Stewart Lee: A funny thing happened to comedy...

It is now big, big business. But does that mean the safe middle ground will become ever more crowded?

Sunday 28 November 2010 01:00 GMT
(Getty Images)

For decades, stand-up comedians entered the palace of entertainment by the tradesmen's entrance. Now the red carpet is rolled out, but do we have any idea what to do next? And where did this change in our status begin?

In 1993, after David Baddiel and Rob Newman became the first comics to play Wembley, Janet Street-Porter declared comedy "the new rock'n'roll". Like the naïve pop bands of yore, in whose soiled footsteps we trod, young stand-ups like myself hit the road in transit vans full of lager to embark on expensively promoted tours from which we saw little, if any, of the takings. In this respect at least, comedy was the new rock'n'roll. Today, the death of recorded music and the tyranny of The X Factor means that even rock'n'roll is no longer rock'n'roll, just a stringy facsimile made of cat guts, navel fluff and hair gel. If this travesty is rock'n'roll, then stand-up comedy could be too, for latterly it's equally adept at fleecing vulnerable people out of hot-dog money in cavernous barns.

Takings for live stand-up comedy have increased tenfold since 2004, most of those tickets being sold at 40 or 50 quid a time for big TV names in stadiums and 1,000-seater-plus venues. And while all this may be good for the bank balances of agents, promoters, venue managers and stand-up comedy's heavy hitters, is it good for stand-up comedy itself? Does the possibility of enormous reward necessarily encourage creativity?

When I first helped invent all modern-day comedy in the late 1980s, when comedy was still good and everyone involved was a living saint, I shared bills with Anthony "Iceman" Irving, who melted blocks of ice while making puns about ice, and Lyndsay Moran, who sang funny songs on the accordion, wore a tutu and danced. Neither of these acts, for example, had designs on the O2, not least because it hadn't been built, and neither did I.

The most commercial, least open-minded, venues you might hope to play would be The Comedy Store, and the lone outpost in Battersea, south London, of the subsequently massive Jongleurs chain. Even these places were pretty good. Nobody was hemmed in by the possibility of riches. It is inevitable, surely, now that the template of the multi-millionaire, multi-million selling stand-up exists, that ambitious young people will try to develop an act to fit a demand, rather than creating demand for a new kind of act. And nothing good ever comes of that approach.

There's a deeper argument to be had here about whether the stand-up comedian, who shares anthropological roots with the holy fools and tricksters of myth, should even be a success. Aren't we supposed to be outside society, looking in, poking fun?

In the late 1990s, when he became quietly massive, Frank Skinner charmingly sidestepped this dilemma, as had Billy Connolly before him, doing routines about film premieres and such like, as if he were the bewildered incomer, reporting on our behalf. But success normally limits the comedian, creatively. After a quarter of a century, Jerry Sadowitz remains that last word in supposedly offensive comedy, having contrived, by ill-luck, poor genes, or cunning design, to be one of society's eternal outsiders, thus given comic licence to denigrate everyone, from the bottom up.

This is not the same thing as doing jokes about the handicapped in a £3,000 suit to a stadium full of fans, even if both might be funny.

Inevitably, the money that's on offer to the big-name stand-ups will affect the quality of what you see on your TV. Rhod Gilbert is a very good stand-up who can play massive venues. The rumoured advance for his last 70-minute stand-up DVD was £250,000. For the sake of argument, let's imagine it's true, or that something like it is, maybe concerning someone else. £250,000 for 70 minutes of DVD stand-up is significantly more than one gets for writing three hours of comedy for BBC2. The top-name comics have no incentive to sell 180 minutes of good stuff to TV if they can make more out of selling 70 minutes on DVD. That's why you have me doing stand-up on BBC2 instead ("Stewart Lee is the worst stand-up comedian in Britain, as funny as bubonic plague" – The Sun), rather than someone better. Instead, the real talents host quiz shows, chop out old gear in six-minute lines on variety shows, and chip in on panels, floating the brand while keeping the uncut product for premium rate customers. That said, the so-called "comedy boom" has benefitted me enormously. The message board that follows the online appearance of this piece will no doubt be clogged with furious people who can't accept that I might be a comedian at all. They have my sympathy and I have never sought deliberately to waste their time or their babysitting money. But when the top acts are doing stadium tours, I can do 20,000 people in a 400-seater over two months around Christmas in London and still appear like some sort of obscure cult for cool people. In the slipstream of the mass popularity of stand-up, even the person who is supposed to be the alternative to stand-up can do reasonably well. All of us comics must offer thanks to one man, and one man alone, for this state of affairs. Michael McIntyre.

For it was Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow that convinced the public that they might like stand-up, en masse, and he has begun to make household names of some hugely worthwhile acts, who somehow managed to shine in the show's brutal showcase format. Though McIntyre's massively popular and super-evolved brand of observational schtick is regarded with baffled ambivalence by many comedians, he may, on balance, be a good thing for the future of stand-up as an art form. The skipping humorist's utilitarian ubiquity means that everyone knows what a stand-up comedian is now. And the idea of going to see stand-up comedy is now no longer something only those with very specialised interests do.

There's a generation of comics hitting the boards, influenced, without even knowing it, by stand-up comedy's velvet revolution, when the late 1970s Comedy Store and Comic Strip crew toppled the light-ent idols, or at least wobbled them a little. Michael McIntyre has handed them the keys to the Imperial Palace. But we don't seem to know what to do with our power and influence, and we run from beer endorsement to cash-in novelty book deal to Channel 4 vehicle like moths in a planetarium. With great power comes great responsibility. Will public demand force an evolutionary leap in the art form of stand-up, or will the potential money to be made mean the safe middle ground becomes ever more crowded? In many ways, it's out of our hands. You are the audience. You have the power. The future is up to you.

Stewart Lee's 'Vegetable Stew' is at Leicester Square Theatre until 18 December. His new DVD If you prefer a milder comedian please ask for one is now available. See

Popular and pecunious

The Michael McIntyre effect

Michael McIntyre performed unpaid until 2003, when he was nominated for the Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Festival. Since then, he has become a regular face on television, sold out venues across the country – including the Wembley Arena five times, and the O2 Arena four times.

His 2008 DVD, Live and Laughing, was the fastest selling debut stand-up DVD of all time with almost 750,000 people buying a copy to date. A year later, McIntyre's second release, Hello Wembley!, sold 252,919 copies in its first week (just shy of the number of DVDs that Lee Evans sold for his Live At The O2 in December 2008 at 259,400 copies). His BBC prime-time show Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow was first broadcast in 2009, and has showcased three dozen stand-up comics in its two series. By the end of 2009, McIntyre was reported to be worth £8m.

Laughing all the way to the bank

Fewer than 100,000 tickets were sold for comedy gigs at UK arenas in 2004; in 2009 more than a million tickets were sold for the equivalent venues, according to Kay Martin of Glasgow's SECC venue.

2.26 million live comedy DVDs were sold in November 2009 – a jump of 38 per cent from November 2008, (source, British Video Association).

Peter Kay has broken records with sales for his 2011 Tour that Doesn't Tour. He sold 400,000 seats in three hours, outselling Take That and Oasis for their forthcoming tours.

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