In Scotland’s capital city, the Edinburgh Festivals are drawing to a close. Since I live here, I’ve been spending every possible moment wandering about the city, searching for excitement – I’ve hummed along with improvised ditties about the Pope’s ‘no touching’ rule, learnt more about Marcus Brigstocke’s body than I ever wanted to know, laughed and winced at puppets singing about porn, and been dragged up on stage and kissed by a man dressed as a creepy superhero. Good times. But I’ve also been led to consider, at some length, the ins and outs of entertaining the audience, and, more specifically, of making them laugh. That doesn’t mean that this post is going to be a comedy masterclass – if it was, I certainly wouldn’t be teaching it. I present you instead with my musings on what makes a live comedy show work, and my spurious projections about how this relates to TV comedy. (You’ll definitely enjoy it, though.)
First, and perhaps most importantly, it seems clear that comedy is not all about jokes. This is despite what Dave (the TV channel) seems to think. Its list of the top ten jokes of the Fringe consists almost entirely of puns, including its number one, Rob Auton’s quip “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar – could be a Chinese Wispa”. Now I saw Auton’s show, and I have absolutely no recollection of this joke. It’s faintly amusing, sure, but certainly no match for everything else he did: weather-related stage decorations and a hand-crafted scrapbook of the sky, humorous self-deprecation, quirky cartoons based on cult films, doleful audience interaction, and beautiful, moving performance poetry. I left the show feeling uplifted by Auton’s poetry and personality, not by his puns.
And this applies to other comedy shows, too. This year I saw two shows based on traditional ‘jokes’: one was an awkward affair, with the audience merely smiling politely rather than bursting into guffaws, and the other was abysmal – the actual opposite of funny. The less about the latter the better; in the former, the comedian in question was a retired medic, so most of the jokes were variations on the age-old ‘Doctor, Doctor’ scenario; even those that had some originality to them were very much in the same vein (pun intended, in order to demonstrate the sort of thing we’re talking about). Neither show was a great success. In contrast, most other shows in this year’s Fringe treated jokes, and in particular puns, with less respect. Take Henning Wehn, the self-proclaimed ‘German Comedy Ambassador to Great Britain’, who opened his show by waving a string of sausages at the audience and stating that this was his ‘wurst’ joke (cue enormous groan from the audience); meanwhile, the members of improv troupe Racing Minds go out of their way to make deliberately bad puns, before gently berating the audience for not finding them funny. Sometimes it seems as though ‘proper jokes’ just aren’t funny any more.
And TV comedy, I think, is going the same way. Shows where comedians get in front of a camera and present their material, like The Tommy Cooper Hour or The Two Ronnies (one of whose scriptwriters, incidentally, was our retired doctor friend), have long since been replaced by other, more subtle types of comedy. Take, for example, the Awkwardness Trope and its king, Ricky Gervais. My last post mentioned the hilariously painful-to-watch Extras, with its celebrity stars presenting themselves as the worst people on the planet; and the same thing happened in The Office – David Brent says or does something idiotic, the other characters look at each other in embarrassment, and we laugh. There’s also the Pop Culture reference, where the viewer basically finishes the joke him- or herself: an excellent example comes from How I Met Your Mother, in which Marshall shows his friends a Venn diagram in which the two circles are ‘People who are breaking my heart’ and ‘People who are shaking my confidence daily’ – the area where they overlap is, of course, marked ‘Cecilia’. So overall, though we still have the occasional moment of punning (for example, Milton Jones on Mock the Week) or slapstick (Miranda, please stand up, if you can do so without falling over a chair), modern comedy has become more knowing, more subversive, more interactive, and less rammed-down-your-throat-with-a-rubber-chicken.
