Stewart Lee axed: The demise of real stand-up on TV is no laughing matter

The axing of Stewart Lee's Alternative Comedy Experience is bad news for comedians everywhere

This is boom-time for television comedy. So much variety, too much to watch in one week: Vic n Bob’s House of Fools, Caitlin and Caroline Moran’s Raised by Wolves, Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy, Nick Helm’s Uncle, Paul Whitehouse’s Nurse, Miles Jupp’s In and Out of the Kitchen and, love it or not, Matt Lucas’ wordless Pompidou.

On Netflix, Tina Fey’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a delight, Catastrophe, just finished on Channel 4, was a triumph. Further ahead, the superlative Inside No 9 returns next week, Peter Kay’s Car Share premieres on iPlayer on 1 April and a new series of Hunderby is shooting now. Golden times.

For sitcoms, that is. For stand-up, things are not looking so jolly. Last week Stewart Lee’s The Alternative Comedy Experience was axed by Comedy Central. The show, which ran for two seasons, was a showcase for stand-ups who do not often appear on screen because their work is not mainstream, easy or well-known. Or because they do not do panel shows, those over-lit circuses of pre-cooked one-liners, shonky desks and mute women. 

If you haven’t seen ACE – download it or buy the DVDs – it featured each week a line-up of circuit favourites like Josie Long, Bridget Christie, Tony Law, David O'Doherty, Isy Suttie, Andy Zaltzman and Henning Wehn, filmed live at The Stand delivering the best of their sets. In between acts, Lee interviewed them backstage, in typically off-key style.

It is the only show I have seen that captures what club comedy really feels like – risky, sweaty, too intimate, teetering between hilarity and despair. In other words, a far cry from the slick, echoing glitz of TV’s main stand-up vehicle Live at the Apollo and its shiny acolytes, Russell Howard's Good News or Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.

The show was axed not because of bad reviews but because the wrong age – over-25 year olds – were watching it. “A lot of people watched it but only by the standards of Comedy Central”, Lee tells me. “It is obviously exactly the sort of stand-up show BBC3 or 2 or 4... or 1, should be doing, or Channel 4, but they are apparently enslaved by agencies making their own shows favouring the usual faces.”

He points out that BBC3’s Live at the Electric, produced by Avalon, featured 50-75% Avalon acts every week. With that company now bidding, with Hat Trick productions, to buy up BBC3, this is a critical moment, he says. “The principle is important. If BBC3 is really sold to Avalon then tv stand-up will become even more of a closed shop.”

There is a whole, weird world of stand-up out there – the names in the first paragraph all started out there – television would be a more colourful place for reflecting it.

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