Why do Australian television networks love broadcasting stand-up comedy? Not only has ABC2 just got into the act with Comedy Next Gen, a sixteen-part series focusing on up-and-coming stand-up – well, it’s kind of hard to call Aunty Donna up-and-coming after a bunch of pilots and a US series on the way, but they’re in the first episode (which aired Saturday night and is repeated this Thursday) so there you are – but it seems Stan are currently recording a bunch of big name award-winning stand-up shows (including Wil Anderson, Judith Lucy, Tom Gleeson, Sam Simmons – who will be doing a “best-of” show – Tom Ballard, and Celia Pacquola) to air sometime in 2017. It’s a Golden Age!
Well, not so much: there’s been at least two big series of live stand-up recordings over the last few years, both of which are still available on DVD, and the idea of putting stand-up comedy on television basically unfiltered goes back at least as far as The Big Gig (or The Smallest Room in the House if you’re talking longer sets). But still, having two different series on the go (that adds up to around 24 hours of broadcast stand-up comedy) is a pretty big vote of confidence in the form.
(oh yeah, a review: Aunty Donna are really funny and this one hour show shows them off to great effect. A lot of it is silly random LOL stuff but through sharp observation and decent character dynamics between the trio, they make it work on a level above “check this crazy shit out”.)
With the Australian comedy scene the way it is, it’s really important that these shows are being recorded. A lot of these people are never going to get the chance to put their own television shows to air; some of them may not even want to. Others have acts that seem to work best in a live setting, so this kind of series can be the only way a lot of people will see them at their best. And with there no longer being any kind of televised variety showcase where stand-ups can appear and do a tight five or whatever, this is really the only way that stand-up comedy can make it onto television.
That said, this kind of series is not the best possible showcase for stand up. Stand up works best as a live performance, duh: people realised simply filming a stage show wasn’t the best way to tell a story on film about five seconds after cameras were invented, and simply pointing a couple of cameras at a stage during a live performance is in no way the best way to show off a live performer. Seeing something happening right in front of you has an energy that doesn’t transfer to home viewing and as often that energy is what a live show needs to make a full hour of it watchable, simply recording a full show can sometimes be a less than thrilling home viewing experience no matter how good the performer and material is.
Of course stand-up can work on television. The shorter the better is often a good guide. UK comedian Stewart Lee’s stand-up series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle only ran half an hour per episode, broke his stand-up with interview cutaways, and was specifically designed to work on television, with him often turning away to talk to camera about how his act was going. It may not seem like a huge difference – large chunks of his show were still recorded stand-up comedy – but taking the different nature of television into account just a little can make a big difference in how watchable the end product is.