Related to this is the question of the audience and the part they play in creating the funny. Obviously this is differs between live comedy and TV, because in live comedy the audience is right there in front of the performer, who can converse with them, make fun of them, sit on their laps (if you don’t want that to happen to you, don’t go and see Paul Foot) or drag them up on stage and kiss them (see paragraph one, above). But a limited amount of audience interaction can be present in TV comedy, too. Certain programmes, such as panels shows and quizzes, still rely on a live audience during filming, and these audiences provide a cheerful background to the presenters’ comments without ever really making their presence felt (see for example Mock the Week, Top Gear and Pointless). In other shows, the audience members are practically performers in their own right: Graham Norton gets the people in his audience to take part in his opening sequences, as well as sending the occasional celebrity up into the stands to schmooze; the audience on Have I Got News for You once staged a minor uprising in the form of a silent protest against Piers Morgan; and audience members on QI have been known to get points for knowing answers, to the point where they’re named the winners of the episode.
In sitcoms, the presence of an audience is a less certain issue: The Big Bang Theory, Miranda, Two Broke Girls and The IT Crowd follow in the footsteps of Cheers and Friends by filming in front of a live audience, while Scrubs, Green Wing, Parks and Recreation and Gavin and Stacey leave the viewer to decide when to laugh. Thus the debate about laugh tracks continues to rage on, with some writers such as Graham Linehan staunchly defending the advantages of an audience in sitcom recording, and others clearly deciding that if we don’t have live audiences weeping over dramas, it makes no sense to have audiences laughing at comedies. The question, of course, is whether hearing other people laughing improves a comedy show. On the one hand, laughter is contagious. I only ever laugh at Family Guy if I’m watching it with my husband, who finds it hilarious; and a lack of laughter where you expect it is incredibly disconcerting, as in the silence following Victoria Coren Mitchell’s jokes on Only Connect (“That was funny! But… why is nobody laughing? Are Victoria and I the only survivors on a post-apocalyptic planet?”). On the other hand, a laugh track over a sitcom can sometimes feel a little bit patronising – I got the joke before you guys laughed, OK?
The final issue raised by the comedy performances of the Edinburgh Fringe this year is ‘Humour – art or craft?’ In other (less pretentious) words, can comedy be perfected beforehand, or is it better off-the-cuff? As well as Racing Minds (relatively new faces on the circuit but already the greatest improv troupe known to man – fact), the Fringe abounds with Whose-Line-Is-It-Anyway-style performers, both new (e.g. the Oxford Imps) and old (e.g. Paul Merton’s Impro Chums), plus improvised versions of Shakespeare, Jane Austen and musical theatre; and when these shows are on form, they’re astounding. Plus, the funniest bit of stand-up shows is often the audience interaction: Reginald D. Hunter’s show was distinctly average, except when he was rubbing the audience up the wrong way, Lloyd Langford had the (minuscule) audience in stitches as he lamented how few people had come to see him, and Stuart Laws’s (free) show was a gem of two-way humour and semi-voluntary audience participation.
And, again, it’s the same on TV. Maybe not in sitcoms, where a script is sort of a basic requisite (although a sitcom improvised live on TV could be a fun challenge – TV gods, are you listening?); but in panel shows, certainly, the ad-libs are the best bits. The chairman’s script on Have I Got News for You is usually fairly amusing, but the biggest laughs come from the riffing between the guests – take this fabulous exchange between Ian Hislop and Dan Stevens – and it’s the same on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which finds its forte in moments like Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins’ random outbursts, Preston from the Ordinary Boys walking out in a huff halfway through an episode, and John Barrowman’s gay-off with Simon Amstell. Indeed, Reginald D. Hunter’s quick wit on programmes like this was the reason I went to see him in the first place, to discover, unfortunately, that the stuff prepared in advance was much less funny.
So what have we learnt from this little romp through stand-up and screenlore? Mainly that I enjoyed the Edinburgh Fringe this year (if you didn’t come, you missed out. Try harder next time). But we also learnt (take my word for it) that comedy is a tricky business, that humour is changing, and that TV and stand-up have more in common than Live at the Apollo. So it’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from me again, and tune in again next week for the one about the Englishman, the blonde and a horse who go into a bar…