It's no laughing matter, this acting lark

Why is it considered tougher for a comic to play it straight than face a stand-up audience? Comedy compere MALCOLM HARDEE heckles from the wings
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I blame Thora Hird. Ever since she got that award for doing that Alan Bennett thing, Talking Heads, any comic even half good seems to be heading straight into the luvvie school of drama. Jack Dee (The Ambassador), Eddie Izzard (Velvet Goldmine), Lenny Henry (Hope And Glory) and even Ardal O'Hanlon (Big Bad World) have all started playing it straight in TV and film.

Naturally, there's a good reason for this (yes, yes, as well as the money). It is simply assumed that acting is a higher form of art than stand-up. But if you think about it, stand-up is far more difficult to do really well. For a start, the stand-up is generally alone (and in the case of some Edinburgh Festival shows I've done, very alone - not always ideal when you've performed a less than brilliant show). And let's not forget every stand-up's nemesis: the serial heckler. I can't imagine that when Henry V gears himself up for his "Once more unto the breach my friends" bit that some Glaswegian drunk shouts out "Heard it!" What's more, the stand-up has to put up with different conditions every night, has to get everything right "first take", and be able to change material and delivery depending on circumstances. Let me tell you, it's a right old game.

Given that comedians are indeed the superheroes and actors are the lazy loafers (relatively speaking), you're probably wondering why the hell comics shouldn't hang up their capes and knickers and opt for the easy life? Because acting is for actors. They've had the training and most of them need the work much more than a working comic.

Of course, the enduring problem of a successful comic attempting to "go straight" is that the public will always associate the comedian with comedy. So Billy Connolly will always be the Big Yin; Jack Dee seems a bit off- kilter as a suspected child abuser in BBC1's The Ambassador. And Ardal O'Hanlon should be so lucky as to be a journalist in Big Bad World - just think of those comedy reviews.

Having said all this (and ruining all chances of playing a live gig again), it's a different kettle of kippers for a stand-up to play comic roles - or even themselves. Tony Hancock was a fine comic actor and a good stand- up (although he did the same half-hour routine for 15 years). Lee Evans basically plays his manic self whatever he's in. And I seem to remember Norman Wisdom playing a terminal cancer patient, but whether it was funny or not I can't remember.

It has been said that a lot of failed actors become stand-ups. Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper both thought that acting was their profession. Frankie actually auditioned for Rada - "Alas poor Yorrick - ooh don't titter!" And it was only when they discovered that audiences were laughing at their attempts to be serious that it dawned upon them to be professional funny men. Being funny is a gift - you either are or you aren't. Acting is a trade that can be learnt. If you have that gift of being funny, don't throw it away by trying to be serious. After all, we all need a laugh, don't we?

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