Magazine article The Spectator

There Is No Alternative

Magazine article The Spectator

There Is No Alternative

Article excerpt

Stand-up comedians now stand in for the establishment

Stand-up comedians: is there anything they can't do? Not only do they make up a huge proportion of chat-show guests - and of chat-show hosts - they also present Horizon , give us guides to the night sky, utterly dominate panel shows and regularly pop up on Question Time . Recently, they even set up their own news discussion programme in the as yet formless shape of Ten O'Clock Live .

And that's just television. In the lead-up to Christmas, Dawn French saw off Stephen King, John Grisham and Maeve Binchy to have the country 's bestselling hardback novel, while the fastest selling DVD in British history is Michael McIntyre's 'Hello Wembley!'

, whose title is a clue to the type of places he and many of his fellow comics play these days. So how on earth did all this come about - and what effect has it had on the sort of comedy on offer?

It's hard to imagine now, but, as one BBC producer puts it, 'The received wisdom a few years ago was that you couldn't put standup on telly. The feeling was that it's not very visual, it's just someone talking - and, in the jargon, television should add value.' But then came BBC1's Live at the Apollo and, in particular, that Friday night in November 2008 when the show was hastily chosen to stand in for the suspended Jonathan Ross. Having gone on a chorus girl, Live at the Apollo came off a star - and the BBC wasn't slow to learn the lessons. The host that night soon got his own spin-off programme, Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow (yes, him again), but this time in Saturday-night prime time.

Comedy Rocks with Jason Man - ford has duly followed suit on ITV.

The good news for television is that standup is also cheap and easy to produce - especially compared to sitcoms. The good news for the comics is that TV is the perfect shop window for even more lucrative projects: the £20,000-a-night corporate gigs, the advertising voiceovers, the 100-date tours, the arena shows and the DVDs of the 100-date tours and arena shows. (This Christmas, 45 British comedians had DVDs out. ) As even the distinctly non-corporate Johnny Vegas has noted, 'The people who come to see me now are not a live comedy crowd. They're people who want to see someone off the telly.'

Given how effortlessly the change has occurred, the more business-minded among you might be wondering why comedy took so long to realise this vast money-making potential. (Comics who were at their peak in the 1990s must feel a bit like footballers who played in the days before the Premiership. ) The answer, I'd suggest, lies deep in the roots of modern stand-up. When Alexei Sayle and his famously non-racist, non-sexist cohorts declared their ultimately successful war on the old guard in the Eighties, comedy sternly set its alternative, punk-inspired face against the whole slick showbiz game - putting in place values that proved surprisingly hard to shake. Not that long ago, British comics at the Edinburgh Festival were incredulous that American stand-ups had business cards.

Now there are very few who don't know how to exploit every medium in the quest for 'branding', including personal websites ('Click Here for Merchandising'), YouTube and Twitter.

At which point, it's traditional to lament the increasingly bland or cynical nature of the comedy that results - a lament that's certainly not without its corroborating evidence. …

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