Opinion: What Is Stand-Up?

What is stand-up comedy? I thought I knew, but I’m starting to wonder. Earlier this week I reviewed David Baddiel’s show My Family: Not The Sitcom at the Menier Chocolate Factory for the Evening Standard. It’s excellent by the way. But before the show there was a question about who would review it. Someone – the venue, the performer, the publicist, the management, who knows? – suggested theatre critics should review it.

Last night I asked a colleague who has a foot in both camps and he is adamant that it was stand-up. You could make a case for the show – about Baddiel’s late mother and his father who has dementia – dipping a toe into the narrative storytelling category, but I don’t think it was theatre.

I’m not saying a solo show can’t be theatre but Baddiel’s show most definitely wasn’t. There was a minimal set consisting of family pictures behind the star, but this was basically one man telling funny stories. Some of them were also moving, but who says stand-up can't be moving?

I guess there are two separate things - stand-up comedy and, erm, comedy. Stand-up could mean something like pure wall-to-wall joke-telling, from Michael McIntyre to Josh Widdicombe. But then again Billy Connolly is called the godfather of modern stand-up and he’s really a storyteller. So the boundaries do blur. Is Tim Key a stand-up? Is Daniel Kitson? Is Stewart Lee? I’d say sometimes, sometimes and yes.

It was not clear where or why this theatre idea came from with Baddiel’s show. Does someone somewhere think a show gets taken more seriously if theatre critics judge it? Is there more of a chance of it transferring to a bigger West End theatre if it falls under the theatre banner?

My job sends me to shows that stretch the definition of stand-up to breaking point. I’d say the work of Kim Noble and Bryony Kimmings are far more theatre than stand-up. Yet I've reviewed both. Kim Noble has picked up a comedy award nomination in Edinburgh and Kimmings opened the Edinburgh Fringe last year with a keynote speech where she was billed as a comedian. In fact some of the most interesting, provocative, challenging comedy work is done by performers who would not fit under the stand-up umbrella. Hello John Kearns.

Later this week I’m going to Camden People’s Theatre to see The Joke starring Will Adamsdale and Brian Logan (comedy critic of the Guardian). It’s a play about humour, not a stand-up show (although Adamsdale did win a Perrier Award), but it’s probably the kind of thing that would interest me more than it would interest various theatre critics. I guess the performers here would be happy as long as they get critics in and good reviews. I’m still not sure why someone behind My Family: Not The Sitcom wanted theatre critics to pass judgement but I hope they are happy with the wall-to-wall positive reviews, whoever wrote them.


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