Comic and rising TV star Stewart Lee thinks that money might kill American stand-up. But its sitcoms are still the best in the world. And it's about time that complacent Britain learned how to do it.
And here's another funny thing, why can't we make sitcoms like theirs?
America invented, refined and made an art-form of stand-up. Now it and its huge television interests are in danger of smothering stand-up. I've just found myself at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival delivering a slide-enhanced lecture to American comedy industry insiders on the subject American Comedy Sucks - and here's why. Festival organiser Andy Nullman had suggested the title, probably because I spent most of last year's festival wandering around with a look of horror on my face.
Almost without exception this year, the British acts at Montreal seemed impossibly exciting and inventive alongside most of their American counterparts, We dared to take risks. But British acts aren't inherently more creative, it's just that we may as well be, because in financial terms, compared to the Americans, we have nothing to lose. In America, money has stifled creativity.
These days, most American stand-up comedians are really actors who have a stand-up set as a way of getting spotted. On stage, they are playing a character that they hope will fill a part a casting director needs filled. You can write two- or three-word descriptions of the style and subject material of American stand-ups that read like casting calls for minor characters in sitcoms and comedy films.
"On tonight's bill here at Ha Ha Hole: Angry Fat Guy, Cute Young Punk Rock Guy Who Doesn't Understand What Chicks Want, Shouting Bald Guy, Italian Guy From New York Who Might Make A Good Cab Driver In Something, Woman Who Can't Find A Man Despite Being Attractive Enough To Front Her Own Show Given The Correct Team Of Writers After All We Don't Want To Alienate The Viewers By Casting Someone Who Genuinely Looks Like They Couldn't Get A Man, Guy With Hand Puppet, Guy Who Is Unreasonably Annoyed About Trivial Things etc."
If, like Tim Allen, you do an act for 10 years where all you do is talk about DIY, maybe in the end some TV executive will have the initiative to cast you in a sitcom where you play the part of a man interested in DIY. Though, given how stupid TV exec are, this is still a risk.
In our backwoods innocence it wouldn't occur to us to choose stand-up as a movie career path. the lack of business acumen of British stand-ups means we now have a creative edge. Currently, curcumstances allow our better acts to offer an exciting alternative to the American stand-up fare. But in 10 years, when we've had our comedy boom, when all British clubs are run as professionally as Jongleurs or The Comedy Store, when we've had all our new talent bled dry by cable TV stand-up shows, when the British public, like the US public, have seen so many cheap TV stand-up shows that they're bored of them, we'll approach the same crisis.
Despite the proliferation of American actor stand-ups, it doesn't seem to be infecting American comedy TV which is the best in the world, precisely because it has money, and it uses that money to nurture even the weakest talents. It's a common generalisation in Britain that Americans don't understand irony.
This seems ironic, given that when the BBC tried to show The Simpsons, the cleverest, funniest, mainstream TV show ever, in the prime time slot it obviously deserves, they pulled it after a couple of weeks when the oh-so-clever British audience, who do understand irony, preferred to watch Sabrina The Teenage Witch.
|Downstairs in a cellar at the BBC is kept the international unit of sitcom season length. It is made of solid brass and was put in place in 1078 by William the Conqueror in case somebody invented TV|
Britain likes to think it makes the best comedy programmes in the world, and the rest of the world politely encourages us to believe this obvious fallacy, which is based on the fact that at some time in the 1970s the BBC produced 12 whole episodes of Fawlty Towers, before everyone involved got a bit tired and gave up. Twelve episodes is some way short of the usual 22 week runs that most popular American sitcoms achieve regularly, even Saved By The Bell, the College Years.
the BBC heads of comedy say that the reason we can't compete internationally, and make seasons of 22, the accepted international unit of the sitcom, is because we don't have teams of writers. And if you asked individual or pairs of writers to write seasons of more than six they wouldn't be able to do it.
Of course, three years back, when I and my writing partner asked this man if we could do a series of eight rather than six, so that after a couple of years we'd have the number of shows that would be saleable to America they still said no. And after a period of negotiation, it seemed to me that the reason why they said no was "because we just make six, that's all. that's what we do."
Historically, Britain has invented and set international standards of measurement. Thanks to John Harrison, time begins at and is measured from a straight line on the floor outside Greenwich Obervatory. In Trafalgar Square, there's a bronze fixture called the National Yard, the unit of measurement of length against which all yards all over the world must be measured.
And downstairs in a cellar at the BBC is the international unit of sitcom season length. It is made of solid brass and was put in place by William The Conqueror, who declared that in the event of the television being invented at some point in the future, the correct number of shows would be six, no matter how much extra funding the BBC could get to pay for teams of writers if it made them in a saleable chunk.
British sitcoms at present could not sustain long runs anyway because all the characters are shallow caricatures, even in Ab Fab. Put Jennifer Saunders and June Whitfield alongside the more well-defined Friends characters in a Friends Go To London episode and they would look like infant school children who've raided the dressing-up box, somehow appearing alongside a bunch of top-notch 1970s Martin Scorcese actors. And British writers get paid so badly in comparison with all the American ones that there's no reason for anyone to sweat any blood over writing sitcoms over here. In America, a really clever graduate from university might carve out a more lucrative career as a comedy writer than as a lawyer or a doctor.
Here, those who can't do, those who can't teach, and those who can't even teach, might try their hand at writing topical jokes about the news for a BBC radio weekly satire show with the hope of progressing in a few years to writing bits for a BBC TV comedy that will only run for six shows anyway.
So I made all these points to the assembled mass, set within a few cheap jokes about Ben Elton's face, a display of a toy radio-controlled Bob Hope, and some slides of volcanic eruptions in Iceland, just to provide a respite from my opinions for anyone who didn't agree with them. And I ended up with a little story about the Native American clowns of the Hopi and Navaho tribes, who used vicious and scatological physical comedy as a safety valve to ensure the ongoing peace of their societies. And the response I got was terrific. Particularly to the slides of volcanoes.
But I was reminded of the Bill Hicks routine, where he goes round telling people who work in advertising to kill themselves, and then imagining them watching him saying: "Hey! look - Bill's going for the anti-marketing dollar!" My mid-afternoon lecture had probably made more of an impact with the industry than any of the high-profile stand-up shows I'd done all week, which had never been an outcome I'd considered or calculated.
"I loved your talk," a woman said. "I'm from Warner Brothers. Do you ever do castings?" "yeah," I replied. "I'm interested in playing the part of a 30-year-old Englishwoman who does lectures." She smiled, blankly. Americans. No sense of irony, you see.
Stewart Lee is performing solo at the Pleasance (0131-550-6550) during Edinburgh Festival. He will also appear with Richard Herring at the George Square Theatre (0131-662-8740)
A montage of pics of Basil Fawlty:
'John Cleese's Fawlty Towers ran for 12 episodes in the 1970s...'
Pic of The Simpsons:
'You want irony... The Simpsons have [sic] loads of it'