The 10 most memorable comedy gigs of 2016 | ...according to Chortle editor Steve Bennett © Andy Hollingworth

The 10 most memorable comedy gigs of 2016

...according to Chortle editor Steve Bennett

10. Groundhog Day

Old Vic Theatre, London, July

Of course this was memorable… they rerun the same scenes so often it's bound to stick in the mind. But Tim Minchin's stage adaptation of Harold Ramis's 1993 movie, created with original screenwriter Danny Rubin, does great things with the inspired premise.

Groundhog Day has all the required elements of a hit musical, not least the high-impact songs and tightly-choreographed blur of actors on a complex revolving stage, but the joy is in the script's more knowing and mischievous moments, acknowledging all the possibilities, good and evil, that reliving the same day time and time and again, could throw up. Plenty of trademark Minchin wit has been added, too,not least the dextrous lyrically takedown of quackery, packed into a typically high-impact spectacle.

Originally seen in preview (though I also saw a later version which tweaked some moments), this Old Vic run felt like the start of something big.Read the full review here.

Other theatrical highlights of the year include The Humans, a sharp, gag-packed comedy of family tension which I saw in New York; Dead Funny, in which the IT Crowd's Katherine Parkinson steals the show as the long-suffering wife of a vintage comedy fan, currently on at the West End's Vaudeville Theatre; and the newly-opened Ricky Whittington & His Cat, a sharp panto with cracking songs and a cast of alternative comedy heroes now on at the New Diorama in London.

9. David Baddiel: My Family, Not The Sitcom

Menier Chocolate Factory, London, May

There was a theatrical element to the way Baddiel staged his show, too, with frames bearing pictures of his mum and dad around the stage, though it was undeniably stand-up. And then some

His mother's death, and his father suffering an aggressive form of Alzheimer's gave My Family a weighty undertow, but Baddiel made it so much more than one of the ubiquitous 'dead parent' displays of pathos, by widening the focus to include matters of of taste and privacy, and for realising his mum and dad as the flawed – and therefore interesting – characters they actually were.

Simple anecdotes were given heft by Baddiel's storytelling skill, making this a mix of the elegiac, the profound, the ridiculous and the thoughtful. For that, it was a show that stays with anyone who witnessed it. Read the full review here.

8. Mouse. The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought

Liverpool Everyman, May

Daniel Kitson's latest stage show had an intriguing Twilight Zone-style premise. Working away in a storage unit, his alter-ego William Booth is baffled when a barely-used landline rings – and the person on the end of the line sounds a lot like him.

Cue a lot of typically Kitsonesque philosophising about the nature of friendship and anonymity, fate and consequences – and even the grip of patriarchy – while keeping us guessing as to the resolution of this tale of the unexpected. The meandering conversation proved as droll, smart and savvy as you'd expect, getting even funnier in the occasional moments when Kitson allowed his theatrical mask to slip and directly addressed the audience about the ongoing play.

But the bold premise is what makes this a stand-out. Read the full review here.

7. Zoe Coombs Marr: Trigger Warning

Victoria Hotel, Melbourne, April

Talking of ambitious, few stand-up shows came as audacious as Zoe Coombs Marr's latest, which scooped her the coveted Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

I'd enjoyed her Dave alter-ego, an unreconstructed laddish stand-up clinging to a lazy misogyny, but it seemed a creation with limited potential. Here, though, she fleshed out the desperation of a man becoming acutely aware that all the sexist certainties he'd taken for granted were crumbling away. And in a genius move, he then tried to get in touch with his inner clown - no less a character than Coombs Marr herself, a liberal, right-on, artsy lesbian. His nemesis!

As madness gripped, this became a tour-de-force performance, snapping between the various levels of personality. Like an accomplished plate-spinner, maintaining this extravagant tower of artifice became the source of entertainment itself, without undermining the skill it takes to keep the fiction going.

My review at the time concluded that Trigger Warning was 'daring, high-wire comedy at its best', and I'd stand by that eight months on.

6. Richard Gadd: Monkey See Monkey Do

Banshee Labyrinth, Edinburgh, August

There were a lot of great shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year – from visiting giants of US stand-up Louis CK and Billy Burr, to the passionate Brexit rant of Bridget Christie or heartfelt NHS-defending speech of Adam Kay; from the imaginative wit of James Acaster to the deeply personal storytelling of Chris Gethard; from the pithy silliness of Adam Hess to the killer stand-up of Carey Marx.

Many of these were funnier than Richard Gadd's Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show, but for pure impact he stands apart. Monkey See Monkey Do was the raw, emotive culmination of the seeds he sowed in his previous shows, explaining in full, visceral detail the events that had such a disturbing effect on his psyche.

It was a bold, intense show – magnified by its presentation in a cramped, intimate room at the back of the Banshee Labyrinth pub – that put the audience – and Gadd himself - through an awful lot. Read the original review here.

And speaking of the potency of small spaces, Fin Taylor narrowly missed the cut for this list for his cockily provocative breakthrough show, Whitey McWhiteface, whose teasing, provocative opinions were amplified by being performed in the sweaty Counting House sweatbox.

