The rise and rise of the TV comedian

Do we really want yet another stand-up comedy series on television? The ratings and box-office spin-offs say we do

Do we really want yet another stand-up comedy series on television? The ratings and box-office spin-offs say we do

AS THE FIRST headlining act of RTÉ’s new stand-up comedy show Stewart Lee says: “For decades, stand-up comedians entered the palace of entertainment by the tradesman’s entrance. Now the red carpet is rolled out.” There has never been so much live comedy on TV and, whereas before it was marginalised to late-night slots and prefixed with the unwieldy term “alternative”, now it is centre-stage and prime-time.

It’s the Michael McIntyre effect: how one comic sanded down the edges of stand-up, wrapped it up in a family-friendly box and placed it right in the middle of mainstream TV schedules.

UK shows such as McIntyre's Roadshowand Live at the Apollohave large viewing figures because they succeed in creating the atmosphere of a comedy club night out – but without all the swearing, heckling and spilt drinks. Acts deliver slick routines, controversial and challenging material is edited out, and it has all become a bit like the variety show of old.


RTÉ's new live-comedy show, Stand and Deliver, which begins on Monday night, may use the boilerplate format of a Live at the Apollo but with a west-of-Ireland spin.

One of the show's producers, Deborah Pearce, didn't just want an Irish Comedy Roadshow.

“While we do have an opening act, a second act and a headlining act in each of the shows, we didn’t just want to put these acts into the Olympia or the Gaiety and have it look like any other show,” she says.

“We decided to film the whole series in Galway and use as much footage of the west of Ireland as we could. All the acts performed in the Róisín Dubh in Galway, which fits just over 200 people – the sort of room comedians really like.”

Running over six weeks, Stand and Deliverfeatures acts such as Stewart Lee, Reginald D Hunter, Sarah Millican and Glen Wool, as well as a number of established Irish comics (Jason Byrne, Colin Murphy and so on) and up-and- coming talents (John Colleary, John Lynn, Gearóid Farrelly).

"By bringing the show down to a smaller venue in Galway, we wanted to get away from the Supernova comedy show of a Live at the Apolloand have it more as an Other Voicesof Irish comedy," says Pearce.

Using an Irish trad-music version of Adam and the Ants' Stand and Deliveras its soundtrack, the programme also has Barry Murphy providing atypical links.

“Barry does some great poetry – so instead of just having an MC introduce the acts, we have Barry in a variety of west-of-Ireland locations reading out a poem about the act, which serves as their introduction – it was to get away from the usual ‘and now, all the way from Australia . . .’ introduction,” says Pearce.

“We also got all the headlining acts out into Galway to interact with the city – we have Stewart Lee on a bus tour of the city, Reginald D Hunter went down to the Claddagh area and other acts just walked around different parts of the city.

“The initial idea was to bring them far out into Connemara and film segments there, but because of time constraints and the horrendous weather we had during filming, we had to confine ourselves to the city mostly.”

Pearce, who used to run Irish comedy agency Comedybook, believes that, without the right sort of TV exposure, comics are going nowhere.

“There is a magic about the live show that is very hard to get down,” she says.

"It's good to have this particular live show on RTÉ because it can't all just be about The Panel. And sometimes comics can be undersold on TV because it doesn't play to their strengths."

Once they had Stewart Lee on board as the headlining act for the first show, they found it easier to attract other big names. “We got almost everyone on our wish list,” says Pearce.

Trying to re-create a comedy club for a TV audience is no easy feat. Despite its casual racism and surfeit of "mother-in-law" jokes, The Comedianswas the first programme to do just that for Granada TV in the 1970s.

The big breakthrough came with the rise of "alternative" comedy at the back end of the 1980s, with the arrival of the Ben Elton-fronted Saturday Live, which propelled Elton himself, Harry Enfield, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry to fame.

It’s all been a bit hit and mess since then, but now live TV comedy – thanks to its mainstream exposure – is in the best shape it has ever been.

The knock-on effect from the huge TV ratings for any amount of panel shows and stand-up shows has seen live comedy tickets rise in the UK and Ireland from 100,000 in 2004 to a million for 2009.

Peter Kay sold 400,000 tickets for his current tour in just three hours (breaking a box-office record set by Take That) and Michael McIntyre shifted a breathtaking 250,000 copies of his last live DVD in just its first week of sales.

It has got to the stage where even the not-that-well-known Rhod Gilbert received a reported €300,000 advance for his live DVD.

Big money is sloshing around the comedy circuit and the boom, it seems, hasn’t even peaked yet.

Stand and Deliveris on RTÉ2 on Monday at 10pm

Not coming to a TV screen near you . . .

It may seem as if the only three comics you ever see on TV these days are Lee Evans, Jason Manford and Michael McIntyre, but there are far superior acts out there who, for a variety of reasons, never get the television exposure they deserve.

Daniel Kitson

The unprepossessing Yorkshire comedian is one of the best talents of his generation, but recent years have seen him move away from stand-up into more theatrical-style one-man-show territory. He's ideologically opposed to frothy comedy shows on television.

Simon Munnery

"Coffee, chocolate, cocaine – I wonder what further treats South America has in store for us?" Munnery is explosively but eccentrically talented and specialises in the sort of material TV producers find just that bit too "edgy and dangerous". Their loss.

Doug Stanhope

The American comic has been accused of most every "ism" in the book thanks to his scattergun delivery and material that is not for the faint-hearted. TV is just plain frightened of him.

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes mainly about music and entertainment