Opinion: The Long and the Short of a Stand-up Show

Daniel Simonsen

Strange goings-on at Daniel Simonsen at the Soho Theatre last night. The Foster's Award Best Newcomer was delivering his laid-back, deadpan schtick and going down pretty well when he looked at his watch. "42 minutes...I gotta do 50," he muttered. It was not a joke. He had run out of material. He still had a planned big finish but it could not realistically be stretched out to eight minutes...

Fortunately the angst-ridden Norwegian is so lovable the crowd indulged him as he verbally meandered around and he got a big round of applause when he finally left the stage. I don't know if there was a contractual agreement that if he didn't do 50 minutes he would not get paid, but he seemed determined to go the distance even though he appeared to be out gags. I wondered if he had accidentally skipped a bit as the same show in Edinburgh did last 50 minutes – shows have to be that length to be eligible for the Foster's Award.

This got me thinking about what should be the perfect length for a solo comedy show. As Foster's seems to think, 50 minutes to an hour seems about right. It gives a comedian who is used to doing 20 minute club sets a chance to develop ideas and themes without outstaying their welcome. It also works particularly well in Edinburgh, allowing plenty of time for the social aspect of meeting people in the bar after the show, which, on the Fringe, is almost as important as the show itself.

If Simonsen had wound up his London gig at 45 minutes I don't think many people in the audience would have felt short-changed. In some ways 50 minutes is a purely arbitrary amount of time. The same way that albums are still around 45 minutes because in the pre-digital age that's how much music one could fit onto two sides of vinyl. Lengthy comedy sets are quite a recent phenomenon. In the days of music hall not even bill-topping acts did an hour. I doubt if Tommy Cooper or Max Miller were ever onstage as long as Daniel Simonsen.

The length of an act is something of an issue at the moment because of the imminent visits of two uber-cool Americans. Sarah Silverman comes to the Bloomsbury Theatre for a one-off on February 9 and as well as enjoying her taboo-busting banter her fans may well be timing her gig. Last time Silverman appeared in the UK, at the Hammersmith Apollo in October 2008, she was only onstage for around 40 minutes and there were jeers and moans when she departed, so this gig will be as much about making amends as making fans laugh.

Silverman was possibly not informed of the expectations of a UK audience where a comedian of a comparable size, say Dara O'Briain or Al Murray, will do a show of two 50 minute halves. In America the big comedians barely do an hour when they appear live or on an HBO Special. Most of the time they are more used to honing a perfect seven-minute set of zingers for Jay Leno or David Letterman which might then land them a movie part or a sitcom deal.

This American quick-hit phenomenon may also raise its head in March when Louis CK comes over to play the O2 Arena and the Hammersmith Apollo. At the weekend it was announced that the bitter and twisted sitcom star and chum of Ricky Gervais had added a second Hammersmith show on the same night as the first. There will now be one at 7pm and another at 9pm. I can't remember the last time Hammersmith did this.

A friend Tweeted that he was annoyed that the comedian would now be shortening his first set to fit in a second. I'm not sure if he will need to shorten his first set. i've seen CK twice in the UK before, at the Soho Theatre and the Bloomsbury, and I don't recall him doing much more than an hour either time. Of course, back then tickets were around the £20 mark, not the £42 mark that I've just paid for Hammersmith (£35 plus booking fee and a £2.50 charge to print out my own ticket, don't even get me started on that...).

American stand-ups just have a different way of doing things, however big you are. On their UK visits the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have all only done around 60 - 70 minutes straight through, no interval (British fans love an interval and, I imagine, so do the bar managers). I can't imagine many Americans coming over and feeling guilty about only doing 42 minutes in a small venue like the Soho Theatre.

If you do want to see a longer set, of course, those are also available. Mark Watson is famous for his record-breaking marathon shows and he is doing another for Comic Relief at the end of February, starting at 11pm on February 29 at the Pleasance Theatre in London and ending at midnight 25 hours later. Pretty impressive. As is the fact that I've written this whole piece without making a hack joke about size being important.

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