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Serious funny business

Will Gompertz
By Will Gompertz
BBC Arts Editor

A clown

In 1993 Newman and Baddiel took their comedy double-act to Wembley Arena. Stand-up was heralded by some as the new rock'n'roll. They were wrong - the show was a one-hit wonder.

Eddie Izzard in Cabaret at Ronnie Scotts

It wasn't until about a decade later when Eddie Izzard, peeved that manufactured band Steps were performing in a 15,000-seat arena next to the 1,500-seat theatre he was playing, decided to challenge rock 'n' roll on its own turf - the arena tour.

He pulled it off. Stand-up has grown up to become big business.

Comics made famous by television can expect to receive a call from a promoter eager to fill the Manchester Arena or even the mighty O2 with a night of laughs - doh! and dough in perfect harmony.

Just a few years ago, the only thing between a have-a-go-stand-up-joker and the beckoning allure of a rusty pub mic was a few pints of the venue's finest ale.

To the dismay of hardened old-timers, it is now possible to choose stand-up as a career - you can even study it at university. Even getting a slot at an open-mic night can take months.

Laurel and Hardy, Woody Allen, Dad's Army... at no point did they go 'Right, what can we create that I reckon we can sell in this number of markets?'
Comedian Robin Ince

A new kidder on the block I spoke to recently lamented the constant travel, unappreciative audiences and lack of pay on the circuit - but admitted that the not infrequent £5,000 corporate booking helped sooth his weary soul.

At the Latitude Festival this year stand-up was spreading throughout the various feature tents like buddleia along a railway track.

Not satisfied with dominating proceedings in the ever-expanding comedy tent, you could find comics in the literature tent and the poetry bit as well.

I suspect they were eyeing up the main stage for an all out assault next year.

Old jokes

Portrait of happy woman from the 1950s

So maybe comedy has fulfilled the 1990s prophecy and become the new rock 'n' roll? It has certainly hit the big time.

But while a transformation of sorts has clearly happened, what stands out about stand-up is that in many respects it remains remarkably unchanged - old-fashioned even.

I was surprised when interviewing Joanne Lau, a Canadian-Chinese PhD student who is also an aspiring comic on the London circuit, when she reported that she had to deal with her "Chineseness" at the start of her set otherwise she said it became "the elephant in the room". This is in London in 2010.

Joanne used to resolve the problem by opening her show with a pastiche Chinese accent and asking her audience for their order. It worked for them. It worked for her.

But it didn't work for Chortle, a review website for stand-up comedy. They didn't like it and such is their power she had to change her act.

You could just have an appearance over a year or two on a panel show, and the next minute sell out an arena. It's mind blowing.
Comedy promoter Mick Perrin

It is hardly unexpected that there are websites that have developed around this burgeoning business, but it was strange to discover that as yet (to my knowledge at least) no stand-up has hit the big time in this country through the power of our wired world.

The internet has launched pop stars, TV performers and even make-up gurus. But as yet, in this country at least, no stand-ups.

Richard Herring is an established stand-up who uses all the internet has to offer to connect with his audience.

Ken Dodd

But even he was surprised that it is he, and not the younger generation, that is seen to be at the vanguard of harnessing new technology to help propel a comedy career.

Stage spite

Perhaps the most unexpected issue with 21st Century UK stand-up is that it seems to be much tougher for women to succeed than men.

I had thought with the likes of Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Ruby Wax and Dawn French blazing a trail in the 1980s that it simply wouldn't be an issue.

It is. Mick Perrin, one of the producers and impresarios behind the successful transfer of stand-up into arenas, says he would be delighted to promote an arena tour for a female comic, except he wouldn't be able to sell enough tickets.

Lynn Parker established Funny Women 10 years ago to help female stand-ups find a voice and an audience. It's worked well, but she remains deeply frustrated by how hard it is to receive press coverage for her stable of bright, funny ladies.

Nobody to whom I spoke could put a finger on the reason why women find it harder to break though into the comedy big time, but a recurring thought was that it was the audience's fault.

The promoters, the women, and the industry were up for it, but the punters weren't.

A host of reasons were proffered, ranging from the cultural (funny is not how we want women to be), to the psychological (the inherent necessity of men to be funny), through to sociological analyses of media misogyny.

Maybe, but I'm not so sure. As Eddie Izzard has already demonstrated, when the industry is willing to take the lead the audiences tend to follow.

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