Shape of Arts to Come: No 3: Comedy - Tommy Tiernan: I'm a comedian. I don't do gags

You want jokes? You've come to the wrong place. The crack-a-minute school of comedy is dead. By James Rampton

It was just a few minutes into the opening act at a comedy club last week that my heart sank. The comedian - who shall remain nameless - launched into a rat-tat-tat routine about Tony Hart, the presenter on such children's TV programmes as Vision On and Take Hart. Seventies telly is the last resort of the scoundrel - and the terminally unimaginative stand-up. If I have to hear another joke about Thunderbirds or Star Trek, I shall reach for my Luger.

I am not alone. Many people appear to be tiring of gag-a-minute comedy. No longer satisfied with cheap cracks about Viagra or hackneyed observations beginning "have you ever noticed...?", comedy-followers are veering towards more thought-provoking, narrative-driven acts. Often teetering on the brink of theatre, these are being performed by post-Eddie Izzard comedians such as Tommy Tiernan, Bruce Morton, Ed Byrne, Owen O'Neill and Michael Smiley. They spin complex yarns that build through a whole hour and whose impact lingers for days, if not weeks, as opposed to scattergun jokes whose resonance barely lasts until the next sentence.

These acts are feeding an audience need to go beyond shallow tee-hees at the expense of President Clinton's taste in cigars towards more serious meditations on love and death. Audiences who have matured with the alternative explosion are increasingly drawn to story-telling rather than gag-tagging. Comedy is growing up. But are we seeing the future or just another here- today-gone-tomorrow fad? Ed Smith, company manager at Stone Ranger, thinks it's something more concrete.

"People have decided there are certain limitations to knob gags," says Smith who promotes such comedians as Tiernan, Byrne and Smiley. "What makes alternative comedy alternative is that the comedian delivers something of himself rather than just doing a joke. The difference between Bernard Manning and Eddie Izzard is that Izzard is revealing something of himself - look at his stuff about cross-dressing. If you're telling stories about yourself, it's a more honest route to laughs. It allows audiences to see the personality of a performer - and they have a higher tolerance level of that than of some quickfire gag-merchant. People don't go and see Izzard for jokes - they just want to be in the same room as him."

Richard Bucknall, who runs RBM, a comedy management agency that handles Morton, agrees that story-telling creates more of a bond with an audience than a jokesmith rattling off punchlines. "Story-tellers like Morton or O'Neill talk to people, rather than at them. That's more relaxing for an audience because they feel they're part of an event as opposed to being shut outside the fourth wall listening to a string of gags.

"With a lot of one-liner comedy, there is no relationship between the performer and the audience. Gag merchants' material is based on purely local events, but what Morton is talking about - loss, pain, love - can be understood by someone in Pittsburgh or Birmingham. Story-tellers talk about life, and people live the same life the world over. What's happened to them could happen to anyone. The more personal it is, the more universal it is."

Audiences, Bucknall continues, are also becoming more discerning. "They have been educated that you can sit back and listen to a story rather than having to laugh every minute. They are fed up with gag-a-minute comedy and want a bit more depth. Darker moments actually enrich comedy because you appreciate the laughs all the more." Morton chips in that we shouldn't be restricted by traditional notions of comedy. "A great story doesn't have to be something that elicits a laugh all the time. If it elicits engagement or excitement, then it's equally valid."

After winning the Perrier and the Best Stand-Up gong at the British Comedy Awards, 30-year-old Tiernan has been landed with bearing the standard for this new breed of story-tellers. The Irish comedian's discursive show, Undivine Comedy, roams over such apparently un-comic terrain as religious intolerance, sadistic schoolteachers and the difficulty of telling your father that you love him. Not subjects you'd ever imagine Jim Davidson tackling.

"I'm not interested in getting up and just telling jokes," Tiernan says. "That's fine if you're in a taxi with someone for five minutes, but on stage it's really boring. You'd watch Billy Connolly do a two and a half hour show, but you couldn't do the same for someone just doing gags - you'd soon see through it. Pure gags don't last. There is a Gary Larson cartoon about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address which shows that the first two minutes of the speech were actually jokes to warm the audience up - but no one remembers that bit."

Fired with youthful idealism - which older cynics might interpret as naivety - Tiernan believes that story-telling has the capacity to change things. "It can be powerful. I want to do something that's more than just funny. Having moments that are dramatic as well seems more interesting. There is a story about a provocative comedian who caused a riot one night at a theatre. The next morning the owner of the theatre said to him, `I didn't want you to change the architecture.' I'd love to do that. I want people to come to the theatre to see The Phantom of the Opera the night after I've played there and think, `this isn't right. Shouldn't the stage be over there?"'

Autobiography endows Tiernan's material with a special force. "I use the stage to exorcise personal frustrations. Because I invest so much of myself in the act, people can sense I'm not bullshitting. But," he adds, anxious to dispel any impression of pomposity, "I'm not Gandhi. I'm more like Gazza."

The story-tellers are just part of a growing "anti-stand-up" movement. Character comedians like Al Murray's Pub Landlord and Johnny Vegas have been a popular alternative for a while, but now deliberately alienating acts such as Simon Munnery's League Against Tedium are also emerging to kick against cosy-glow, "have you heard the one about?" comedy. In addition, there is an ever-increasing band of Vic and Bob-style Surrealists, led by such defiant absurdists as The Mighty Boosh (winners of the Perrier Best Newcomer Award last summer) and Universal Grinding Wheel.

"What we're doing is a reaction," says Julian Barratt, one half of The Mighty Boosh. "We're trying to subvert comedy by reacting against that general approach of, `hey, where are you from?' Most stand-up is incredibly boring. It's time to do something else."

For all these radical developments, reactionary forces are still abroad, eager to cash in on the Nineties boom in mass-consumption comedy.

Many provincial towns now boast mega-comedy-clubs attached to restaurants and bars which demand an exclusive menu of gag-meisters. "Some venues don't let comedians do any more than 18 minutes," laments Smith. "They feel like a restaurant business with a passing interest in comedy. The comedians' job there is just to keep people laughing while they're buying more beer. The punters are often drunk and so have a shorter attention- span. They only want knob gags. But those places are more indicative of the state of the themed restaurant than the state of comedy."

Industry insiders also warn that the move towards story-telling may merely be a flavour of the month. "There's one word for it: fashion," says Iain McCallum, a PR consultant who has worked with Tiernan and Byrne. "It's a cyclical thing. A year ago, people were really into staccato, gag-a- minute stand-up. Then Eddie Izzard established a trend which influenced an entire generation of younger comics on the way up. Some have succeeded in moulding it in their own style, whilst others look like cheap copies. Who's to say that all of a sudden another comedian with a totally different style won't be crowned the new king of comedy? Then five years down the line the question will be 'why is the story-telling comedian a thing of the past?"'

Tiernan is equally wary, offering his own cautionary footnote to those obsessed with comedy trend-spotting. "Funny is funny. And whatever school a comedian is from, in the end we're all going to be found dead alone in a hotel-room in Australia. That's our destiny. Room 303 awaits us all."

Tommy Tiernan, Bruce Morton and Ed Byrne are all currently touring nationwide

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?