Jerry Seinfeld played to a capacity crowd at the O2 on Friday night. The same venue will be filled on five nights this week by fans of Peter
Kay. Live comedians such as Jimmy Carr, Lee Evans and, last but least, Michael McIntyre, can make up to £5m a year from touring their stand-up shows. A slot on Mock the Week or Live at the Apollo will lead to a UK-wide theatre tour, followed by the inevitable cash-in DVD release. Live comedy is not the new rock'n'roll – it's the new premier league football.
So what's so goddam funny? Why do we flock to arenas and stadiums and to the thousands of comedy clubs and pub nights all across the UK? One factor is cost. Putting aside the £100 Seinfeld ticket price – which, after all, is a one-off (he last played here, at the Palladium, 13 years ago) – it costs roughly ten quid to go to the clubs, rising to £30 for Bill Bailey at the NEC. You are guaranteed a quality show. You don't have to sit quiet, in the dark, in a tiny seat, hoping to be entertained. The comedian's prior work is easily viewable on YouTube and the branding does the rest; the TV slots and the panel show tournaments making it a safe bet for your entertainment pound. Even a bill of unknowns at your local arts centre means you'll get four of them for your money, so there's bound to be one that will tickle the ribs.
Second. Communality. Just as we choose to watch sports, either live or in a pub, with other fans, so comedy breeds in company. It is a shared experience that confirms our view of the world. Watch the audience in any comedy show and the second part of the comic reaction (the first being the physical laughter and rocking back in the seat) is a glance at the companion to see if he or she "gets" it. Jokes are smart bombs. They are instant verbal triggers to set off incongruous images in your mind. Think of the wonderful routines of Eddie Izzard or Ross Noble. They sketch images as deftly as any artist. This delights us in a childish way because comedy is play. Play for adults. We are not required to follow a storyline nor negotiate any rules. All comedy requires is reasoning skills and a shared language. As Victor Borge said: "A smile is the shortest distance between two people."
To further understand why we laugh, the Cheltenham Science Festival is currently running a series of laughter workshops with Joe Hoare, a coach. He says, "People are open and curious to understand the science behind laughter. And, in today's challenging economic climate, it is necessary."
Why is laughing so infectious? "Our brains are wired to hear laughter and react to the sound of it," he says. "In many ways, laughter is like yoga and Pilates. It is therapeutic. It is good for us physically – it exercises our heart, lungs and cheekbones. It is good for our breathing." Hoare turned to laughter therapy after suffering from insomnia; it helped with relaxation and sleep. It releases endorphins – chocolate for the soul.
There are also cultural aspects to laughter, Hoare says. "People are always looking for new ways to 'perk' themselves up and 'official' ways to make them feel better. Laughter is a normal, natural thing. It is beyond our conscious." His workshop involves laughter, aspects of team building, and the power of the mind and body to make ourselves "chipper". This is the therapeutic aspect of comedy.
Doctors Priscilla Heard and Chris Alford from the University of the West of England, who are also speaking at the conference, will explore how the body responds to laughter.
In India, the Laughing Yoga movement began 16 years ago when an Indian doctor, Madan Kataria, began classes that incited participants to meet each morning, stretch their arms and chant ho, ho, ha, ha, ha. Crowds joined in, and there are now classes in more than 60 countries. "You don't have to laugh at jokes or humour to get the medical benefits from laughter," he says.
Perhaps comedy is also more necessary than ever in a world dominated by CCTV cameras, health and safety directives, and a high level of state interference in our daily lives. Maybe the Big Society just lacks the word "brother". Protest is muted, kettled and outvoted, dumbed down. Nobody dares ask how many A-star GCSE A-level grades are equivalent to one star on a McDonald's uniform or define the difference between Robert Mugabe and Sepp Blatter. (Mugabe pretended there were other candidates).
Live comedy provides a much-needed pressure valve for our frustrations. Comedy was created during the golden age of Greek drama as a burlesque take on mythological subjects and, as such, has always been a state-sanctioned release. On TV, there are few firebrands. The shock-jock antics of Frankie Boyle, while sometimes wanton and delightfully cruel, feel too scattergun. I worry when he and chat-show hosts such as Graham Norton direct so much of their comedic rage at female celebrities. Being one of the select few who enjoy the meta-textual self-referential humour of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, I am slightly dismayed how much time he devotes to ribbing younger comedians. Those comics with a real axe to grind seem to have taken more to the documentary format.
Then there is sitcom, which I love when done well, but which is the hardest form of comedic writing, demanding not only the wit of Wilde and Shaw but also the dramatic gifts of Pinter and Shakespeare. In my book How Not to Write a Sitcom, I demonstrate 100 ways of not getting it right. There is not much going on in sitcom right now, but this will pass.
Our current front-runners of the genre are hugely nostalgic. Miranda, recently commissioned for a third series, is unashamedly of the stagey 1970s variety. Miranda Hart is a diamond find (it only took them a decade), a blend of Joyce Grenfell and Kathy Burke, with that rarest of attributes, the ability to be equally loved by men and women. The second sitcom, both juvenile and puerile in the best kind of way, is The Inbetweeners. Series three finished earlier this year and a feature film is due in August. Although it dealt with teenage sex – or the lack of it – drugs, and parental rebellion, it steered clear of any real issues, so there was no "Jafaican" spoken, no stabbings or gun crime, no teenage abortion. In essence, it was a retread of the old Esmonde and Larbey favourite, Please Sir!.
If TV comedy is neutered for the moment, the genie is out of the bottle in another medium. On Twitter, a comment can be passed on in nanoseconds – or as long as it takes to unravel a superinjunction. Mainly a place for virtual bullying, it nevertheless affords access to a greater freedom – and comedy thrives on the web. The YouTube/blogger generation has unprecedented access to a vast audience, and postings regularly feature stand-up, pranks, sketches and podcasts, garnering hits in the hundreds of thousands. The web does what punk attempted to do in that short spurt in 1976, but globally. Whereas a club comedian might have hoped to play to a few thousand people, he now has a global marketplace. Again, though, the screen serves only as the first port of call for comedy. We snicker not guffaw. We need human interaction to make comedy work properly. Do you laugh at sitcoms or comedy DVDs on your own? Really? Maybe you need to change your dosage. The US networks maintain that the "laugh track" is there because so many watch TV in isolation. It is there to fake the communal experience; if a show is good enough you will not even notice it.
There is nothing like laughter – live, collective laughter – to purge the soul and lift the spirits. To be made to laugh is a wonderful thing. Comedians spend years learning their trade, going out night after night to unwelcoming pubs to find their persona, material and their funny bones. And we expect them to be instantly professional – after all, you wouldn't go see a band that could not play their instruments. Live comedy is, when done well, like music. There is the rhythm and pace of a joke, the staccato of the bon mot or cruel put-down, the phrasing of comedic pause or knowing glance, and the symphonic crescendo when a routine works towards that climactic punchline. Maybe it's not much like football – except for the money.
Marc Blake's 'How Not to Write a Sitcom' (A&C Black) is out now