Live vs. Televised Comedy
A comedy audience is a capricious animal. Sometimes it cackles on cue, lapping up punchlines with an almost-Pavlovian predictability. At other times, it merely stares back at you, seemingly unresponsive to the highly crafted material it’s fed. The responses are not always binary like this. Often, the organism mutates and divides into multiple parts, all of which behave differently. One part laughs, a second lays dormant, another walks out of the room altogether.
To anybody who has seen comedy live, this is hardly a novel observation. Humour by its very nature is subjective; not everyone’s going find a performer funny. Not everyone will “get” a joke, appreciate a comic’s intent, or understand a cultural reference. Even when a routine or joke is received as funny, audience reactions will admit of varying degrees. So far, so obvious.
It’s up to the comedian then, drawing on their years of experience, to shape such a heterogeneous lump of bodies into a coordinated, laughing unit. Of course, by virtue of the subjectivity of humour, this (assuming 100% of the audience is not already positively disposed to the performer) is an impossible task. The comedian will try nonetheless. In addition to staple routines and jokes, they’ll utilise improvised riffs, audience interaction, impromptu lines, heckle put-downs, and whatever else is in their comedy armament to tame the beast. Watching a comedian try to win over an audience is akin to watching a bullfight, but one free from any awkward ethical implications and one where the risk to the performer is psychic (a shared feeling of embarrassment) rather than physical. Regardless of whether such risk becomes realised, it’s captivating to watch.
Moreover, this gladiatorial spectacle adds an extra frisson to live comedy that’s largely absent in its scripted, televised counterparts. Shows such as BBC’s Live at the Apollo or Channel 4’s Comedy Gala seemingly fail to broadcast this struggle between performer and audience. The former walk on stage to the latter’s whooping and cheering. They’re onside from the beginning. Sitting at home, the TV viewer will merely see a preformed cult of personality. There’s no contest, no struggle, kein Kampf.
Naturally, comedy observed behind a phosphor screen is going to lack the raw, sensorial stimulation of sitting in a live comedy audience. That’s a truism. Technology can’t yet replicate the immersive experience of being surrounded by other dimly lit sentient beings, their collective gaze focused on the moment-to-moment nuances of the living, breathing performer just 20 metres ahead; quietly judging him as he navigates his way through a background hum of drinking and asynchronous laughs. True, but it isn’t just technological constraints beyond our control that suck the authenticity from live comedy as it’s etched onto TV; the editing process does this too. And editing is within our control. Unfortunately, Live At the Apollo edits its clips with an excessive benignity; performers are cast in an artificially flattering light.
Just ask Nick Helm, a comedian who professed to have “died on stage” at Hammersmith’s Apollo Theatre in September 2015, prompting a thousand audience members to walk out. The edited and subsequently televised clip spins a different tale; a performance peppered with laughs and one that, to the undiscerning viewer at home, “looks like a good gig”.
Just as doctoring pictures of Stalin expunges any signs of the dictator’s political opposition, an overly favourable editing process removes the air of vulnerability from comedy. As a result, the comedian’s stoicism and skill-against-the-odds goes undocumented, leaving us with something that, although funny, is glib and anodyne: a matador pitted against a bull with sawn-off horns.
Of course, editors don’t have to do this. Across four seasons of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, we’re given a window into the pure, unplanned, and unrefined machinations of comedy. Editing each season into six 30-minute episodes ensures the series is televisable, but, in doing so, doesn’t divest us of a crucial layer of entertainment: the comedian vs. the audience contest.
Shot in Hackney’s Mildmay Club, a working men’s club that’s a far cry from Hammersmith’s packed 3,632-seater stadium, Comedy Vehicle‘s modest setting more closely resembles the types of rooms in which the bulk of live UK comedy unfolds. The club has a dull, sodium glow. Audience members are sat around tables. Their faces are weakly illuminated by small, table-top lamps, while pint glasses glint softly in the background. The effect of this setup is to create a kind of low-energy aura that seems more conducive to a jazz ensemble rather than a man hawking his highly polished jokes.
Comporting with such a relaxed affair then, the performer doesn’t walk on to rapturous, sycophantic cooing; Lee’s greeted by more measured applause. This is the beginning of the struggle. The comedian’s the underdog; he’ll have to win them over.
