After years of being laughed at, comedians want to be taken seriously. They are packing up their mics, putting away the one-liners and returning to the stage as straight actors. This year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival will see several names better associated with stand-up performing or directing regular dramas. Among them is Phill Jupitus, the long-standing team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, who will star in Coalition, a music hall satire of British politics. Then there's Mel Giedroyc, who has written her first play, Slice. Even Les Dennis is putting on a play, though it is rooted in comedy: Jigsy tells the story of a failed comic. Matthew Osborn appears in his play Shopping Centre, and Phil Nichol appears in The Intervention, a play about alcoholism.
They are the latest additions to a well-established flight from comedy that began when Lee Evans tackled Samuel Beckett (though Max Wall got there before him) and Eddie Izzard performed in a David Mamet play on Broadway.
Ian McKellen reckons there's no distinction between acting and stand-up: "Unless you're a good comedian, you're never going to be able to play Hamlet properly," he once said. Others say the loneliness of the stand-up routine is what drives comedians into acting. Reservoir Dogs star Steve Buscemi says he turned to acting because he didn't like the "aloneness of doing stand-up".
"I certainly think we are seeing more stand-ups-turned-actors," says Steve Bennett, founder of Chortle, the UK comedy guide. "A lot of comedians will do 10 years of stand-up, then find it gets a bit easier, so they want to do something new."
Here, five comedians-turned-actors at Edinburgh explain the switch.
"I was allowed to craft part of the play, Jigsy, as well as star in it, as we felt that it needed a little crafting and the writer was very on board with us doing that. The first serious play I did was David Hare's Skylight – that must have been about 10 or 12 years ago. But I started out as a comedian in the working men's clubs as a comedy impressionist and became part of a double act and then became a game-show host, but always at the back of my head was the desire to act. We're in a position in this play where we talk to the audience, and in a one-person play you have to bring the audience in. But comic skills are important to any actor and I think it's the flipside of the coin. Hopefully within this play, we have moments of humour as well as touching stories. When I act, I stay within character. When I'm on stage as Jigsy, it's Jigsy and not Les Dennis."
"The main difference between stand-up and acting is that you can lose yourself when you act. Whereas when you're doing stand-up, you have to remain continually aware of what everyone is doing: who's fidgeting; who's going to the loo and who's yawning. But when you're acting, the audience feels like they have a
responsibility to concentrate on you, whether they're enjoying it or not. With stand-up, people feel like they can do stuff and you have to command their attention. When I was a child, I wanted to be an actor, and that sort of died as a desire to perform and was replaced with the desire to be a comedian. It's dangerous ground because proper actors must think: 'God, comedians are arrogant.' But stand-up to an extent is about playing a part. There are a lot of stand-ups on the stage who went to drama school."
"I've got to a certain age and I had a few things I wanted to say and get off my chest. I certainly suffered a bit from sketch fatigue. I'd written many, many sketches either with Sue Perkins or on my own and performed in loads and loads of sketches, and there comes a point when you think: 'I want to get my teeth into something.' I think there's also probably an 'inner ham' in comedians – that little voice that says: 'But hang on! I could be a serious actor as well!' It kind of annoys me because I've worked with comedians who've looked down on actors. They think they're more in touch with the 'real deal' while actors swan around putting on characters. I know there is a slightly 'luvvy' element. I don't think comedians necessarily make good actors and vice versa. But I think there are some people who seem to be able to do both very well. I wish I'd done this earlier."
"I started the Comedians Theatre Company, and each year we were bringing in bigger stars. We all wanted to create something for comedians who have never acted before to go to the fringe and try it. We try to get them to write plays and direct shows. There are things that comedians have that you can't train actors to do, and there are things actors are trained to do that comedians can't do. We're working on the crossover. I trained as an actor, and some of the people we are working with are trained actors who then got into comedy, others have come through comedy and not done any acting, so it's wonderful to get the two groups together. Comedians have a real sense for listening because they naturally tune themselves to what's happening in a room. So if someone drops a glass, I will immediately recognise that, whereas actors sometimes hide behind the 'fourth wall' and won't even hear it. So we're trying to meld that together."
"There's an American template for assuming comedians can act, and I'm a believer in that. I think any good stand-up can act – it's part of your toolkit. If a stand -up has never been taught how to act, generally all the director has to do is rein them in a bit and get them to do les. When I did Hairspray and Spamalot, the direction I kept getting was 'do less'. Every fibre of a stand-up's being is about having to sell space, whereas actors have scripts and all the spaces are built in. With stand-up it's about getting everything out of your head. John Hegley once said to me, it's really good the discipline of an acting job has on a comedian. It has a knock-on effect to your solo work. If a comedian is offered an acting job they should do it. The fit is really good for comedians and drama."