Sunday, 8 March 2009

Differences between U.K. and North American comedy pt. 1

I have bit off more than I can blog with this particular topic, there is simply too much information to cover so I will avoid going into much depth and to repeat points that I have made in other parts of this blog. So in rapid-fire sucession are some of the differences that I feel exist between stand-up in North America and in the UK. These are, of course, wild simplifications designed to make the salient points as visi-bubble as possi-bubble.

1 – One of us vs. one of them

In the U.K. the crowd seems to like to feel that in some way the comedian is “one of us”, a friend of the people, somehow connected to them. The success of Al Murray is a great example of this, and from the little pub shows to the bigger club shows the UK audience seems to relate to the idea of “mateship”. Comedians with that a friendly, accessible quality proliferate here such as Russell Kane and imports Craig Campbell and Steve Hughes.There are other factors at play of course such as the acceptance of the abstract, and a special space for comedians with a type of “rock star” quality like Russell Banks and happily dancing on the middle ground is Mr. Izzard; a happy and talented hybrid.

North Americans also have an appreciation for friendly accessible characters in stand-up, but overall they prefer those who are somehow, in some way larger than life. They demand someone who is not just “one of us” but “one of them”, “them” referring to performers. The rapid-fire multi-voiced Robin Williams, the manic elasticity of Jim Carrey, the fire and brimstone shriek of Sam Kinison; these are not ordinary people, they are performers!

On a practical level what this translated to is a need for a comedian in the UK to perform for and with their audience, at least until they become famous, and hopefully afterwards as well. In North America a comedian is far more likely to perform “at” a crowd rather than with it. The audience can be just as involved but the relationship that brings about the reaction tends to be one that keeps the comedian as a distinctly separate entity.

2 – A sense of the craft

For whatever reasons, and there are many that could be speculated upon, the UK crowd seems, from my minor sampling, to have a greater inherent knowledge of the actual craft of stand-up than their North American counterparts. North American and particularly American crowds will powerfully respond to “what” someone is; “wow, who is this guy?!, he’s crazy”. A UK crowd is far more likely to be really impressed by a comedians skill set – they love the clever. Whether it is the way the words are assembled or the originality of the idea itself, British crowds are impressed when it is done with skill and show their appreciation enthusiastically. This factor also allows the comedian to be quite experimental as the crowd will often respect the novelty, though not necessarily applaud the results. As with the first point, this means that some comedians will experience easy trans-altlantic transition and others will not.

3 – The road warrior

The North American comedian knows the phrase “road warrior” and uses it often. Not all of them are road warriors, some hold down day jobs in cities so they can hone down their set at night, and hopefully one day be discovered but from the corporate comic who lives in airports to the road comic who will often drive more than 7 hours to get to a gig, North American stand-up is as much about travel time as stage time. I will hazard a guess that this results in less bitterness and burn-out in the UK scene. While I was there, I only met one comedian who had more than 20 years of comedy experience, but if he was any example, then this theory is correct. This is no indictment on the comedians or the way the comedy scene is run in North America, it is simply a symptom of geography. In the UK the distances are so small that it is rare that a gig is more than 3 hours away and without the stress of such intense travel and with the ability to spend more time at home the job must have a slightly different nature.

There ...that's a start. If you have any comments or criticisms of this set of observations please do let me know. More to come soon.


  1. I would completely agree. I hated doing or being an Act, even though I was reknowned for it. I have long known that my market is in Britain. I remember when I did Cold Lake and Maple Flag was on and the other comic died performing for a Jury of British pilots that heckled him down. I looked at it as an opportunity to interact and play...One of the best shows of my life and all off the top of my head...Good Topic and somewhat inspiring

  2. Rob: thanks for the input - much appreciated, so glad you enjoyed it
    Guy: I prefer the U.K., but I really think it's a matter of style. Certainly the fact that I went to high school there and have English parents played an important role.