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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.
  • @charlottelytton

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.