Opinion: Giant Letters And Tiny Performers; Why Arena Tours Are Bad For Live Comedy.
Before we get started, I’d just like to get one thing out into the open: I hate the thought of seeing a comedian at an arena. It’s not out of any snobby ‘I only liked them before they got so famous’ shtick and it’s not out of any problem with ubiquity and mass appeal (hell, it’s not even out of any phobia of over-sized retina-shatteringly bright letters, though it really, really should be). What it actually is, is that arenas are gaping, cavernously empty, soulless aircraft hangers with over-priced bars and all the charm of group of drunken rars pissing over the side of a canal boat. You really might as well hold a comedy show inside Jordan’s vagina.
“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome to the stage, MICHAEL MCINTYRE!!…Or is it John Bishop? Hang on, I’ll just get my binoculars….my mistake, it’s actually Jack Whitehall, I didn’t think he was that well known but never mind.” That’s the sort of announcement I always visualise when I think of comedians announcing and playing arena tours. That and some ridiculously large letters spelling out the comedian’s name, because let’s face it, every comedian who’s suddenly jumped onto the type of stage usually reserved for Iron Maiden or The Killers has a brightly lit reminder of who they are looming on the stage behind them (which is frankly dangerous, one of these days someone will probably be crushed by their own letters, which will just be embarrassing. Bill Hicks wouldn’t be quite as iconic if he got flattened on-stage by a giant ‘H’), presumably just so you will realise your mistake if you turn up on the wrong night, or accidentally get Russell Brand tickets for Christmas instead of Russell Howard.
You could argue that if arenas are good enough for musicians then there’s no reason comedians should be any different; comedy is, after all, enjoying one of those rare purple patches where it seems more accessible as ever, yet is for some reason considered the new rock and roll. Surely when a formerly edgy movement reaches such levels of stadium filling mediocrity though it should really be thought of as the new R ‘n’B, or U2. Or Justin Bieber. Just look at Peter Kay’s recent sell-tour: can so many people really still find garlic bread side splittingly hilarious? Especially when light observational comedy has become the default position of TV shows such as Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow. Again, this isn’t an ‘I hate it because its so bloody popular’ rant, it just so happens that a lot of what is popular at the moment appears to be based on reminiscence and often ends up as the equivalent of hyperactive children shouting “OPAL FRUITS!? REMEMBER THEM?! at a room who’ve paid forty quid to see their face on a large telly from the back of a room instead of waiting six months to buy the now-inevitable DVD for a tenner.
Even music isn’t ideally suited to the large venues that its upper echelons inhabit, but it does have the advantage of being able to up scale to the demands of the venue, see any band at a large venue and at the lowest end of the theatrical spectrum they’re at least likely to have more spotlights than a prison yard and at the high end (think Alice Cooper) the stage show is likely to rival anything you’ll see in the west end. Comedy though should be about connecting to the audience, and I really don’t see how that could work half as well in an arena as opposed to a large theatre or city hall. Even those venues are a far way from small pubs and clubs where the comic could look into the eye of anybody in the room, but there’s still the ability to talk directly to (and receive heckles from) large sections of the stalls and the balconies and maintain a friendly atmosphere and I believe that some of that is down to the type of atmosphere inherent of theatres. Performing at an arena robs everyone involved of a large percentage of that warmth and inclusiveness, at an arena you have paid to see someone deliver their script to you and that’s it. It also raises the question of how popular comedians of the past would have handled such hollow and impersonal surroundings. Benny Hill was hugely popular but when it came to performing live he struggled to project beyond the foremost rows. How would he have fared being hoisted onto a giant stage a few short years after gaining his popularity?
If you look at the listings though it becomes clear that a decent percentage of the longer-established, yet equally successful comics recognise the advantages of the theatre. Comics like Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle and Dylan Moran could have easily made the jump years ago through their TV profiles if they so wished and comedy legend Billy Connolly would have no problem selling out a year long residency at London’s o2 instead of playing Newcastle’s city hall on every tour. However, each one of these comedians is far edgier than any act to be found on an arena stage. In fact most of those acts have been picked up by a BBC comedy remit show (be it Live At The Apollo, or Comedy Roadshow), performed a standard inoffensive act, been well received and given their own series or a part in a series (Comedy Roadshow, John Bishop’s Britain, Kevin Bridges on Stand Up For the Week) and then being thrown onto the biggest stages in the land in front of a film crew.
Instead of a natural progression then, the arena tour seems to be increasingly morphing into a hallmark of mainstream, populist, middle of the road success (compare McIntyre and John Bishop’s earlier panel show appearances to what they’re doing now and they’ve blunted faster than a pencil that’s being used to carve into a schoolboy’s desk), a place where the BBC’s favourite pet comedians get fast-tracked to a success beyond what is deserved at an often very early stage in their career as a whole. What’s worse though is that the very idea of arena tours eschews the notion of comedy as an inclusive, audience centric medium in favour of selling as many tickets as possible, and in that sense at least live comedy is beginning to share the stage with live music.