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The British Stand-Up Is Today’s Fashionable, Must-Have Performer

Stand-Up: Fashionable Performers - Alikhalid82

Alternative comedy is now mainstream centre stage, comedians are celebrities, humour is a popular leisure pursuit. Edinburgh is part of the explanation.

UK media is full of comics, people who’ve made it working a comedy crowd, arguably the hardest school of performance art. Successfully being funny on stage and screen seems to be sufficient to travel overseas being filmed in unusual/difficult/troubled places.

There are more comedy clubs, comedy on television, comedians making TV ads: it has definitely gone respectable. They host game shows (Alexander Armstrong: Pointless; Michael McIntyre: Britain’s Got Talent). Up-and-coming comedians, like Sarah Millican, appear on numerous shows, too (The One Show, The Marriage Ref). But are today’s practitioners funny?

Veteran comedy legend Ken Dodd told TV Times (August 2011) after 57 years of professional performing, he found modern comedy ‘aggressive and below the belt’. He felt his type of ‘optimistic observational’ comedy, where in a 3 hour show people forget cares and worries, doesn’t get the exposure it deserves. ‘The media are obsessed with the new kind of mirth, mostly satire’. His remarks echoed old-school clowns, Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves: ‘today’s comics are either too serious or brutal’.

Throughout History

Not only is comedy personal (one man’s joke is another man’s tragedy), but it’s rooted in time and place. Watching old TV comedy reveals a chasm with today, leaving many wondering why they laughed years ago. In a more cynical age in transition as technology changes everything, new comedy will be different from old.

Performers haven’t always been celebrities. Plato in The Republican warned that imitating others on stage could only lead to their sins and faults insinuating into actors’ psyches. But that is the very nature of performing: imitating, copying, exaggerating, either in a totally absorbing (Stanislavskian) style, or slipping in and out of role (Brechtian) like into a coat.

Whether behind the mask of Greek and Roman drama, the greasepaint of Victorian theatre or the barebone/reality faces of now, the performer creates tragedy or comedy. That is the essence of performance. The medieval jester was kept to amuse the king or noble, but his humour wasn’t always welcomed or appropriate.

The Edinburgh Effect

The Edinburgh International Festival is the try-out for all sorts of performance, from comedy to dance, physical theatre to fusion. But comedy has particularly found a home in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Comedy Awards, born in 1981, now sponsored by Fosters, but previously by Perrier and others have become ‘the oscars of comedy’. They’ve put many comedians from the League of Gentlemen to Al Murray on the cultural map.

Categories and prizes have grown over the years. 1981 winners were Cambridge Footlights (including Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson). Dylan Moran, Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Jimmy Carr, Omid Djalili, Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble are among those who have won or been nominated for awards, which became career launchpads.

American actress Sarah Bernhard said: ‘I don’t consider myself a comic but a performer. A comic tells bad jokes’. Some contemporary performers would agree, but most accept that Edinburgh is the live core of the comedy explosion. The Comedy on the Fringe is in its fourth year, an essential wing of the Edinburgh International Festival, yet with a life of its own.

The 2011 line-up stretched from household names to young rising stars. According to promoters: ‘You can quite literally watch great shows from the moment you wake until the time you eventually sleep. And even after 25 days, still have to do the same for another 4 months to see them all!’

Serious newspapers give many columns to comedy. The Daily Telegraph’s Mark Monahan selected favourites from the 2011 offerings: Canadian Glen Wool (No Man’s Land); two shows from Jack Whitehall (Back Chat with his dad, and Let’s Not Speak of This Again) and the Geordie late comer to comedy, Sarah Millican (Thoroughly Modern Millican) because ‘she makes it look so easy’.

He suggested Jeff Leach from Big Brother (A Leach on Society) with ‘his insalubrious private life’; Idiots of Ants (Model Citizens) ‘one of the most consistently lively, original, downright hilarious sketch shows going’, and Hannibal Beress (The Hannibal Montanabal Experience), ‘hip young writer’.

Monahan also recommended Mark Nelson (Guilty Pleasure), ‘more barbed wit and dark fodder’; Amateur Transplants (Adam Kay’s Smutty Songs) ‘irreverent reworkings of pop songs’; Michael Winslow (The Man of 10,000 Voices) with his ‘vocal gymnastics’; and The Noise Next Door, ‘three young improv merchants’.

Constantly Evolving

Rob Sharp in The Independent pointed out that 607 out of 2542 shows on the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe were free, the highest proportion ever. This reflected straitened economic times and the spirit of the event. The Free Fringe was founded in 1996 as a ‘counterpoint to the high hire costs charged by best known venues’.

Part of the Fringe is The Laughing Horse Free Festival. Performers are given minimal resources and ask audiences to pay what they think a show is worth. Free Fringe comedians include Robin Ince, Norman Lovett, Tim Key and John Hegley.

One established comedian who didn’t join the flock north to Edinburgh 2011, was Hal Cruttenden. He told The Telegraph (7 August 2011): ‘the comedy world is now so big that the majority of it stays home and cashes in on the work left behind’. He lined up five paying gigs, while in Edinburgh ‘comics will be losing on average ten grand this month’.

He reckoned with the rise of other UK venues and festivals (such as Camden Fringe Festival), he can make a good comedy living by staying home. The point is that performers will always go where gigs and new openings are, both to perform and work up new material. Without that, the art form withers, and the new popularity is to be welcomed.

First published on Suite 101, 12 August 2011

Image: Stand-Up: Fashionable Performers – Alikhalid82


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