Opinion: How Long Should A Comedy Set Be?

Lee Mack

I was interested to read in the Observer yesterday that Ade Edmondson is not a big fan of stand-up comedy. Apart from his other gripes he said that shows were too long: “Twenty minutes is all right, you know, but then I wish they’d bring on the spoon-bender or the dancers or do something else – make a variety show of it.” 

There are some people out there – even hardcore stand-up fans – who may well agree with Edmondson. I’ve often had conversations with friends who have said that the standard format for big touring shows – 50 minutes each side of a drinks/toilet break – is simply too long. Even with great comedians there is an idea out there that one can have too much of a good thing. 

I’m not sure why they do such long sets. I guess there may be one eye on a decent-sized DVD release (Dara O'Briain contacted me on Twitter after this piece appeared to say that outside Edinburgh the show is a fan's evening's entertainment so they deserve a big set from the person they've paid to see). But sometimes an evening can feel like better value if there is a support act. I saw Lee Mack on Saturday night at the Hammersmith, sorry, Eventim (ouch) Apollo, and he did a tight 75 minutes after warm-up from Mike Gunn. Actually Lee Mack spoke so fast he packed more punchlines into 75 minutes than some comedians fit into 100 minutes. And if you are a pure jokesmith there are only so many punchlines an audience can take in one sitting.

Having a warm-up act gives the audience some welcome light and shade, as long, that is, that they know there is a support act on the bill. There can be nothing more deflating for a support act than walking on at 8pm and seeing people walk out when they suddenly realise that the main attraction is not on yet. I was at the back at Ricky Gervais’ recent Foregone Conclusion gig and this was what happened to Kerry Godliman when she appeared. It was absolutely no reflection on her that she perfomed to a half-empty theatre.

In America, of course, comedians never, as far as I know, perform 100+ minute sets. Looking back at old videos maybe Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby have come close but it feels rare. Joan Rivers always had someone to open for her when she came to the UK. They might have an hour so that they have enough to record a TV special, but it is unusual for them to have much more, though I think Jackie Mason used to do decent-sized sets. Reviews of Egyptian-American stand-up Ahmed Ahmed, currently at the Soho Theatre, suggested that he did not have enough material to fill 60 minutes. 

On the other hand, the likes of Robin Ince and Richard Herring struggle to fit everything they want to say into the one hour Edinburgh Fringe format. Their shows get much more of a chance to breathe on tour. High concept performers such as Al Murray, Dara O'Briain and Ross Noble build to a head of steam over longer sets. But the one hour slot is a useful discipline. Brutal editing and pruning can make for a better show. I sometimes feel that Ince and Herring would risk overrunning even if they had three-hour slots. 

Edmondson warmed to his theme in the Observer interview: “Going and seeing a comic for an hour, then going for a drink, then going and watching him for another hour? You think: Christ, will this never end? Even if they’re really good! Even if they’re brilliant! An hour’s enough. I mean, two boiled eggs, that’s enough. You don’t need four boiled eggs do you?” Maybe he has a point. But then again, some people really love boiled eggs.

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