Opinion: Why do some comics make it big and not others?

It was Channel 4’s annual comedy gala on Friday and as usual the previewers – me included – billed it as the cream of British comedy from Michael McIntyre down. But looking at the line-up did set me thinking. The comedians on the bill all deserve to be there, but there are others that comedy seems to have overlooked. What about the ones that got away? The comedians who should have made it big?

I often think about a stand-up who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons. About seven years ago we found ourselves walking side-by-side through Edinburgh during the Fringe and he asked me: “Why is Peter Kay so massive and I’m not? I’ve been doing the same sort of observational material for years.” 

I didn’t have an answer. This comedian is reasonably well-known for his comedic take on the banalities of life. Maybe he was just not in the right place at the right time to catch a break. Who knows? In a different world, if the dice had fallen differently, maybe he could have been selling out the O2 in his own right.

I also think back to comedian Jeff Green who was a well-liked observational comedian, but doing it in the 1990s when observational comedy was not as popular as it has been more recently. There weren’t that many outlets for stand-up on TV back then for Green to build up an audience. He did OK, he played the West End a few times and wrote some books which did well and the last time I heard of him he was doing stand-up in Australia. Had he come along a decade later though maybe he could have been as big as, say, Jason Manford or John Bishop.

The alchemy that goes into making a comedy superstar is a complex one. I’ve been told a story about a stand-up who was invited onto a panel show and when his car arrived to pick him up to take him to the studio he complained to the producer that it wasn’t nice enough. The producer decided that while this comic was good enough for his show he wasn’t so great that his ego should be indulged and he decided not to invite him back again. Maybe attitude rather than lack of talent has held this comic back as he has never quite made it into the premiere league.

There are all sorts of comedians I thought would make it but for some reason or other didn’t. I tipped Marc Wootton for stardom in the Evening Standard so often it started to become embarrassing. People probably thought we must be related. I also think Boothby Graffoe could have been a mainstream star. Even Addy Van Der Borgh could have been a Saturday night shiny-floored clown. But for some reason none of these people made it as big as I expected. There is still time I guess. Maybe not enough time to get to the O2, but there is always next year.

So I was just wondering. Who do you think should have made it big but didn’t? I’m sure there are lots more out there.


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