Being Modern: Arena comedy

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The Independent Culture

You see those two tiny dots in the distance? That's you, that is. Well, it was if "you" were Rob Newman and David Baddiel. Oh, how we chuckled at their "History Today" sketches in the early 1990s. How we roared as they took their shtick to Wembley Arena, becoming the first comedians to fill its 12,000 seats. How we wept when we realised we were sat so far from the stage that they might as well have been sarcastic marionettes.

And so arena comedy came roaring to life in the UK: stand-ups were the new rock stars – with a few added neuroses.

Lee Evans, Steve Coogan, Dylan Moran, Eddie Izzard, Peter Kay, Russell Brand, Tim Vine, Michael McIntyre... the very best of our home-grown talent has since filled the O2 Arena, the very biggest of our coliseums – and McIntyre has made playing to these rooms an expected practice rather than a remarkable event thanks to his televised "roadshows". Fewer than 100,000 arena-comedy tickets were sold in 2004; within five years, that figure had breached a million.

Yet, for every comedian suited to a five-figure audience – those who paint broad brush-strokes and dance gaily across the stage – there are many more whose acts play better in a more intimate setting. It's not that we're too far away to see a raised eyebrow – high-definition big screens have changed all that since Newman and Baddiel's day – but rather that there is a feeling of being invited into the inner recesses of the comedian's mind in a small venue; a feeling that there can still be a real cutting edge to their work. (Plus, it also happens to cost a heck of a lot less for the punter.)

But auditorium events won't go away – not least because stand-ups can play to the same number of people in one night in one location as they might otherwise travel for three months around the country to reach. It's a lucrative business (not least because of the sales of DVDS of these hyped performances), and it's made comedy mainstream. As long as the acts don't start thinking they really are rock stars: no one wants to think of Michael McIntyre enjoying himself with a bunch of groupies.