Standing-Up (18): How do you judge comedy?

I tried stand-up comedy 30 times during the period of 12 months, from October 2012 to October 2013 (this time last year). I ‘performed’ in Barcelona, Madrid, London, New York and Edinburgh. Most of it is documented in these ‘Stand Up’ blogs. It all started with Logan Murray’s brilliant comedy course, continued for a while with a TV documentary crew following me to London and the famous Comedy Store to shoot for a possible fly-on-the-wall pilot, and ‘culminated’ with me delivering four lunchtime ‘shows’ of 45 minutes each during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was an experience I will never forget and one I probably would never want to repeat (but never say never). So – I last did stand-up comedy a year ago, in the final of the Barcelona International Comedy Festival. And tonight I am one of the judges for the same competition …

How do you judge comedy? On laughs, mainly. But it’s not as simple as that. Tonight we’ve got to also take in the writing, creativity, presence, performance, potential and timing. Not just comedy timing – but the time spent on stage.

I’ve been going back through some of these comedy blogs, re-reading my own experiences and observations about the craft and ‘business’ of comedy – and I believe they all ring true for the performers tonight. There’s comedy and comedy and comedy and comedy. Not everyone laughs at the same thing. Some comedians that you find funny, others loathe. There’s a big difference between the comedy of Harry Hill and Eddie Izzard, for example, or Peter Kay and Louis C.K., Jennifer Saunders and Bridget Christie, Jack Whitehall and Ruby Wax … or the ‘true alternative’ comedians such as Stewart Lee compared to the ‘stadium family comedy’ of Michael McIntyre/John Bishop … it goes on and on. There are comedians who play it deadpan (Jack Dee), others who are ‘lovable buffoons’ (think of Tommy Cooper, and now Lee Evans), comedians who have a ‘persona’ (Dame Edna, Les Patterson) and there’s storytelling (a lot of Billy Connolly), one-liners (Jimmy Carr), impressionists (Alistair McGowan), ‘smart arses’ (Steve Martin), confrontationalists, ‘comic messiahs’ (think George Carlin) or simple ‘outsiders’. You might laugh at something I don’t find funny at all. And vice versa.

It’s been very, very difficult to choose the nine finalists tonight from the 20 or so who have been competing. For the past three consecutive Thursday nights, I have turned up at Las Cuevas or 7 Sins bar to witness all the acts. I have laughed loads, there have been some amazing performances, some excellent free comedy, and some brilliant ‘compère-ing’. I’ve seen performers from Sweden, Ireland, Scotland, London, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Los Angeles, even homegrown Catalunya. I’ve seen nerves, real nerves – I’ve seen sweat – I’ve seen hands shaking – I’ve seen trembling – I’ve seen voices and mouths drying up – and I’ve seen talent – I’ve seen it all – and I have the utmost respect for every single one of them. What I learned about stand-up is that it is fucking hard. Nothing more, nothing less. It takes guts (and insanity) to stand up on stage and try to make an audience laugh for 6 minutes – let alone 8 minutes. My advice to you performers tonight is to relax and enjoy the experience. Look at the crowd, make eye contact, and try to get a joke in as quickly as possible. They’ll laugh. And when they do, it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s an experience you’ll keep forever – and so you’re all winners – every single one of you. You should be proud of yourselves.

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