Having performed stand-up comedy since the late ‘80s, Lee’s clearly in his element under such conditions. With an arguably warranted swagger, he plays off the audience, deliberately splits the room and makes sardonic, off-the-cuff comments directly to the camera. Naturally, laughs ensue.
Stand-up comedy, conceivably more so than theatre or live music, relies on two-way interaction between the audience and performer. In its most primitive form, this involves going through routines as mandated by audience laughter. A punchline’s uttered; the audience laughs; the performer pauses accordingly and then proceeds to the next bit. A more evolved exchange sees the performer make comments explicitly about the audience laughter. This, in turn, generates more laughs.
Lee’s a fine exponent of this so-called “meta-humour”. A good example is at the end of “Shilbottle” (Season 3, Episode 1), where Lee is engrossed in a phone call with an imaginary “customer”. By describing the audience reactions to the (non-existent) person at the end of the phone, he’s able to snowball small audience laughs into much larger ones:
Stewart Lee (to customer on phone): “I then say … especially following hot off the heels of the Paxo incident.”
(Mild audience laughter)
(Stewart Lee looks around room to gauge audience response)
Stewart Lee (to customer): “Well a bit, but not enough for it to be a closing ….”
(Stronger audience laughter)
Stewart Lee (to customer): “Well, I don’t know how I’m gonna end this one … To be honest, I was hoping if I keep you on the line long enough, something might come up … The next reasonable sized laugh I get, I’m gonna slam down the phone, call for a blackout and say ‘That’s the end’.”
(Mild audience laughter)
Stewart Lee (to customer on phone): “No that wasn’t enough.”
(Stronger audience laughter)
Such interplay between Lee and the audience is an exemplar of what Erika Fischer-Lichte, Professor of Theatrical Studies at Berlin’s Free University, dubs an “autopoietic feedback loop”:
“Whatever the actors do elicits a response from the spectators, which impacts on the entire performance. In this sense, performances are generated and determined by a self-referential and ever-changing feedback loop. Hence, performance remains unpredictable and spontaneous to a certain degree.”
– Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance (2008:38).
Not all of such audience-performer interaction, however, is “unpredictable and spontaneous”. Sometimes, what may appear to be runaway improvisation is in fact premeditated script, unveiled with impeccable timing. Through clever writing, Lee engineers the predicted audience responses into his routines, thereby setting up further punchlines. As evidenced in “Religion”(Season 1, Episode 1), these lines work synergistically so that a routine builds to large laughs:
“There was a knock at my door…it was one of those Born-Again, Christian evangelists. He said to me, ‘Sir – the answer is Jesus. Now, what is the question?’ And I said to him, ‘Is the question, “For which role, was Robert Powell nominated for a Bafta?”’ And he said, ‘No, it isn’t that.’ I said, ‘Can I have another guess?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Is the question, “Complete the name of this popular early 1970s item of hippy footwear, The – Blank – Sandal?” ‘And he said, ‘No, it isn’t that.’ I said, ‘Can I have another guess?’ …He said, ‘Yes.’ …I said, ‘Is the question “Complete the name of this influential but little-known late 1980s Chicago rock band, The – Blank –Lizard?”’ (Mild audience laughter) He said, ‘I’ll warn you, if you’re considering recounting this conversation as some kind of stand-up routine…that reference, the Blank Lizard, has a very specific demographic reach.’” (Stronger audience laughter)
In “Childhood” (Season 4, Episode 6), we’re treated to a mixture of both planned and spontaneous audience interaction. Early in the episode, Lee plants humorous phrases, which he’ll repeat later on for further laughs (a widely used comic tool known as a “callback”). That’s the planned part. When he does eventually repeat these lines, he exploits the audience’s different reactions, toying with them in a masterful but nonetheless aleatory fashion. It’s upon this hinterland of improvised crowd-work that he then sculpts perhaps the funniest line in the fourth series: “Audiences like you as good as murdered Robin Williams”.
This is where Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle excels: we, the viewers at home, are given a sense of the comedian’s craftsmanship and finesse, the wielding of skill over an audience. The behind-the-performer camera angles accentuate this sense of mastery, making Lee and his audience look like a conductor and his orchestra. And what is the apotheosis of all of this? Artistic appreciation combined with rapturous laughter—live comedy at its best. But, in contrast to the pristinely edited Live at the Apollo, the viewer is privy to all of the naked comedic groundwork upon which such laughter emerges. To the viewer behind the screen, Stewart Lee has earned those laughs. His struggle is televised. The visible underdog has won.