5. Billy Connolly: High Horse Tour

Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London, January

Many of the fans who thronged to this sold-out run would, no doubt, have been drawn by a curiosity, coming to see how the comedy master functioned now his health problems had become public knowledge. Or perhaps drawn by seeing a legend while they still can – as 2016 threw into sharp focus the fact we can't take the continued presence of any genius for granted.

True, he was more rigid than before, sprightly reenactments being a thing of the past in his 74th year, but his mind was as agile as ever. Plus his health woes meant he was subject to humiliation after medical humiliation – and what better raw material for comedy than that?

Throw in the usual treasure trove of impish anecdotes and weapons-grade iconoclasm, flirtations with bad taste and two fingers to convention, and Connolly proved that he was still the granddaddy of conversational stand-up; the gold standard against whom all others will be measured.

Read the original review here/

4. For Little Alan

Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, May

Star-studded benefit gigs have been part and parcel of the comedy scene ever since the first Secret Policeman's Ball.

But there was something very special about this tribute to Matt Bradstock-Smith, the friend of Al Murray and Harry Hill who died earlier in the year. In his honour, they bought back their Pub Band from their 1994 Perrier-nominated show, Pub Internationale, for one night only. And even if the reason for the reunion was sad, the comics returned to their 20something selves with a spirit of joyous celebration.

Tm Vine added his own showmanship and stupidity as Plastic Elvis, entirely in tune with the twisted light entertainment vibe of the night. For while Brenda Gilhooly revived her dim-witted 'Page Three Stunna' Gayle Tuesday and Sean Lock delivered A-grade stand-up – it was the stupid, anarchic pub band that proved such a riot.

Read the full review here.

3 Fleabag, London

Soho Theatre, London, December

So, I was a late adopter here, having missed Phoebe Waller-Bridge's astounding one-woman show when it was first produced in 2013 , and came to know the grade-A screw-up who is Fleabag from the acclaimed TV show first. The stage version has all the same elements – not least the sexual honesty as she recounts one empty experience after another – but is sharper, and even more intimate than the BBC adaptation.

Fleabag's deserved success comes from its mix of the frank and funny. Even if all this did not happen to Waller-Bridge – it is a work of theatrical fiction, after all – her authentic performance makes you absolutely believe it did. Her alter-ego's bitchiness is refreshing, while even the hollowness at the heart of her character becomes a dramatic virtue.

This dark comedy masterpiece is nothing short of astounding – audacious, funny and with a real sense of character – so no wonder the whole run sold out in ten minutes. Read the full review here.

2. Doug Anthony Allstars Live On Stage

Pleasance, Edinburgh, August

There was undoubtedly a poignancy about this comeback show, a return after 25 years for the former rock-and-roll bad boys of the Fringe. And Tim Ferguson's slowly worsening multiple sclerosis means that a return is unlikely.

But should you think there was any mawkish sentimentality about the swansong, the brutal humour would quickly disavow you of that notion.

Frontman Paul McDermott could viciously mock Ferguson for his disability, with acidly bad-taste jokes that could have repulsed in the clumsy hands of an one-dimensional offence-peddler. But the affection – no, love – between him and his long-term comedy partner was palpable, and put even the most vicious jibe in the context of matey teasing. And, of course, Ferguson gave as good, if not better, than he got by mocking McDermott's fading looks – and career – while catfishing the audience into laughing at the most offensive disability jokes.

Paul Livingston completed the lineup, as original member Richard Fidler is now far too grown-up for such shenanigans, adding a touch of weirdness, especially as his alter-ego Flacco.

The DAAS songs still rock, and while there might have been a touch of poignancy about the show, at its heart here were three lords of misrule, still behaving badly when they are old enough to know better. And quite wonderful it was to behold, too. Read the original review here.

1. Comedians Boxing

Blyth Sports Centre, Northumberland, February

Not strictly comedy. Nor, you may think, entirely original, since comedians knocking seven bells out of each other was pioneered by the Comedians Wrestling at the Fringe. But there was something uniquely special about this event, put together by stand-up Kai Humphries on the back of the Punch Drunk comedy club he runs in the town. 'Community' is the sort of word that gets bandied about by corporate marketeers and opaque politicians, rarely with much meaning. But here it was in full force, a palpable feeling of a town getting together to do something amazing – both in terms of a big event and in raising money for charity – and the atmosphere electric.

Twenty one comics stepped into the ring, with more in the corners or at the commentary box. Some of the contestants took the event as a joke, of course they did. But they learned the hard way that not all their peers had done the same, with some seeking professional training before stepping into the ring. 'It's been considerably more brutal than I expected,' announcer Rhod Gilbert said. But it was easy to get carried away in the electric atmosphere.

And that energy never flagged, from the moment Tom Houghton took on Phil Nichol in bout one, to the very end when Humphries took on his brother Gav in a brutal – but sporting – showdown.

There's no question this was THE most memorable comedy event of the year. By a knockout. Read the original report here.

Published: 23 Dec 2016

Live comedy picks

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