Opinion: Comedy Snobbery

Critical Mass

Comedian Dave Twentyman recently posted an interesting piece on Facebook about snobbery in the comedy industry towards comedians who play the weekend club circuit. Stand-ups who make their living from gigs at stag and hen parties and office parties etc are viewed, said Twentymen, as hack and unimaginative.

In Twentyman's eyes they can't win. If they do dip their toes into the critic-infested waters of the Edinburgh Fringe they are described witheringly as "club comics", as if this is a bad thing. So here is the view from the comedy critic's perspective.

I can see Twentyman's point but I don't necessarily agree with him. The stand-up comedy scene is so diverse these days that at one end you can have Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson and the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society and at the other end the MicIntyres, Flanagans and Bishops. All can make a living. Some, obviously, a better living than others.

There are clear parallels in other arts. The McIntyres are the Lloyd Webber musicals and Lee and co are the Beckett plays. In music there are pop groups and what in the old days used to be called album bands. One side gets taken seriously, the others are dismissed as mere entertainers.

And that is the thing about club comics. They are the entertainers. But in the same way that pop groups struggle to be taken seriously as artists so do club comics. The difficulty is breaking out of the club circuit. In the old days when I was starting out as a critic, the mainstream Jongleurs-type circuit was so lucrative one could make a living doing little else so there was no necessity, but it did mean that bitterness could set in when one saw newer comics who had avoided the chains getting better reviews for extended shows about their OCD and their dead dads.

The problem was that while circuit comedy might make one great at dealing with pissed-up office outings, it does not stretch one creatively. You could do the same material every weekend because you knew you'd be doing it in front of different audiences. Someone once described the comedy chain circuit as being like velvet handcuffs. Once in you were trapped because it was too cushy to leave. 

One of the great things about Edinburgh is that it makes comedians generate new material. It doesn't have to be Kitsonesque art or Josie Long's angry whimsy, it just has to be good new material. I've seen club comics - oops, I've said it - in Edinburgh and sometimes it feels as if all they have done is take their best thirty minute weekend material and pad it out with older bits that used to work and newer bits that don't work yet. True Edinburgh acts do endless warm-ups - some are already doing them for 2014. Some club acts just can't, or won't, find the time to do try-outs.

It's undoubtedly a hard life on the club circuit and the best comedians on it are obviously great. They have huge skill at handling some of the toughest of crowds - by comparison Edinburgh audiences are pussycats. But what they are doing is not art. 

They may not be painters and decorators but they are not Picasso either. So when critics have a poke at them they should not be so sensitive. Critics, by their nature, want to see something new, while, yes, the public usually just need to be entertained. But as a critic I do try to put myself in the public's shoes. If I'm watching, say, John Bishop at the O2, I can hardly say he died on his arse when he has made 16,000 people laugh, whatever I might personally think of his material.  And, of course, observational comedy is not as easy as it looks. That's why Bishop and co are at the top of the pile.

The best comedians are the ones that can adapt to any situation. I saw Ben Norris supporting Ed Byrne at the Apollo last week with a fairly generic warm-up set about being a knackered dad. I've also seen Norris do more ambitious dark and twisted material in small clubs.

Obviously comedians have to earn a living. Van Gogh didn't sell much during his lifetime so I'm not surprised he cut his ear off. But sometimes performers have to choose between earning a good living doing clubs and not getting glowing reviews or doing art and having Chortle (and me) singing your praises. If you achieve either of these you are a success. Sod the critics, you have made it. There are very few performers who can achieve both.

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