Saturday night, prime-time, BBC1. The happiest man in the world, or so it seems, bounds around a regional theatre in a sharp suit, his floppy hair-curtains bobbing along as he jiggles across the stage. He talks – no – shouts, about the ridiculous minutiae of modern life: adverts on daytime TV; the birth of the kilt; sensoractivated washroom taps. He is the master of observational comedy, and arguably Britain’s most popular stand-up. More importantly, Michael McIntyre is the figurehead for a new comedy movement that has brought stand-up back to the big time.
It’s no coincidence that the last great movement in British comedy came in the 1980s, during a time of political unrest and looming economic uncertainty. Into an industry that had previously been dominated by family-friendly comics such as Tommy Cooper and Frank Carson, edgy, ‘alternative’ comedians began to break – people like Ben Elton, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The socio-political climate seemed to act as a catalyst for a gear change, as simple punchline-based comedy was replaced by more daring material.
Interestingly, just as that new wave came as the 80s recession hit, the McIntyre generation has also struck gold during an economic crash. For perhaps blindingly obvious reasons, it seems live comedy gets a boost in times of hardship. When people have no money, laughter gives them a much-needed opportunity to release emotion and stress.
The more recent shift hasn’t been in style – although it’s true to say that comedians who simply ‘tell jokes’ have made a resurgence – but rather in popularity and cultural positioning. Until recently, London’s O2 Arena, the old Millennium Dome, was known as a live music venue. Now, thanks to McIntyre and his brethren, it’s becoming just as synonymous with comedy. A few years ago, the idea of a comedian playing to 20,000 people was almost unthinkable; now it’s a realistic ambition for travellers on comedy’s new fast-track, which plucks comics from relative obscurity, plops them onto one of the abundance of TV panel shows, and projects them through a sell-out tour. As well as McIntyre, comedy’s new top venue has been filled by the likes of Russell Brand, Al Murray and Lee Evans. Even lesser-known comics are now packing out venues of 2,000-plus, where previously they’d have been telling jokes to three people and a dog.
So what happened? Comedy clubs have been an entertainment option for decades, but it’s only recently that television executives – first with Live at the Apollo and latterly shows such as Comedy Roadshow and Stand up for the Week – have brought the live comedy experience into living rooms at prime time. As a result, a whole generation of comics have become simultaneously well-known. With only a limited number of spaces on those shows, the standups have fanned out into a raft of shows with a near identical format: Mock the Week, 8 out of 10 Cats, Ask Rhod Gilbert and Frank Skinner’s Opinionated to name but a few. And with comedians so proliferate and so familiar, the culture of going to the comedy club is fast replacing the now-outrageously-priced live music scene for many people.
The McIntyre effect
The prince of this new comedy kingdom wasn’t handed his throne by chance. Some comedy purists look down on Michael McIntyre as a cheap purveyor of ‘have-you-ever-noticed’ observational comedy, but the reality is that his cultural analysis is laser-accurate. His ability to hit small but familiar targets in his audience’s collective consciousness is remarkable – witness his now oft-quoted description of the ‘man drawer’ – a universal detail of most men’s lives that until now they simply hadn’t noticed or defined. He spends his life taking great care to observe the tiny and ridiculous details of mainstream culture, and he does this all in preparation for a short piece of dynamic communication… can you guess where this is going?
Observational comedy is frivolous fun and little more, but the process of preparation that the comedian has to go through to create it is scrupulous and precise. McIntyre listens carefully to the world his audience inhabits and points out the things that they knew deep down all along, and the experience of recognition creates natural laughter. There’s a lesson for Christian communicators here, and also a parallel. Preachers seeking to connect with their audiences, and to create resonant points of life application, would do well to follow the stand-up’s example. McIntyre is successful because he doesn’t rest lazily on cultural stereotypes, but digs deep to find unexpected yet relevant nuggets of insight. How many times have you heard a preacher grasp vaguely for cultural relevance, when it’s patently clear they last went to the cinema in 1978? Yet if we do the work on understanding and interpreting the culture, then our communication can have a far greater impact than McIntyre’s throwaway amusement. Surely great preaching is about connecting with the congregation’s soul, and pointing out the things that deep down, they knew all along? Here though, it doesn’t produce the reflex of laughter, but rather of growth and change.
What can preaching learn?
Advocates of short-form communication, such as Nooma pioneer Rob Bell, have helped to promote a notion that people no longer have the attention span to cope with 40-minute sermons. In an age where abundant, instant, on-demand media has become normality, such an argument seems to make sense. And yet in comedy clubs and live concert venues the length and breath of the UK, men and women are holding an audience’s attention for a sermon’s-length and longer. Of course, comedy is perhaps the easiest way to keep a listener engaged, but some of these comics aren’t of McIntryre’s rapid-fire ilk. Some are storytellers, rewarding careful listeners who journey with them on a joke lasting several minutes. My comparison may not be fair – I’m not quite equating like with like – but stand-ups and preachers are cousins at least; the rare people in our culture who still attract a crowd to hear them talk. The two can surely learn a lot from one another.
There are a few things that we shouldn’t be aiming to transfer. The latest comedy revolution is creating a generation of minor and major celebrities, while the culture of ‘celebrity’ pastors and Christian speakers is something I pray will wither and die soon. And as we’ve established, most populist comedy is all surface and no-depth; harder-hitting ‘message’ comedians such as Mark Thomas lack their universal popularity. The trend of preaching which is similarly shallow (often propagated by perpetrators of the previous offence) is another we could do without.
Yet there are other, more helpful lessons. Comics prove that people will listen to someone as long as they remain engaged – a helpful challenge to any of us who presume to be preachers. And both types of communicator are essentially story-tellers – good comedians will find their stories being retold the next day at the water-cooler by delighted audience members. Great preachers can hope for the same from their congregations, and when that happens, preaching takes on a viral, missional life of its own.
It’s unclear how long the current stand-up revival will last. Perhaps when the green shoots of economic recovery begin to appear, we’ll lose our hunger for a collective laugh, or we’ll begin to tire of that frankly already-irritating hair. Let’s not miss the opportunity however, to be inspired by this fresh wave of individuals who know how to tell stories, engage an audience, and make oldschool stand-up communication relevant in the 21st century.