Irresistible - the smell of fear and the call of the heckler

TV comics are taking to the road again. But why swap the studio for the stage?
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The Independent Culture

Doing live comedy, says Ruby Wax, is like being a gladiator: one wrong move and you're dead meat. So why on earth is she - like so many of her contemporaries who could sit back and enjoy a comfortable television career - going back on the road? Wax and Phill Jupitus start today, while French and Saunders, Rhona Cameron and Harry Hill are already on the road. Dylan Moran starts next month and Jack Dee, Victoria Wood and Lee Evans are all planning to tour next year. And while it's true that some comics - Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and Ed Byrne, for instance - seem addicted to life on the road, none of the others needs ever to leave a television studio again. So why on earth are they?

Doing live comedy, says Ruby Wax, is like being a gladiator: one wrong move and you're dead meat. So why on earth is she - like so many of her contemporaries who could sit back and enjoy a comfortable television career - going back on the road? Wax and Phill Jupitus start today, while French and Saunders, Rhona Cameron and Harry Hill are already on the road. Dylan Moran starts next month and Jack Dee, Victoria Wood and Lee Evans are all planning to tour next year. And while it's true that some comics - Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and Ed Byrne, for instance - seem addicted to life on the road, none of the others needs ever to leave a television studio again. So why on earth are they?

Dawn French says it simply feels like the right time. "We haven't been on the road in 10 years and we've finally got some time to do it," she says. "We certainly don't have to in career terms, but now that we're about to do it, we remember what fun it can be." She says they have no idea who their audiences will be this time round - "Human beings, we hope" - but would expect to be attracting fans of their television work as well as old fans gagging to see them live again after so long. Rhona Cameron (who hasn't toured in four years) also wants to capitalise on television success, despite her début sitcom, Rhona, receiving mixed reviews. "There is a career protocol. I've just done a TV series and it makes sense to tour now because some people have never seen my stand-up." Harry Hill just puts it down to his comedy being right for live theatre: "I'm an old-fashioned music-hall comedian."

For Ruby Wax, however, touring is an opportunity to attract an entirely new audience and even to lay to rest a few ghosts of her TV persona. Her new show, Stressed, is not, she is at pains to explain, stand-up. She is a classically trained actress (ex-RSC) and her show will be strictly playing theatres. "The one time I did stand-up, I peed my pants I was so scared. I'm playing theatres and that makes me feel I'm not doing a show - it's more a performance. I can convince myself that I'm being somebody else on stage, even though it's about me and my thoughts on life and being a woman."

For Wax, the impetus to go on the road came, she said, from "being clogged up as a writer" and a desire to branch out. "There was 15 years of material in my head. There's a whole life journey to be talked about and I want to say: 'This is really me, not the person you see on TV.'"

It used to be that young comedians would spend years going from one crummy venue to another, praying for the day they got a television contract for a daft game show so that no drunk would ever heckle them again. Graham Norton, who last played the Edinburgh Fringe three years ago and who has just completed his own tour, agrees. "A lot of comics when they get on TV think, 'Thank God I'll never have to do that again', but I found I missed it. I really enjoy playing live, and working off an audience keeps me interested."

Is this the comedy equivalent of Hollywood actors doing serious drama, just to prove they can really act? "Well, you do need a certain profile," says Norton, "and there's no denying it's reaping the rewards of a TV career. It's a bit like the Queen going on a walkabout."

So is it an ego thing? Only Cameron seems willing to concede that it might be. "The difference between this and telly is that you are essentially saying to an audience: 'This is me. This is my personality, my life you are listening to.'"

While they may enjoy working in front of live audiences, none of them looks forward to the sheer slog of being on the road and away from loved ones. But their higher profiles mean bigger theatres, higher ticket prices and a decent income from touring (unusual in the comedy business) and no longer will they be spluttering up the motorway in an old banger and grateful for the odd fiver from the box-office takings.

This time round they are able to work a schedule that suits them and their domestic lives and they all have managers to take care of the details, including booking decent hotels. That is one thing they all insist on, which suggests all the old jokes about theatrical digs are true. As Cameron jokes: "I did tell my promoter that I'm a Libran sensitive to mood and beauty and asked to have my hotel rooms feng shui-ed, but he balked at that."

All talk of the freedom that live work gives them, without being answerable to producers and television's technical demands. French and Saunders see touring as an almost seamless transition from their telly shows together. "It feeds other work, sharpening characters, thinking up stuff that may not belong in this show but will pop up elsewhere. Getting a new two-hour show together makes you creatively fertile."

They also acknowledge that they can now be more professional in a live show. "When we started out we always wished we could change into other characters on stage but couldn't - we would just throw on a hat rather hopefully,'' says French. "Now we've got stuff on video that we can show while we disappear offstage for a costume change."

They all mention the healthy but real fear of working in front of a large audience. Says French: "We have fully soiled pants, believe me. But it's a delicious fear, even if I do have to sometimes drag Jennifer back into the theatre because she's trying to leg it."

Several hundred fans laughing at your work each night must surely make up for the schlep of touring. Ruby Wax certainly seems to think so: "The pleasure is in a theatre full of people getting the joke. When people understand it, I know I'mnot crazy."

Tour details are available on the following numbers: Harry Hill (08700 778877); French and Saunders (09068 300121); Rhona Cameron (020 7287 5010); Ruby Wax (09068 300122); Phill Jupitus (09068 543100)

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