Back on the comedy circuit: The funny old men who can still stand up

They began as live performers, then retired to the comfort of TV as they aged. But now our best-known comics have returned to the stage.

Veteran Hollywood actor Steve Martin once succinctly summed up comedy as "the art of making people laugh without making them puke". And hoping that no one will be reaching for the sick buckets are a number of Britain's best loved comedians, who have returned to their stand-up roots after a stint out of the live performance limelight.

Step forward Harry Hill, Phill Jupitus, Alexei Sayle, Alan Davies, Jack Dee and more droll dads who are taking a break from the safety of pre-recorded shows and playing Russian roulette with their comedy careers.

After sensationally quitting the multi award-winning TV Burp in March, Harry Hill, who was reportedly offered a £1m pay rise to continue fronting the series, decided that enough was enough, and hasn't been seen on the small screen since. But now that the furore has died down, the floppy-collared funny man has taken to the stage in his first stand-up tour for more than half a decade. "I've missed the live gigs and the freedom you have when it's just you and a crowd," he explains. "Now Burp's over, I figured this is my chance."

And he's not the only one who has seized the opportunity, as a number of comedy's golden generation have returned to the circuit for the first time in years. What is it, then, that keeps pulling them back? "Live work has an alluring immediacy to the comedy performer," says Phill Jupitus. The Never Mind the Buzzcocks team captain returned to his roots last year after a decade long stand-up sabbatical, and has just finished a stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe following the success of his sell-out 2011 show Stand Down.

Appearing in three shows a day, including the critically acclaimed politi-comedy Coalition, his stand-up offering You're Probably Wondering Why I Asked You Here picked up respectable three-star reviews across the board. A regular on QI as well as Buzzcocks, which he has appeared in for an incredible 16 years, Jupitus began dabbling in improvisation with The Comedy Store Players before signing up to do his tour. "In retrospect, stopping [stand-up] was a mistake," he admits. "I was offered a breakfast show for Radio 6 Music and the hours precluded my carrying on with live shows. Eventually, you just wonder what stand-up would feel like after an enforced break, and that's why I decided to go back to Edinburgh."

Jupitus' former Buzzcocks colleague Sean Hughes is also back on the stand-up trail, but his sabbaticals have followed a somewhat different pattern to those of his peers. Breaking away from the circuit for seven years (saying he was "quitting for a long, long time"), Hughes then made a brief reappearance in Edinburgh in 2010. But this year saw the comedian returning with all guns blazing with two shows at The Fringe, where he was awarded the prestigious Perrier Award back in 1990. "I quit at a time where I'd done stand up all my life, and I felt like I'd come to the end of what I wanted to talk about onstage. It all seemed pointless," the comic recalls.

For Hughes, as well as many of his contemporaries, age certainly seems to be a factor in the decision to end the live arts sojourn, with all of the aforementioned comedians falling in to the mid-forties to late fifties bracket. He says, "When I got to middle age, I realised that although my ideas were very different from what they had been when I was a young comedian, I still had the skill set to perform on stage. This is my first proper tour for a while because I feel like I'm at an age where I have things I want to say, and life experience that I didn't have before." These experiences have clearly made an impact, as Life Becomes Noises, the comic's show about the death of his father, was met with scores of four-star reviews at the Fringe.

And Alexei Sayle, who was the first master of ceremonies at the Comedy Store in 1979, knows this youthful desire to succeed only too well: "When I started out, I was focused on playing the biggest venues possible, and shaking people to the very core of their being. But age has completely changed my material; the way I used to perform was as a clear comic persona, but he was just a projection that I'm not even remotely connected with now."

Twice voted into Channel 4's 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time, Sayle ended his 16-year hiatus earlier this year, an experience he found "much more enjoyable" than his previous tours. "After doing it for so long, you just need a break," he says, a sentiment many of his contemporaries would agree with. Having carved out a successful career as a novelist over the past few decades, a discipline in which he relishes being taken seriously, the desire to perform live came knocking again. "It's a rare skill to be a good stand-up, and it's not a gift that many people have. Doing something you're good at and taking pleasure in plying your trade was why I went back to it."

This appeal has also seen Jonathan Creek star Alan Davies come out of stand-up retirement following 11 years away from the live comedy scene. After nine series of QI, marriage and children, Davies began flirting with stand-up again last year, previewing his show Life is Pain in Australia. It is no mistake that both his and Hughes' shows have the same first word "Life" anchoring their titles, a nod to the enhanced experience providing fodder for their new routines. This year is set to be a mammoth one for the curly-haired comedian, who has not done an official tour since 1999, as he completes more than 50 dates at venues around the UK. His return, and that of his contemporaries, has not gone unnoticed by Hill: "Funnily enough, I've bumped into Alan, Phill Jupitus and Stewart Lee whilst doing my warm up gigs. It's like the 1990s all over again."

And the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the perfect re-launching pad for this comeback, with Hill, Davies, Jupitus and Hughes infiltrating the north for the summer. Jupitus explains, "When you're performing nearly every night you get very good at it, but if you stop for a while, the bit of you that does stand-up does a kind of atrophy" – a warning to the likes of Skinner and Dee, who are gingerly dipping their toes back into the stand-up tour pool this year with a few select shows.

But many of their peers are throwing caution to the wind and embracing the career change full pelt: "There's something magical about doing a show every night," enthuses Hughes. "The fact it can change so much makes me feel quite vibrant." So is he worried that the deluge of comedians returning to the scene will prise away audience members from his own show? "Not at all. I think it's brilliant that so many of us are doing it again. There's something about stand up that's just so precious." And if this lot are anything to go by, they'd happen to agree.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015