Regardless of whether you take a casual interest when your channel-hopping thumb alights on a relevant show, or you consider yourself a connoisseur of the genre, anyone reading this will have at some point in the recent past watched a comedy show. Live or on television, you will have watched and laughed. That is, after all, what’s expected. Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo, any of the many and varied comedy galas and roadshows and specials that make their way to our screens, all of them are engineered by experts and tailored by artists to provide us with a good chuckle. Don’t worry – I’m not about to launch into a tirade against these shows, raving about how they’re all as genuine and spontaneous as a WWE pay-per-view match. I am a huge fan of these shows and I think that, while they are at times a little contrived, they represent a lot of what is great about the sense of humour we have in this country. What I would like to do, however, is draw attention to an element of these shows or, more accurately, the performers themselves, which many among you may have wondered at but never researched: just what exactly were these stand-ups doing before they sashayed onto our screens? Did they once walk among us, as they can no longer do for fear of being set upon by hordes of screaming fans demanding they write a joke across their foreheads? Good question, glad you asked. I’m going to have a go at answering it.
It will come as no surprise to you that stand-up comedy is not a phenomenon restricted solely to television. University of Sheffield students may well be aware that every once in a while a comedian strays from the urban jungle of London all the way up to the plains of Sheffield and performs for a few nights in our very own Students’ Union in front of a pack of students whose social lives we can safely assume are far from vibrant, as they clearly have nothing better to do with their Saturday night (that may be a little unfair; maybe I’m just bitter because I didn’t get tickets to see Russell Kane). Comedy, especially stand-up, is everywhere – you just have to know where to look. In Sheffield itself, there are a great many monthly and, in some cases, bi-weekly shows which allow the local cohort of jesters and entertainers to showcase their talent. Expand your net to the whole of South Yorkshire and you could go out every night, sit in a room above/below/next to/in some way close to a pub and have yourself a right old giggle. And it’s at these comedy nights, held in back rooms and attics and cellars, anywhere with a stage and chairs, where all the names you now know from television began.
Those who regularly watch comedy on television or Netflix will be familiar with the polished and well-produced veneer which seems to cover every comedy show these days. Slick jokes told to receptive audiences who laugh at the right moments and shut up when someone else is talking. This image of stand-up comedy is both flattering and, for the most part, wildly inaccurate. What you see is a tiny portion of what that comedian has probably spent most of their working life building up to. Those jokes weren’t always that smooth and well-delivered – they had to be honed, right from the original idea down to the witty one-liner you just watched, in front of audiences in those back rooms. Audiences who are very often drunk and very rarely silent. Everything you watch on television has been worked on to the point of exhaustion. Have you ever wondered how comedians can possibly remember all that material? Some of them talk for hours, how can they keep all those words in their head? They have no choice. For months prior to that big show at the O2 arena they will have been slaving away at a desk and onstage to create that tight set for your enjoyment. It is by no means an easy job.
Why am I going on about this? Simply because in the comedy industry so much attention is given to the finished product and not to the effort which goes into making it. People who enjoy laughing are frequently so engrossed in the latest Netflix special they pay a monthly fee for, that they forget that just down the road there’s a live comedy show going on for free. But because it’s not a guaranteed laugh, or it doesn’t feature any big names, that show is overlooked by people who forget that without shows like that, their favourite panellist on Mock the Week would never have been given the big break that made their name. These little shows are the lifeblood of the comedy industry. They can be found in any city or town, and the beauty of them is that anyone can give it a go. Sure, this means there’s an element of risk when it comes to watching the show. Entire evenings could go by when the audience doesn’t laugh once. On the other hand, you never know when someone will come onstage who does manage to make you laugh. And they may not be famous, they may not have a film crew capturing their every move and a producer agonising over which angle makes them look sexiest. But they are real, they are right in front of you and that is the thrill of live comedy.
I’m not attempting to preach to you – it’s likely you were already aware of a lot of what I’ve just said. But the one message I would like to send you away with, dear reader, is this: give those little shows a go. Without them, nothing you see on television would be possible. Next time you see a small show in a room above a pub being advertised, go along and see what’s there. I think the results may surprise you.
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