To sketch or to stand-up
As has been regularly mentioned of late, the popularity of live comedy (stand-up in particular) is currently at an all time high. Comedy is purportedly the one area of the creative industries that has grown since the economic downturn. Not only are comedians’ tours getting bigger and bigger, but comedy heavyweights are being pushed around the country (and then up to the Edinburgh Fringe) with an ever-increasing level of commercial and financial force.
It’s easy to understand why. The current television stand-up comedy boom has gone hand-in-hand with the collective belt-tightening that has gone on across the arts. Stand-up comedy is traditionally cheap to put on and this has led to producers clamoring to televise the latest stand-up sensation – which then often leads to the success and popularity of their live act. Yet, stylistically there is a degree of ubiquitousness about a lot of the stand-up regularly broadcast into our living rooms.
Stewart Lee, in his recent interview with Scotsgay Magazine, suggested that Jimmy Carr’s recent tax avoidance controversy could be THE turning point for the way mainstream audiences view their stand-up heroes. Whether this turns out to be the case or not is yet to be seen. However, (luckily for us) there is a lot to suggest that sketch and character comedy (at a grassroots level) is already gaining more attention and popularity, no doubt catalysed by a desire amongst audiences to see something different, new, and exciting. In addition to this, a lot of sketch and character acts are beginning to see the kind of industry backing required to make that jump and start showcasing their work to the wider public.
There are far more hurdles and hoops to jump through now, to get a new comedy script broadcast on television, than 20 or 30 years ago. It is often remarked that if Blackadder was made in 2012, it wouldn’t see a second series (the first series having been a bit of a failure), such is the pressure on commissioning editors to get things right first time. The BBC’s last big sketch flop (critically speaking) was 2009’s Horne & Corden (a show that saw just six episodes). As ‘filmed on-location’ sketch shows are expensive to produce, along with the constant pressure of the licence fee, it’s no surprise that comedy programmers have appeared more reluctant to take risks over the last few years. However, there is now a lot more being done by both channels and production companies to nurture new talent and provide a sustainable platform for exciting young acts.
Channel 4’s Comedy Blaps and BBC’s Feed My Funny are two online-only platforms that are providing some of our peers with fantastic opportunities to get some TV exposure without the pressure and stakes of a six-part series commission. The BBC Comedy Presents… shows at the Edinburgh Fringe (that we are grateful to be a part of this year) create even more opportunities for wider viewership, and demonstrate an encouraging broadcast industry keen to nurture and support new talent without pushing them before they’re ready to take the plunge.
It is exciting to feel a part of London’s rich and diverse sketch and character community, one that is slowly growing in size and influence. Acts like Nick Mohammed, Sheeps, Totally Tom, Checkley and Bush, Anna and Katy, Colin Hoult, Cariad Lloyd, Jamie Demetriou and HMS Ship are regularly demonstrating the kind of talent and variety that provide live audiences with something genuinely original. However, it is important to recognise that for us this isn’t a case of stand-up vs. sketch comedy.
Despite the influx of money at the top of the stand-up ladder, it is proving harder and harder for talented young comics to get paid gigs. On top of that, well-run local stand-up nights are struggling to compete with the star of Mock The Week’s latest tour, and in many cases are cutting back the regularity of their nights in order to fill their rooms. In that respect, we are all in it together.
There are some amazing performers, such as James Acaster, Amy Hoggart, Patrick Turpin, Ben Target, Mae Martin and Lou Sanders, who are providing audiences with their original take on stand-up. Most of these acts are able to straddle the gap between London’s grassroots sketch and stand-up nights, and draw attention to the fact that ‘sketch’ is a slightly misleading name for a scene that is full of groups trying to move away from the traditional sketch format anyway.
The main difference is that at sketch and characters nights you are perhaps more likely to see performers with a theatrical approach to the established norms of a particular comedic genre. Not all comedy audiences want to be tested in this way, but luckily for us, as the general public becomes increasingly comedy-literate, so too has their desire to see comedic norms rejected increased.
At this year’s Latitude Festival, the number of comedy ensembles on the bill was a testament to the quality and growing profile of the current scene. It is amazing to be involved in a wide community of performers, some of whose members are beginning to make those initial steps towards creating what may become the big television comedies of our generation.
Writing and performing live comedy remains a highly competitive, frustratingly difficult, and angst-ridden past-time. However, right now there is a lot to feel hugely optimistic about, and for that we are extremely grateful.
Oyster Eyes will be performing their comedy show ‘Some Rice’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 3-26 August @ 22.25 at the UnderbellyTagged in: Arts, edinburgh festival, sketch comedy, Stand-up comedy, Stewart Lee
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