Is bigger, better?

How arena and TV gigs lose intimacy and excitement

The boom in stand-up means many audiences experience it without the intimacy and frisson of the best live performance.

That was the findings of academics at the International Comedy Conference – who found that huge arena gigs and slick TV productions often failed to capture what made stand-up so immediate.

The TV boom was sparked by filmed in theatres, such as Live At The Apollo and Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow – but these reduce audience interaction to a minimum. So as the genre evolves, broadcasters are turning to new ways of filming comedy to try to replicate the live experience

Former BBC script editor Catriona Craig told the Salford event that examples include John Bishop's Britain, where his everyman stand-up is interspersed with talking-heads interviews with members of the public, as if to mimic the audience banter of clubs.

Another approach taken by Sarah Millican is ‘pretending that she's not on TV at all’ with a homely sofa, lamp and a screen at the back of the stage framed like a TV. ‘She's there to watch television with us,’ Craig said.

While Stewart Lee – ‘on TV, but not “of” TV’ – distances himself from the TV industry not just in his material by directly talking to both his studio audience and those viewing at home, usually to set them against each other. He also strives to replicate ‘the risk of failure’ you have in a comedy club, Craig added.

She concluded that comedians are ‘responding to the anxiety of the power granted when on stage on TV and try to distance themselves largely by handing some of the control, or at least the appearance of control, back to the audience.’

In a separate session, the conference also heard about the loss of intimacy and interaction in arena gigs.

Sharon Lockyer, from Brunel University, said audiences expected expensive arena shows to be funny and entertaining, whereas comedy-club goers were more likely to ‘expect the unexpected’, accepting more experimentation in a less controllable environment.

In her ongoing research, Lockyer will investigate whether comedians’ acts change, not just through the lack of interaction but also to simply fill the stage.

She suggested that part of the comedy industry is ‘becoming a spectacle – you don't go to interact with the comedian... you go to be entertained, to have your attention directed back to the stage.’

Published: 4 Jun 2012

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