Is Michael McIntyre an artist? Does the joke stand alongside the libretto, the pirouette and the poem as a bona fide form of artistic expression? Absolutely, is the contention of the UK Comedy Guild, which has backed a call to the Arts Council to start offering grants to the men and women who know exactly why the chicken crossed the road.
The plea – made in a po-faced open letter – does not convince. Enough of what the Arts Council funds ends up unintentionally amusing: it has no business deliberately targeting the funny bone. Consider the practicalities. A comedian needs no equipment beyond a camera, or a stage and a microphone. Such things are not expensive. And the market works: good comedians fast earn a reputation and make money from gigs, tours and television appearances. Bad ones do not. The state should not be offering financial support to stand-ups who trot out “knock, knock” lines to a yawning pub. There has, in fact, never been a better time to make jokes for a living. Nearly 10 times as many people watch comedy shows held in arenas than did in 2007. YouTube offers a new generation of comics the chance to build a following without leaving home. Yes, the Oscars committee rarely descends to recognise films that Will Ferrell might have auditioned for, but that is because, even in cinematic form, comedy props up the hierarchy of artistic ambition.
Stand-up, for its part, can only be thought of as a performance, not a work of art. That is not to diminish the effort that can go into sculpting a punchline. It is to say the Arts Council should stick to funding the less popular, more cumbersome art forms that aim to touch the soul, not just tickle the ribs. As the audience for poetry and opera dwindles, comedy is sure to have the last laugh, in any case.Reuse content