Why I appreciate British stand-up shows over American ones | US comic Lucas O'Neil revels in specials that are larger than the sum of the jokes

Why I appreciate British stand-up shows over American ones

US comic Lucas O'Neil revels in specials that are larger than the sum of the jokes

It’s not enough that a joke gets a laugh.

I mean, I love when a joke gets a laugh.

That’s ideal.

Like many comedians, I’ll take a laugh for any reason. It could be from a joke I make; it could be from an injury I sustain in public; it could be from someone laughing at the person they’re talking to on their cellphone as they walk past me (while I lay on the sidewalk due to the previously mentioned public injury). I’ll take them all.

Comedians will always gladly accept second-hand laughter, but when it comes to the shows we tour, the television specials, the final products that demand attention, jokes getting laughs is too low of a bar. There should also be a concept, a narrative, a journey. That’s why I’ve long admired the comedy of the UK and its comedic relatives (former colonies) Australia and New Zealand. And this is why the US (another former colony! fun!) needs to follow their (your) lead.

To be clear, I’m a fan of American stand-up — and have been for a long time. Embarrassingly, I used to fall asleep listening to it in middle school. (‘If only he’d fallen asleep listening to law school,’ some family members might say out loud repeatedly.) But as a participant in US comedy - rather than passive (asleep) observer - I feel there’s an opportunity for our art to do a little more.

In American stand-up, the joke reigns supreme. It is all that matters. And there is beauty in that ruthless efficiency, like a piece of new technology — sleek, but cold. However, this joke-by-joke building process leads to many hour-long shows that are merely collections of individual bits rather than some cohesive whole. The show becomes a container, not a standalone piece.

The opposite is what’s so enthralling to me about shows from outside the US. They take a journey. They seek to express something larger than the sum of the jokes. It’s why my YouTube algorithm has never recovered from discovering Stewart Lee’s 100 Per Cent Pear Cider bit; why I trekked to a real, live theatre building to watch Daniel Kitson list everything in his house in alphabetical order; and why I’ll watch Nannette, and Douglas and whatever other one word title Hannah Gadsby picks for her next show.

It isn’t just the narrative arc or show premise that’s appealing, it’s also that I know the jokes have been examined for more than laughter-inducement. Story and structure demand something more of a joke: it has to be accountable to the whole. Even though as an American, I have no idea how to be accountable, as a performer, I am grateful that every joke I write I have to look at a bit longer. Does it serve the story? Does it serve the larger idea? Is that larger idea good at all? Why not law school? Never too late!

Certainly, certainly, jokes-in-a-row for an hour can be a show. No one has ever watched Richard Pryor and thought: ‘I like it, but where's the narrative and PowerPoint presentation?’ And certainly, certainly, you can perform a solo show that is woefully under-examined.

But these days, jokes are pretty easy to find. The internet is very funny, in case you haven’t given that a looksie. For stand-up alone, you can open your phone and watch joke after joke for hours. Many are even animated, for extra dopamine! This means full-length shows need to offer a little extra. They need to offer what can’t be found in the endless content scroll.

Comedy can be great content, of course. But great comedy can also be more. 

The US is starting to see the light. Many of us are taking advantage of how challenging, freeing, silly and rewarding solo shows can be. And Hollywood’s noticed, too. But, we are definitely still playing catch-up. And if we don’t ever get there, that’s okay – that’s why there’s Fringe.

• Lucas O’Neil’s debut stand-up show Emotional Man is heading to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it will be at the Just The Tonic @ The Caves at 5.20pm from August 3.

Published: 3 Jul 2023

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