Whenever I see the posters for Mickey Flanagan’s London run, I am firstly impressed and secondly disappointed. He is one of the best of the everyman comedians, commenting on a life we know but revealing it in a way that surprises us. He rethinks the mundane in a manner that remains with you long after the venue has been swept and the lights rehung for the next coming attraction. With a care that comes more easily to comedians that started later and had proper jobs under their belt before their first jokes became public, he has built a career on beautifully honed routines. Now he can stand in front of tens of thousands of people per week, a small spot on the stage infecting a vast area with joy like a benevolent virus.
I remember gigging with him in Eastbourne many years ago. I had played the same venue the month before and ended up doing thirty minutes on the shame of seaside chip shops using non-brewed condiment rather than vinegar. To skimp on the vinegar defines the rot and death of ambition in a beach side fish and chippery. That month, the audience had been compliant with this pointless improvisation of fast food fury and a delight to play to.
The February audience were very different. I had been called in at the last minute to compere the gig. I took to the stage expecting a licence to be playful but from the first sentence I sensed they were not going to like the cut of my jib. I put my head down and worked out how to get through the night with the least damage to my ego. The problem of MCing is you don’t just get to be viewed with veiled or overt animosity once in a night, you are giving them four separate opportunities to hate you. I coped, I had experienced worse.
It had been a toss up between Mickey closing and Chris Lynam. Lynam strides the line between performance art and comedy in a messy and anarchistic manner. The week before he had stormed the room I had seen in him. He is a former member of The Greatest Show on Legs (famous for their balloon dance) and to see that mix of terror and exhilaration he creates in an audience means he can be hard to follow. Also he can leave a lot of spitty chocolate globules and fire damage on the stage. We decided he would close. From the moment Mickey took to the stage, the audience were comfortable and soon after they were apoplectic. When Chris went on, they returned to their mob status, this creature was alien to them, his ideas and poetry a threat to the status quo of Eastbourne. He must be told there is no place for him here. A few minutes in, someone shouted out, “I think they’d like this thing down at Brighton, dear”. Chris went straight to the finale, stripping and placing a Roman Candle firework between his butt cheeks and lighting it. As the audience booed, the firework flared. Chris resisted the urge to change the aim of his butt and point it to the audience and so the night ended with sparks and anger.
Mickey’s success is very understandable and as deserved as pretty much any comedian who has made it to the arena circuit. My disappointment is not in his fortune, but just that comedy, when successful, must take to arenas. Arenas douse the joy of spectacular rock bands, let alone one human doing jokes. A sterile bar, your waxy cardboard cups of warming booze, hard plastic chairs that are barely suited to a station platform let alone for 80 minutes of watching one small thing moving around a bit, making you behave as if you were a giggling sniper.
In Steve Martin’s brilliant Born Standing Up, after his very tough years of revolutionising stand up, often to ambivalent or hostile crowds, he finds himself in arenas, and he hates it. If only there were more video recordings of his act in the small theatres and clubs, the Hollywood Bowl sees a man gritting his teeth as he pulls out the props that will create the Pavlovian response. Why use a dog and a bell, when you can use a man and a joke arrow.
Surely something has to be lost when you change 500 for 10,000 and is there anything gained beyond the money? (and I don’t knock that, I can see why the paycheck for a night of playing to 10,000 people is alluring). What is the connection between act and audience with such a divide? Surely the communication of ideas is distilled, but I presume the audience must have a good time or they wouldn’t keep returning. Doesn’t the subtlety, the nuance, the sense of individual experience slacken as the seat numbers increase? The people getting up and down to get to the bar, to go to the toilet, to bathe in the light of that person that has been on the telly, these things make me feel that both sides lose the intensity of the relationship, which might be of love or hate, between act and audience. The attention must weaken when you can no longer see the whites of the comic’s eyes, and so the jokes must change, their function deforms, they must become as universal as possible, the room for idiosyncrasy is squeezed.
I have not seen Mickey Flanagan in an arena, I am sure he will have created a show that will deliver the delight required for the capacity while maintaining the style that has made him so loved.
For audiences that have only experienced comedy at at this scale, I wonder if they know that stand up can be so much more when there are far less, they probably don’t care.
What would Dave Allen have been in the 02 or Lenny Bruce at the Hollywood Bowl? I think of how annoyed I am when I watch George Carlin concerts where the audience howl, bray and whoop in such a way that I can’t help but feel some of them are missing the stabs he is making at society. I know of at least one comedian who, at his peak, turned down an arena tour because he felt it would damage the show he was doing and change the experience for him and the audience.
I can’t understand what delight there is in arena stand up, but then again, I’ve never bought a Coldplay album or seen a Lord of the Rings movie, so what do I know of what the people want?
And that brings to an end, an old man reminisces.
My small room tour is coming to Manchester, Brighton, Sheffield, East London, Bath and plenty more places, plus two more Christmas shows with Brian Cox at Hammersmith. all details of all things HERE
Happiness Through Science DVD HERE
FOOTNOTE – Mark Steel tells me Lenny Bruce did do a stadium gig, it was two thirds empty and doesn’t sound very good on the recording.