Stewart Lee, the God King of struggling comics, recently wrote an article bemoaning the way that comedy on TV is restricted to a clique of comics who are signed to the same few agencies. Whilst I have a few problems with Stewart Lee’s viewpoints, I’m inclined to agree with him on this. Having not really seen many of the big TV comedy hits recently, I watched a few of them, and a few things really struck me about the way that television producers deal with comedy.
I watched Mock the Week, and what instantly shocked me was how many of the jokes were essentially just references to TV adverts, and the amount of repetition of brand names in general. I’m not just talking brands that were relevant to the news; there would barely be a single sentence where someone didn’t mention EasyJet or Iceland. All it would take was one of the comics to say ‘simples’, and there would be roars of laughter and applause. This is painful to me in two ways. Firstly, why are comedians ripping off ad men for laughs? It always used to be the other way round in the good old days. Secondly, the suits at Go Compare or Compare the Market must be rubbing their hands with glee at the near constant repetition of their advertising slogans on the BBC.
Stewart Lee said that panel show comedians are “victims” of a corrupting system, which I have to agree with. I have a lot of respect for most of the comics on the panel show circuit. You don’t get to that level without being good, and I’ve seen several of them live and thoroughly enjoyed it. It seems like the TV production companies edit and prescribe the content of these shows more than the comics.
I also think there needs to be an overhaul of the way comedians are selected to appear on these shows. I believe I’ve written before about the ‘women aren’t funny’ argument, and I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, but panel shows seem to be a boys’ club. There are loads of fantastic female comics who simply aren’t booked for panel shows, and plenty more who refuse to do them because they’re constantly being interrupted or edited out. It’s depressing. I heard a really good interview with Josie Long in which she pointed out that a lot of the women on panel shows aren’t comedians. There tends to be a panel of male comics, with female presenters or journalists instead of female comedians.
I think that maybe the surge in popularity of stand-up on TV is coming to an end. Like bands after their heyday, it’s becoming bloated and lazy. Maybe it’ll change and become more inclusive, maybe it’ll be relegated to late nights, maybe I’m wrong and everything will carry on as normal. But I think that comedy’s going to undergo something of a revolution in the next few years, and while it might take longer to catch on, TV comedy will be no exception.
If you’re reading this, go and see live comedy instead. It’s infinitely better than watching it on TV. Having spoken to comics who have been going much longer than me about this, I find the same opinion again and again. People who expect a comedy night to be like watching Live At The Apollo often don’t make good audiences. They’re too used to consuming comedy passively, wandering in and out to make a cup of tea or check their phones. Stand-up, when it’s good, is my favourite art form, but it needs to be enjoyed actively. It’s an old compering line, but it rings true. The more you give the acts, the more you get from the show. So if you’re bored by comedy on TV, go to a live show. It’s even greater than the difference between seeing a band live and listening to the live album. I promise you won’t regret it.