Being funny on the radio should be a breeze for comics. You'd think they'd be in their element: on a stage with a microphone, with the added advantage that their listeners, scattered across the country rather than crammed in the back room of a pub, can't see the sweat patches forming under their arms.
In some instances, there might be a studio audience but they are the best crowd of all: forbidden to heckle and required to laugh like they are watching Bill Hicks live at Lollapalooza, rather than being deprived of oxygen in a subterranean studio with the latest casualty from the Edinburgh Fringe. All things considered, it should the easiest gig of their lives. So why do they make it feel like such hard work?
Mark Watson's Live Address to the Nation on Radio 4 was a case in point. We already knew the show was live, since the title told us as much, though just in case we had forgotten, Watson kept shrieking "We're live!" and "This is a shambles!" and remained in a state of heightened panic throughout. His hysteria was slowly transmitted to his co-hosts Tim Key and Tom Basden, whom he kept urging to talk faster, thus removing the wind from their comic sails. Watson had a certain puppyish energy, but he wasn't far off the mark in his hapless assertion: "There's a risk that the show will only be funny for those who are here."
Radio 2's Stand Up 2Day was at least more polished (even if the title put you in mind of a political rally), with Patrick Kielty hosting short performances by assorted stand-ups including Mitch Benn, Russell Kane, Jason Byrne, Barry from Watford (me neither) and an Elvis impersonator. Sending up middle-class radio listeners was a favourite topic, and while Kane achieved a frenzied sort of fluency and raised a brief smile with his description of a woman so posh "she had pheasants hanging from her belt", no one else hit the funny bone with any force.
Why? Well, perhaps you just needed to be there, to join the studio audience in the bowels of the BBC and to see those sweat patches up close. Or maybe it was fact that we could smell the performers' ambition. If you press your ears up against your radio, you will just make out the sound of young comics intoning, "Must get a TV show, must get a TV show" all the way from their dressing rooms.
You'd imagine that Rory Bremner, fresh from his defeat on Strictly, would be able to show the young pups how it's done. His satirical news show Tonight is stand-up of sorts, in that it's performed in front of a live audience, and Bremner, who has been doing radio comedy since time began, could surely do this kind of thing in his sleep. In the event, it's possible that he was asleep. I never tire of his supplicating Tony Blair or his irascible Prince Philip, but then we had to endure lame 'Allo Allo!'-style skits about sexual shenanigans between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Tellingly, the biggest giggle came via his interviewee Michael Williams, the former UN special co-ordinator to the Middle East, who absently remarked: "I've seen more people asleep in the UN Security Council than in the House of Lords library."
Surely things weren't always this bad. Chris Morris, Steve Coogan and Peter Sellers started out on the radio, after all. Now, with a few exceptions, it's treated either as a retirement home for knackered comedians or a stepping stone to the heady world of television (even Just a Minute, Radio 4's most reliable source of belly laughs, is branching out into telly) It's no wonder that the current crop of radio comics sound harried and faintly depressed. They know as well as any of us: radio is where comedy goes to die.Reuse content