Stand-up at Radio 4? You must be joking

Comic Relief has persuaded BBC presenters to try to make us laugh for charity – with mixed results

The profile of stand-up comedy has never been higher. It's all over the television with comedians appearing on Question Time, hosting Panorama, presenting documentaries – not mention the DVDs which it shifts by the bucketload. There are courses attached to comedy clubs and degrees in stand-up studies. At the current rate of participation, stand-up could become as much of a rite of passage as a round-the-word trip.

And now two charity events, Comic Relief and the Funny Women competition, are pushing "non-comic" celebrities into an unfamiliar spotlight. The public relations guru Lynne Franks and television presenters Janet Ellis, Jeni Barnett and Gabby Logan will be the sisters doing it for themselves on 8 March, International Women's Day, to benefit ActionAid, and this week four Radio 4 presenters – Libby Purves, Peter White, Laurie Taylor and Evan Davis – performed at London's Comedy Café in aid of Comic Relief.

Of the Radio 4 quartet, Taylor has had the most prior experience. "Years ago I got very drunk one night in Soho and went to the original Comedy Store, where Alexei Sayle was compering. I managed not to get gonged off and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until, as I went off, Alexei said: 'That was Laurie Taylor there. When I was at college I had to read his books and I didn't think anything could be more boring than his books – but he is.' It got the biggest laugh of the evening and it put me off it for years."

Meanwhile, Taylor's comedian mentor, Shappi Khorsandi, was almost as direct in her initial assessment of Taylor's abilities. "I rambled on like I do for an academic audience and Shappi's normally animated smile began to disappear. She asked me, 'Have you got anything a bit a shorter?' I have had to learn the art of abbreviation and for a sociologist that does not come naturally. I think I would rather have done a pole dance. In fact, stand-up is a bit like doing a strip – with all your ugly bits revealed and your inadequacies on show."

Despite the performance link, public speaking and stand-up are very different disciplines. Speaking a few days before the gig, Milton Jones (mentor to Purves) told me: "The challenge for them is being the message themselves. They are not used to the spotlight being directly on them rather than their interviewee and measuring what they say in terms of laughs instead of communication points."

True to Jones's words, I find Davis in characteristically analytical mindset when I speak to him before the gig. "It's very funny how little immediate feedback you normally require in your job. You talk away on the radio and you might be saying things that are really annoying to them, or really inspiring to them, but you don't know," he says. "The reason comedy is so scary is that you know immediately if it has worked or not. It's hard to think of things that are more unpleasant than standing there trying to be funny and not being. No one gets hurt, yet it is right up there with terrifying things because, as a social species, social death is a terrifying thing for us."

Davis's mentor is Paul Merton, who hasn't performed stand-up in some time but whose main advice is to "get a laugh early" to avoid social death. "Before their first practice gig a few weeks ago, Evan came to me with some stuff he'd written about a tax decision that Kenneth Clarke had made in 1996 when he was Chancellor," he said. "I told him that even if this was 1996, no one would be remotely interested. By the next day he was an absolute revelation – I just had to stop him from galloping at 180mph in the wrong direction."

On the night, Davis doesn't quite go straight for a punch line but, without tie yet still besuited, he ambles through a tale of the fancy dress participants he encountered when he ran the London Marathon in 2007. He then jokes that Dragon's Den has brought us "the fruit blender with broadband connection" before mentioning some of the real and even goofier offerings that the entrepreneurial show has seen, including a "one-handed glove, so that you knew which side of the road to drive on". Getting into his stride, he continues: "Radio 4 is a national institution; like Broadmoor"; and "People ask me how you can tell if politicians are telling the truth on the Today programme. I tell them it's never been done".

Though never quite fully extracted from after-dinner speaking mode, once Davis is off the ground his material is peppered with neat observations, including this gem: "BBC4 is what BBC2 used to be. BBC2 is what BBC1 was and BBC1 what ITV used to be. As for ITV: it was last seen sleeping on a park bench."

Next up is the ebullient Purves. Jones had told me that he was hoping to get an "unbuttoned" performance from Libby Purves so that people might see her in a different light. In fact, Purves has a family link to stand-up – her daughter is Rose Heiney who used to perform stand-up before focusing on acting and comic novels. Although Purves described stand-up to me as "the universal nightmare like being naked for lunch with the Queen", her clipped and clear delivery is not the most obviously comic choice of persona. She delivers more of a monologue, seasoned with some well-received observations. On voiceover work, she observes: "You are stuck in a cellar in Soho for three hours repeating the phrase 'it's the natural choice' thousands of times before they ring you up and say, 'Sorry we've decided to go with Brian Blessed'."

Elsewhere Purves puts the rigours of appearing on daytime television under the microscope, calling one over-keen wardrobe assistant a "bitch" and describing the make-up department's attitude as "your real face isn't good enough to be on Alan Titchmarsh's show", before nicely lampooning magazine features as "How to cancer-proof your marriage by eating like the tennis stars" and the ubiquitous easy competition question "In what game do we use a cricket bat?".

Of all four participants, Taylor adopts the most obvious gagsmith persona, even if some of his material is tried and tested. On age, he tells a joke about a woman knocking on his door and offering "super sex", to which he replied: "I'll take the soup." More personal material comes with jibes about how in the 1970s sociology lecturers might have marched down Whitehall protesting for better pay under the stirring slogan "rectify the anomaly now".

Last up is Peter White, presenter of You and Yours. Though his mentor Josie Long is unable to introduce him in person, her influence on his style is discernible and they cook up a warm set which uses his blindness to great effect. Quipping that he has his set notes written in Braille on his arm, he asks the audience: "Has the bleeding stopped?" White, who proves adept at ad libbing, then immerses us in his world where all his machines talk to him. "It's like a Stephen Hawking glee club. Sometimes I can't even hear John Humphrys faking righteous indignation on the radio." Later, his family is brought into the mechanical melee. "You know you have failed as a parent when your son is having a heart-to-heart with the fridge."

There was a general thumbs-up from the audience. After the show, its producer Sam Bryant remarked: "It's not just fun watching them doing stand-up; there is something really nice about voices of authority playing the fool. It's a bit like the origins of April Fool's Day where the jester would play the king but in reverse."