that once you’re TV toilet-trained it’s possible to work, or fake, your way up the comedy class hierarchy.

No such ladder in my caste system. A Brahmin absolutely senses and recoils from an Untouchable, a white supremacist from someone who isn't. My caste sensibilities saw long form and thoughtful as the ultimate stand-up mode.

My late epiphany is that  I now see its a privilege to be next to Liverpool. My caste system is a fiction, a nasty divisive prejudice to keep some comics in their place. Liverpool IS a place apart, a place that stands-up for itself. I've never felt English, nor, (I suspect) do many Scousers. They are too busy feeling Scouse. An outward-facing port of half a million, apparently towed across from Ireland (75 per cent Irish ancestry), Liverpudlians view the rest of the island with suspicion and pity.

Socio-economically it’s not even in the top ten working class cities, but in terms of political voting it’s a very left-wing city. A city with a strong seam of paradoxical, small-c conservatism to its comedy – to which I initially over-reacted.

Liverpool has two permanent central comedy clubs, commercially driven with essential bar revenue, and built on on short form (15 to 30 min) sets and local, focal comedians. Both celebrate, by the minute, their working class Scouse setting. Tellingly, nationwide comedy club chains swerve here.

Compared to nearby Manchester, Liverpool's resident or visiting circuit stand-ups display minimal diversity in class, gender, race or different abilities.

By far the most modern club is Hot Water. A doyen of the digital, long ahead in that game nationally, with a roster of streaming and downloadable sets, free and paid-for, with high-quality production. Want to check a pro comedian before travelling? YouTube a clip and expect to see Hot Water’s huge logo behind them. Clever marketing and an absolute good.

This is not intended to be a celebration of Scouse singularity – each UK region, thankfully, has its otherness. A hometown stand-up chooses to dig down deeper into their base, or tunnel out seeking wider recognition. Like Glaswegians, Scouse stand-ups, however, stand out, as exceptionally rooted in their community, above all by accent, but also timing, local references and stereotypes. It is based on working-class life, not middle-class neuroses. Material doesn't aim to change the world.

They are bonded and bound to voice their own communities’ strengths and failings. Liverpool is not yet an independent state, but it is a state of mind. ‘Hiraeth’, is a Welsh word, often mistranslated as ‘home’, but it means a sense of – and blend of –  place, time and your people. Liverpool stand-ups are Hiraeth Central. You can take a Scouse stand-up out of Liverpool, but not vice-versa – unless you can supply a Scouse audience

Hopefully we have established the uniqueness of Liverpool stand-up, and the shame of my former caste-ridden approach.

So what caused my enlightenment toward short-form? Probably bat blood, possibly pangolin poo in a Wuhan market. Covid-19 lockdowns stripped our lives of the joy and immediacy of live stand-up. It was an addiction withdrawal crisis. Nothing compensated, Zoom and recorded stand-up just served to taunt you with your loss.

Looking into the abyss, you re-evaluate. Can local short-form be so bad? First opportunity I got, I was back to live comedy clubs and found Scouse stand-up doesn’t just shine, it blinds with its vigour, ferocity and rootsiness. Long-form, Schmmongform. Really funny, it turns out, is well… really funny, if you stop being a snob.

Check out the Scouse comics by visiting Hot Water and Laughterhouse comedy clubs, note their recurring acts and use the net to see their wonders.

Scouse stand-ups are operating in a unique time and space working against a trend where every comedy club looks like every High Street in the UK. Is the material reactionary, is it innovative? Annoyingly for comedy snobs – it’s just bloody funny.

As the universe expands, it creates 4,800 new stars per second. I am guessing this is a guess. But, our appreciation of stand-up needs to be equally expansive, not reductive, to ensure we enjoy the new stand-up stars in our local solar system.

Published: 11 Jan 2022

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