“You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off at a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.”
As enshrined in the fifth of Bill Hicks’ 12 Principles of Comedy, it’s the remit of a stand-up comedian to improvise when things go awry. And in live comedy, things do go awry. Often. Hecklers heckle, glasses smash, and people leave the room, thereby forcing the comedian to “just move on”.
But it isn’t simply a case of “just moving on”. Without wanting to get mired in a discussion of aesthetics, a crude proxy of whether or not something counts as comedy is whether or not it makes you laugh. Stripped of this proclivity, comedy becomes inseparable from a piece of theatre or an interesting lecture. By extension then, improvisation that falls within the realm of comedy also has to be funny. Stewart Lee has little problem here.
In “Satire” (Season 3, Episode 3), Lee enters a routine that ostensibly requires of the audience some sort of familiarity with Animal Park, a wildlife show aired on the BBC. On asking the audience, only one man discloses his knowledge of the show. Later in the routine, Lee returns to him for his input, only to find out the man has left the room and gone to the toilet. This provokes Lee into a long, impromptu but nevertheless hilarious diatribe:
“He’s gone to the toilet? See the fucking level of contempt there! There’s a guy there, he knows this is for a recording for telly, he’s the only person in the room that can help me with this bit; and he’s left… he’s left, leaving no one with any working knowledge of Animal Park in the room! He’s gone to the toilet!
And not only that, but you won’t know this at home, before the recording started, I expressly forbid people from going to the toilet! Not only has he gone to toilet, in direct contravention of my instructions, but he has gone taking with him a piece of knowledge which could have saved this whole bit!
Can I just confirm as well, that this is actually really happening. I don’t want to fucking go on the Internet, and see everyone go, ‘Oh it’s brilliant when he faked that bloke going to the toilet.’ I haven’t.
An actual man, who is the only person here who knows what I am talking about, has left.”
Arguably, someone leaving for the toilet at an inopportune moment is a naturally humorous event; laughs would occur regardless of the comedian’s improvisation. Of course, not all unforeseen events are so congenial.
In “Stand-up” (Season 2, Episode 4) an audience member leaves the room as Lee is playing a song on a guitar, eclipsing a camera shot as he departs. A visibly angry Lee interrupts the song, pointing out the ruined camera shot out before maligning the audience member as a “horrible man”. It isn’t funny. It wasn’t supposed to be. But now there’s an awkward tension in the room. And, as with all such situations, inside or out of a comedy venue, it will have to be diffused with something that is funny: “I’m not having the public in to shows again. If only there were some way of eliminating you from the equation. It was just me and broadsheet journalists.””
On the surface, such a line reeks of hubris. Nevertheless, the audience laughs, and the tension in the room is successfully diffused. Why? According to the Superiority Theory of humour, proponents of which included Plato and Thomas Hobbes, we laugh when we feel a sense of superiority over a person or over a former version of ourselves. Perhaps it is in this instance (as well as in the aforementioned Animal Park scene) that Lee’s vulnerability, his patent lack of control over the audience, leads us to feel superior to him. As a result, we laugh.
Lee certainly does make an effort to appear inferior to his audience. He often turns to the camera, directly acknowledging the mixed responses evoked by his material. Frequent self-deprecatory interview skits (with either Armando Iannucci or Chris Morris) only augment this “comedy pariah” facade. Again, if there’s a tacit comedian vs. audience contest, it’s obvious who’s the underdog. And, once more, we must praise the editing of Comedy Vehicle. By keeping in all the gory details: the people walking out, the smashed glass during a lengthy routine about Rod Liddle (in “Migrants”, Season 4, Episode 5), as well as the comedian’s improvisations around such setbacks, we’re given a rare taste of the volatility that comes with live comedy.
Given this fidelity to warts and all live comedy (without even mentioning the series’ politically incisive material and the intelligent structure of each episode), it’s a shame that Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle hasn’t been re-commissioned for a fifth season.
Seasons one to three of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle are available on Netflix.