The other day, I was scanning down my Facebook feed and saw a status update from a highly-regarded circuit act. He suggested, from listening to various podcasts, that American comics didn't rate British ones too highly. Further down, were comments from London acts, some of whom had gone as far as saying they couldn't name a British comedian they would pay to see. Something felt weird about reading that. Not one they would pay to see. At first i was taken aback. I had one of those ridiculous 'Wait? You're-Attacking-Me, Personally?!' moments. I mean, how dare a nameless someone, somewhere, on some podcast i was never likely to hear or care about, suggest that British comedy had failed to meet expectations i had no part in setting. Ooh, I was offended. But then? Well, I kind of saw their point.
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't genuinely believe that all British comedians are bad. This isn't the Daily Mail. There's some awesome talent out there. This is about exposure, taste and comparison. I mean, I've cried with laughter at acts across the capital, but clearly the stuff that hits the mainstream fails to capture the imagination of podcasters, who then weigh it up against counterparts across-the-pond.
Are we all seen as cheeky-chappy, post-Vaudeville, panel-show acts maybe? Where a lot of the same faces are rolled out time and again, each one just a Post Office queue punchline away from a BBC2 travel show series; weighing that up against the US mainstream, where darker, exploratory content seems more readily accepted, with HBO specials and the like - it could start to get depressing. If you look at stand-up as in any way an arty, expressive, performance craft of spoken word (however ridiculous that sounds), it's easy to see why you might term the British TV stuff, err, different.
And that's interesting, isn't it? Considering the popularity of the so-called "British sense of humour", that the industrial representation of that is less so; that our comics might be seen as not up to the US' level.
Because in the US they have Open Mic nights like we have Open Mic nights. They have comedy clubs like we have comedy clubs. We both have a history of sitcoms, talk shows; But with the HBO special, a highly-regarded platform where the best of the industry film an hour of their best material, the US acts have a standard to uphold; a would-be career highlight. And failing that, there's Hollywood to exploit. There's something sad about us opting-out of the 'special', about career trajectory swerving an opportunity to create a Bring The Pain, Raw, Shameless or Elephant In The Room.
Industrially, we resort to Christmas DVDs and saturated panels; pre-written answers to quiz show questions that don't matter, leaving you with a feeling that it's all staged, it's not real, it's faked; Which to me is the opposite of what comedy should be. I mean, not everything is or could be 'real' on a stage. Obviously a lot of it is made-up, written down and recited. But every time i see a comedian with perfect teeth answer a question with an auto-cue quip, I feel like I'm watching Kurt Cobain lip-syncing.
As I said, there are outstanding acts out there. London has proven itself time and again for spawning internationally successful stand-ups. I remember seeing Jim Jefferies honing it here years ago and thinking he was immense. Then he flew off to New York to film for HBO. Simon Amstell's Do Nothing remains a favourite of the last decade yet with his subsequent US tours, appearances on The View and Letterman, he feels more Brit-in-America now than an exhibit of what's going on in British comedy. In watching an interview with Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr, it was interesting to see them answer "so what comedians are you both into?" with an almost immediate "Doug Stanhope" followed by a list of other US comics. I wonder how many US comedians would name Brits in the same scenario? I wonder why it is that when we stand around outside venues talking about who we're interested in, almost without exception, acts lean towards either the American mainstream (Louis CK, Bill Burr) or the British acts that appear to shirk ours (Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson).
It's too simplistic to say that it's hipsterdom in comedy; that we just don't like what's already popular. If it was just that, you'd have to assume that comics would hate what's popular in America also - which simply isn't the case. Equally, you could say i'm biased because the comics i chat to that cite Burr or CK as influences are the ones i'm drawn to talk to, because i enjoyed their set, and they have a similar style to the American acts i admire. But if it's just my taste, then the more 'British' ones, like those that appear on panel shows or Live At The Apollo, should then occasionally appeal to Americans on podcasts or become successful overseas. Yet neither of those things seem to happen.
I guess what I'm saying is: the US don't do panel shows. And we don't do HBO specials. Mainstream America's acts are seen as credible influences for us but rarely is that reciprocated. Is that a symptom of those formats? I feel that it might be. I just hope that in this era of YouTube channels, free editing apps and On Demand, the freedom to create and provide content to the public without adhering to executives' tastes should provide exposure for comics, sufficiently, to appease the expectations of podcasters and vloggers; to provoke some backtracking.
A vlog of them eating their words? I wonder who'd pay to see that.