Saturday, December 22, 2007

Old Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Mike

One of my fears when starting blogging again was that I would repeat myself. Not just repeat the odd line or joke but virtually an entire posting. I can remember only a fraction of my previous 440 posts so I'm not sure whether a particular experience or topic is something I've written, something I've said to someone or has simply been floating around in my head for years.

But in my case any repetition will be entirely accidental. Not so with many of today's comedians. Some of these people are recycling the same material over and over again. Unlike humble bloggers, they're being paid large amounts of money and addressing an audience of millions.
'Live at the Apollo' is a showcase for well-known stand-ups on BBC1. The last edition featured Dara O'Briain, Stephen K Amos and Frankie Boyle.
Much of Stephen Amos's act was the same material he did on the Royal Variety Show a few weeks before. I'm sure he did the same jokes again this week on Radio 4.
Almost everything that Frankie Boyle said I'd heard before. Ditto with Dara O'Briain. In fact, when I woke up the following day I decided that this particular show was a repeat of one I'd seen before but on checking the Radio Times I found it was the first broadcast.

The problem for today's comedians is that there are too many of them and there is too much stand-up comedy. Some of it is very good but much of it is dreadful.
The second problem is that they have too much time to fill. In the days of variety, a leading comic might be top of the bill but would still probably only do fifteen minutes. Today, comics do solo shows that are an hour or more long. In most cases, there will be about twenty minutes of brilliant stuff and the rest is dross.
The third problem is that they have to do television as well as live shows. Most of them seem to keep their new material for the paying punters on their touring shows who don't expect to see the same material they've seen on the television.
A fourth problem is that a lot of today's comics appear to write their own material. This is commendable but if they're doing live gigs as well as TV they simply can't produce enough material to fill the time.
In the past, most comedians had writers. Some had dozens of gag writers who they paid by the gag. Others, like Frankie Howerd, who did long rambling monologues had single writers who wrote the entire act. In Howerd's case, these included brilliant writers like Eric Sykes and Jonny Speight. In some ways, it was a massive deception. Few people realised that Bob Hope never wrote a gag in his life. But it had the advantage that they could buy in as much fresh material as they needed. Another benefit was that it gave employment to many people who, although unable to perform on stage, could write very funny material.

The most breathtaking piece of recycling occurred last night in an episode of 'Not Going Out' which stars the stand-up Lee Mack. Like many stand-ups who venture into sit-com, it's just a contrivance for him to spout gags at other cardboard characters. (Even 'Dinner Ladies' was a bit like that). Fair enough, if you like that kind of thing. But last night there was a scene where he came out with a routine about his childhood that he'd done a few weeks ago on either 'Live at the Apollo' or 'The Royal Variety Show'. Or maybe he did it on both shows and now he was going for the hat-trick. Frankly, I'm beginning to lose track in this head-spinning outbreak of déja vu and déja entendu.

I'm also beginning to lose patience. What really annoys me is the sheer shamelessness of these people. I suppose to do stand-up you need a thick skin and to be immune from embarrassment. But if you treat the punters like fools, they'll turn on you eventually. They turned on Eddie Izzard a few years back when his live tour was much the same as the previous one. The excuse was that because he improvises, the new material would be added incrementally throughout the tour. But some people still demanded refunds.
I think it's time the public kicked their lazy arses. TV viewers should complain to the broadcaster and live audiences should chant "We've heard it all before" or, even better, chant the punch line before they get to it.

Now, did I ever tell you about a funny thing that happened to me when I worked backstage in the theatre?
Oh, shit. I think I probably did.


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