Funny by numbers

Last night, we went along to the Channel 4 Comedy Gala.  It’s been recorded and will be on TV next Monday evening.

There were a LOT of stand-up comedians on the bill.  And I mean a LOT.  Each of them was given around five minutes and as you’d expect, some tickled my funny bone and some didn’t.

But as this isn’t a review – I shall limit myself to saying Bill Bailey and Michael McIntyre good – but that was expected.  Lee Evans not as annoying as I’d feared and actually quite funny.

More interesting was to note the same formula used by so many of the comedians on the bill.  Before we look at the formula itself, there’s a few things you need to know about the gig. 

  • It was in the O2.  That’s a very big venue. 
  • To get onto the stage, the acts had to walk up a few stairs
  • The gig was in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital

Armed with just those three facts you could reconstruct the set of many of the comedians on the bill.  So let’s do that.

First, walk up the stairs. 

If you trip on the stairs, make a joke about how that wasn’t intentional and how it all could’ve gone badly wrong.

If you aren’t the fittest person in the world, make a joke about how walking up the stairs was hard work.

Stand still for a minute and look out into the crowd.  Then utter an expletive and say how big the room is.  (Almost everyone except Lee Evans did this!). 

To get the crowd on side, ask if they’re having a good time and make a joke about how long the evening is.  (Again – almost everyone except Lee Evans)

Maybe riff a little about the fact that the O2 used to be the Millennium Dome.  It’s sponsored by a mobile phone company, so if you have some jokes about call plans or text messages, now’s your chance.

Then go into three minutes or so of your own material – maybe throwing in a few references to children or hospitals if you want to be topical.

If at any point you start to lose the crowd, either talk about how great the cause is. (Cue applause)

Or failing that, talk about how intimidated you are by the size of the room and how happy you are that you are getting through your set without dying. (Yes, one of them really did spend a proportion of their set doing just this…)

Finally, say what a great night is ahead of the audience, say thank you for coming and leave the stage.


Of course, as the evening drags on, you can start to turn the “length of the show joke” into “don’t worry, you can go home soon”. 

If you’re feeling subversive, you could say that you’re not going to ask the crowd if they are enjoying the evening, as so many other people have asked that. 

Now, I realise I’m starting to sound miserable at this point.  Don’t get me wrong; I had a cracking evening and spent most of it laughing.  But there are two ways of looking at comedy – analogous to two ways in which you can listen to music.

I can listen to a song and get caught up in the emotion and the sound and the mood.  Or I can listen to a song and count the beats, listen for the chord changes, listen for the breaths on the vocal track and take it apart.

The first can be a moving experience.  The second can be an interesting experience.

Last night, at the gig itself, I was moved to laughter.  Right now, I’m being interesting.(*)

But is there a connection between the two ways of looking at comedy?  I think there is.  And my reason is that if I think of the acts who still stand out in my mind from last night, they are the ones who didn’t stick to the script.  Or who subverted the script.

Shappi Khorsandi gave five minutes of well-rehearsed and good material. 

Michael McIntyre was gifted with following Katie Price and Alex Reid on the bill which would provide anyone with enough material to fill five minutes, but still delivered some great and original material of his own.

Bill Bailey provided a brilliant musical opening to the second half.

And – much as it pains me to say this – Lee Evans was actually very funny.  Obviously at home in such large arenas, he knows how to connect with a large crowd.

Given it was a charity gig – and that nobody was truly awful – I think it’d be wrong of me to pick out some of my least favourite acts and at an evening with so many comedians on the bill some are bound to resonant with my sense of humour more than others.

I would recommend watching on Monday though – but if you want to see what I mean above – buy the uncut DVD coming out later in April.  It’s for a good cause after all…

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