Opinion: When Is A Stand-Up Comedian Not A Stand-Up Comedian?

Something that has been bothering me for a while is the way that anybody that stands up onstage and makes people laugh gets described as doing stand-up comedy. This has cropped up a number of times recently. When Caitlin Moran appeared onstage last year her sold out shows were called stand-up shows in some articles. And when Danny Baker’s 2017 tour was recently announced it was billed as stand-up in his press release.

Now Caitlin Moran and Danny Baker are brilliantly funny in all sorts of ways but I’d argue that neither are stand-up comedians. Not just because they haven’t paid their dues doing endless gigs on the open mic circuit over the years (they might have done a few, but not many). Their style is not a stand-up style (whatever that is...I'll come to that in a moment) and their relationship with their audience is different. Moran’s comes via her best-selling books, Baker’s comes via his award-winning radio shows.

Baker has also said that his shows will include taking questions from the audience. There are comedians that do this as well, sometimes instead of an encore, but I’ve always felt that this was padding and not really part of the show. I expect that given his enviable gift for the blinding off-the-cuff anecdote the Q&As on Baker’s tour will be very much an integral part of his performance.

The trouble is that stand-up has become so popular and, dare I say it, so sexy, that everyone seems to want a slice of the pie. I would speculate that shows that are not really stand-up shows are being billed as stand-up shows because promoters have seen that stand-up shows can fill the 02 Arena. A lot actually feel more like glorified book tours or book readings. And when did you last see one of those at the 02 Arena? 

I’m not sure if I dare define it, but stand-up is definitely a very specific art form. Even if I can’t define it I certainly know stand-up when I see it. Just walking onstage and making people laugh is not the same as doing a stand-up gig.

Following the death of Leonard Cohen I saw a black and white archive clip online billed as Leonard Cohen Does Stand-Up. The late troubadour stood onstage and told a story about visiting a friend in a mental asylum and being mistaken for an inmate. Cohen got plenty of laughs and worked the crowd like a puppet master.

But I still think describing it as stand-up was not correct. This was just well-crafted, charismatic storytelling of the highest order. Besides, in an illustrious career as far as I know Leonard Cohen never played the midnight show at the Comedy Store so he could never be described as a stand-up.




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