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Page last updated at 19:41 GMT, Thursday, 13 November 2008

Rich Hall: Comic in exile

By Dougal Shaw
BBC News

Rich Hall
Rich Hall at Blackheath Halls, south east London

US comic Rich Hall explains why the election has restored his faith in American satire. But his preference for British live comedy means he remains an exile.

"I like it that politicians aren't willing to stand above comedy," says Rich Hall, "it's a good leveller."

The American comic is taking a break from a sound-check at a theatre in south-east London, the latest show on an ongoing tour of his adopted country.

Hall is one of the most in-demand stand-ups on the British circuit, a 'comedian's comedian', if not a household name.

Keeping tabs on the election back home, he is impressed by what he has seen.

"Comedy affects the presidential race far more than in the past," says Hall, who wrote and performed for David Letterman and Saturday Night Live in the eighties.

"People watch Jon Stewart on the Daily Show not only for laughs, but to actually garner information."

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Satrurday Night Live
Fey's looks, mannerisms and accent closely resemble Palin's

"And Sarah Palin goes on Saturday Night Live because she knows that's the safest thing to do rather than be crucified by someone impersonating her - I like that."

"Politicians are acutely aware nowadays they are being lampooned," he continues, "you can't use the press selectively any more, the press is using you and you have to play ball with it."

While Hall clearly relishes this recent power shift on television, he remains downbeat about the live comedy scene in America where he first learned his trade.

In fact it was Britain's more conducive comedy climate that tempted him to relocate his life across the Atlantic, as he explains.

Early years in Manhattan

Rich Hall vividly remembers his first gig in New York.

"I stood in line for six hours with 150 other hopefuls on a Monday night waiting to get a ticket pulled out a hat so I could go on."

Even for a former street performer, who'd toured the States with his university troupe for three years, it was a rite of passage that required a thick skin.

"But eventually I got to the point where I could get very late spots for 15 minutes, where I could be talking to six drunks - two passed out. Then I worked my way into the earlier parts of the evening."

If it was a school of hard knocks, it went on to produce impressive alumni.

Larry David
Larry David played the same New York comedy clubs as Hall

Hall progressed up the comedy ladder at Manhattan's Comic Strip club with the help of Jerry Seinfeld, who was the 'reigning MC' in the late seventies.

Their comedy peers included future stars like Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Larry Miller (Best in Show) and Paul Reiser (Mad About You).

Back then huge success was neither taken for granted, nor necessarily desired, as Hall remembers it.

"Steve Martin was huge, Richard Pryor was huge, but it never occurred to us that we would reach any level of success compared to that."

"All we wanted to do is get booked at Uncle Roy's Chuckle Hutch in Akron, Ohio for the weekend, make a couple of hundred bucks and be able to say we were making a living."

Carson and Letterman

Like his comedy contemporaries, Rich Hall made the transition to television in the eighties.

Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson on his Tonight Show
While Seinfeld was gaining an ever higher profile, securing regular spots on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, Rich Hall was working on a project with another regular of Carson's, which would eventually become a comedy institution in its own right.

David Letterman's first show aired on NBC in 1980, with Hall writing and performing on it, along with comics like Andy Kaufman. The programme was quickly axed, but Hall picked up an Emmy for his efforts.

By this stage Hall was also a successful enough performer to appear on another great American comedy institution, Saturday Night Live.

Stand-up goes commercial

But while he was enjoying success in the eighties, Hall was also clearly becoming disillusioned with the stand-up scene that had nurtured him.

"It just seems that a scene mushroomed," Hall recalls, "where you had clubs in every town who were paying huge amounts of money to use a name like 'the Improv' or the 'Comedy Zone', not realizing that they could just put up good comedians and people would come."

The commercial nature of the clubs was reflected in the comedians themselves, according to Hall.

Rich Hall
It's like walking out with a big calling card reading 'here's what I'm available for, look at these jokes'
Rich Hall

It got to the point, he says, where audiences believed you were "just using stand-up as a stepping stone to your own sitcom, HBO special, or movie."

"They didn't trust that you were really committed to it. It was like walking out with a big calling card reading 'here's what I'm available for, look at these jokes'."

Blenders, fried finger foods, two-drink minimums and noisy waitresses also conspired to put Hall off the American comedy scene.

But he reserves his greatest contempt for another practice that still angers him today.

"On stage when you are building up to some kind of zenith in your set, they put the cheques down on the table and make people pay up because they are afraid they will run out."

"It's universal among clubs in America, and I just got used to it. When the cheques came down on the table, I just had to tread water," he recalls bitterly.

Edinburgh Festival moment

Hall was delighted to find a different way of doing comedy when he came to the Edinburgh Festival in the late nineties.

"It was fantastic," he remembers thinking at the time, "these Brits have a big pint of beer and they just sit down and laugh."

Rich Hall on his redneck alter-ego Otis Lee Crenshaw

"I seemed to pick up on that British humour straight away."

Later it was Edinburgh that rewarded him with his greatest accolade in the UK to date, the Perrier Award in 2000 (previously won by comedians like Lee Evans, Steve Coogan and Frank Skinner), for playing his comic creation redneck Otis Lee Crenshaw.

"I never really appreciated until I got here that stand-up could be viewed as an end in itself, and that's what I like", says Hall.

"Stand-up in Britain invokes the oral tradition of story-telling, spoken word, variety, music hall, Brits have a sense of their past."

And the other great thing about comedy in Britain, Hall maintains, is that if you are an aspiring comedian, you can find plenty of places who will give you a chance to perform.

"In the UK the people who run the gigs aren't really getting rich, they are doing it because they want to, and consequently they aren't judging you as soon as you walk in the door."

You don't have to go through the indignity of taking a ticket out of a hat.

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