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