Opinion: Mainstream v Alternative – Is The Gap Closing?

I don't know if it counts as Alanis Morrisette level irony, but I heard about Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle being axed by BBC2 on the way home from C4’s Comedy Gala at the 02 Arena.

My immediate thought was how different these two types of comedy show are. Well no, actually my immediate thought was how long it was going to take me to get out of the O2 Arena car park. But then after that I thought about the differences between the Gala, which airs on C4 in a few weeks, and Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, but also the similarities. Maybe the gap isn't as wide as it seems.

While the former show was unashamedly crowdpleasing Stewart Lee does his crowdpleasing differently. He pushes his audience, challenges them and makes them think hard. You are never going to see a routine that features a comedian pretending to chew a poppadom for four minutes at the 02. Every performer at the 02 is in the entertainment business. But then in his own way so is Lee.

This is not to criticise the comics at the 02. There were some great mainstream acts from Michael McIntyre, Kevin Bridges, Josh Widdicombe and Seann Walsh to smaller names such as Aisling Bea and Kerry Godliman. All did their jobs, albeit in bullet points, given the brief amount of time they were onstage. In fact it would be intriguing to see if Lee could edit his act down to a ten-minute slot.

A few nights after the Comedy Gala I saw Lee live, as part of the Street Child benefit gig at the Cambridge Theatre. The line-up there was Lee, Daniel Kitson, gig organiser Elis James, Josie Long, Kevin Eldon, Isy Suttie and Nick Helm.

You probably couldn’t get a bill more different to the 02 Gala. The acts did longer sets, their material had room to breathe and you could feel the warmth that the audience had for the performers. Or maybe the air conditioning wasn’t working very well.

But you can't draw clear lines. There is an overlap. Elis James is mates with Josh Widdicombe. Aisling Bea often performs at hipster club The Invisible Dot. Nick Helm has been on Live at the Apollo. And sometimes the material I saw onstage a few days ago at the Cambridge could have worked in both places. Who did a joke about cheese and onion crisps being in blue bags when they used to be in green? No, not 02 compere Alan Carr, it was Kevin Eldon at the Street Child show.

When Eldon does a joke like this – or when Lee references Golden Nuggets cereal – it is in massive quote marks, but the audience surely isn’t laughing only at the postmodernism is it? It is also laughing at a McIntyre-style nostalgic thought that they’ve had themselves. 

We live in interesting times for comedy. I never thought I'd see Sara Pascoe on The Graham Norton Show but there she was last week sharing the sofa with Samuel L Jackson. Maybe the gap is closing between what we describe as alternative and what we describe as mainstream. Maybe one of the legacies of Comedy Vehicle is that it did attract comedy fans to more cerebral notions of the nature of comedy. Sadly not enough for BBC2's beancounters.

Last month Stewart Lee and Josie Long appeared at the annual Teenage Cancer Trust comedy night at the Royal Albert Hall alongside John Bishop. So perhaps this is further proof of the two different sides of modern comedy coming together. Then again, according to Chortle the Albert Hall audience was confused by Lee. Maybe there is still some way to go.



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