Comedy takes centre stage at Latitude

How comedians took over the festivals

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The Independent Culture

What do you go to a festival for? For the headline bands, the cider, the great muddy outdoors? Or for the comedy? Where once stand-up was a sideshow to the riffs and rockstar histrionics on the main stage, a tiny tent to have a snooze in somewhere between the crepe stall and the Portaloos, this year comedy has truly taken over.

At Latitude this weekend, comedians all but outnumber bands on the bill. The Suffolk weekender has always styled itself as an arts and music festival but even by its polymath standards 100 comedy acts (at a rough count) is extraordinary.

The Comedy tent, headlined by Dara O Briain, Simon Amstell, and Kevin Bridges this year, has 12 acts a day and screens rigged up outside for the many fans who will inevitably not fit in it.

The best comedians to see at Latitude

When Tim Minchin played there two years ago, his crowd rivalled that at the Obelisk stage.

This year’s is an all-round excellent line-up but Josh Widdicombe, Seann Walsh, Roisin Conaty, Tommy Tiernan, Doc Brown and Aisling Bea are a safe bet for high-energy crowd-pleasing.

More than at any other festival, the comedians get everywhere at Latitude.

There is a Cabaret tent but it is less burlesque than sketch and more stand-up with Cardinal Burns, Sara Pascoe, Al Murray, the Pajama Men, Mike Wozniak, John Kearns and the most un-cabaret-like Liam Williams on the bill. Elsewhere Tim Key and Jack Dee are appearing in the Theatre arena, Tom Basden is screening a new film, Nick Helm and Rob Auton will be in the Poetry tent and Alex Horne, Pappy’s and Arthur Smith pop up in the Literary Arena. Patrick Turpin, Twins and other festival stars will play mini-gigs in a garden shed for five people at a time. The only time you will stumble across more comedians in one place is Edinburgh in August.


Comedy has been a staple of the more arts-orientated festivals for some time now. Festival No 6 has a classy line-up including Henning Wehn, James Acaster and Robin Ince, while Bestival has a knock-out headliner in the shape of ventriloquist Nina Conti. The more traditional music festivals are building their comedy offerings, too. Reading and Leeds have 30 or so stand-ups on their Alternative Stage, including Bill Bailey, Katherine Ryan and Tiffany Stevenson while V Festival have Alan Carr and Adam Hills with more acts to be announced. They might even allow a female stand-up onto the stage come 16 August.

The rise of festival comedy makes perfect sense. It is ideal fare - an exhilarating form of communal entertainment just like music. Hearing a wave of laughter wash over a big crowd is every bit as enjoyable as joining the mosh pit, with the added advantage that it is socially acceptable to sit down, under cover to watch it. Unlike rock bands, comedians do not require a complicated set-up, just a mic, which means that the entertainment can run non-stop on stage. Moreover, stand-ups are adaptable creatures, happy to trim their sets to fit their slot, as at home in the literary tent or reciting poems as they are in the bearpit of the stand-up tent.

There are disadvantages, too. At Latitude the Comedy tent has become something of a victim of its own success – so popular you often can’t get near the stage. If you want to see a particular act, best to turn up a couple of acts beforehand.

You might just discover someone you like. Some of the best acts on the circuit struggle to cope with the constant flow of attention-challenged festival-goers and unpredictable family crowds which means some sets can become more an exercise in crowd control than comedy. But then some stand-ups thrive on that.

I won’t forget the sight of Mark Watson at Latitude a couple of years ago gently eviscerating a precocious seven-year old heckler who informed him “I’ve heard this before on Radio 4”. Truly, fun for all the family.