Sunday, 15 February 2009

UK Comedy Observations pt.1

After working as a stand-up for 22 years I have just returned from my first venture to the U.K. to work. As I had lived there during my teenage years I was familiar with the nation and some it's flavours and ways, embracings and intolerances. Arrival and re-aquaintance was a rush of sensory input blended with the stirring of memory and the stimulus of the new, all in all, exciting and pleasurable. So I embarked upon the comedic exploration in a generally positive frame, eager to dip toe and, hopefully, discover a whole new domain, in which I could continue to ramble professionally forward. The purpose of this blog is to examine what I found and experienced and, naturally, to do some cross-comparison with North American equivalents.

The first show I attended was at a tiny venue in London just off Carnaby St. called the Electric Mouse. Down a flight of cramped stairs there blossomed a cramped room which was comfortable enough to be oblivious of it's own charm. There were 16 people in attendance and in true London fashion all were from other than London. The reason I know this is because of the constant back and forth between comedians and crowd. It was most important to each performer that information and opinions were extracted on a consistant basis. I sat comfortably with my friends Craig and Merlot and quite enjoyed the feel in the room. With rooms and crowds of such teeny-ous dimension it is usually advisable to connect in a comforting way and acts of a more dramatic and/or aggressive nature are less suited but the degree to which the performers sought to befriend and re-befriend this group was quite startling to me. There were approx. eight comedians on that night and at least half of them would check in with the crowd every few lines to assess how they were doing, how certain people were responding and so on. The material itself seemed to take a real back seat and the act of becoming chummy with the crowd was paramount.

All the while, I did recognize that it did seem that this was a rather insubstantial group to draw any sweeping judgements from but still the contrasts with North American norms were too striking to ignore. In small rooms on this large continent, amateurs and pros will go up, greet the crowd and then go through their proscribed material. Some are predisposed to riffing with the crowd but the norm is to perform. The interaction I was witnessing was not so much "riffing" but rather polling the crowd to find out how much they were approving at any given time. There were also a variety of accents and performers seem to have a number of regional dialects and foreign accents at their disposal: language is a broader and more flexible tool to the average Brit comic. The level of intelligence assumed in the crowd was also relatively high and there were occasional refreshing gusts of abstraction and absurdity present.

The gent running the room was kind enough to grant me 5 minutes of stage time in which I chose to run in the opposite direction from the others in order to find out more on the nature of the room. Instead of connecting with the crowd, I leaned into the material and deliberately veered towards bits that were slightly more extreme and dramatic. Unsurprisingly this had the effect of pressing people back into their seats. There was a measure of appreciation, however, and the organizer was most complimentary afterwards for which I was very glad as he had been kind enough to give me a mic and I had returned the favour by frightening his spindly crowd. I had no difficulty in making adaptations relating to cultural differences in subject matter etc. but did feel like I was playing with a baby who didn't know me yet - much more observation, performing and understanding would be needed.

I walked away from the Mouse feeling as though I had seen something different from the N. American norm but that somehow it was not truely representative of what UK comedy is. Perhaps I was wrong, perhaps this was a perfect gem reflecting and distilling all the lights, both bright and dim, that shine from UK comedy in one perfectly flawed microspace but....... methots not. The next stop would be at the football ground in Norwich - more about that shortly............