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21st November 2019

Is it Art?: Stand-up comedy

In this week’s ‘Is it Art?’, David N. Rose asks whether stand-up comedy is art
Is it Art?: Stand-up comedy
Slap and Giggle comedy night at Frog and Bucket (© Frog and Bucket)

On a recent episode of Radio 4’s ‘The Now Show’, I heard a guest comedian bemoan the fact that stand-up comedy was not considered an art form by Arts Council England. The Council invests in artistic endeavours using a mixture of government money and national lottery funding.

The usual suspects are numbered among the disciplines supported by the Council: literature, visual art, dance, theatre, and so on, as well as museums, libraries, and cultural institutions. The craft of stand-up, however, is notable by its absence. In answer to the question “is it art?”, the investors seem to answer “no”.

Needless to say, the Arts Council is not the almighty arbiter of what is and isn’t art. That prerogative falls to me, and indeed to the rest of the concerned Internet, where stand-up has been called “the forgotten stepchild of the performing arts.” The title of one opinion piece on this question rather speaks for itself: “Standup comedy was and is an art form, and anyone disputing that claim is either making a joke or dim-witted.”

If stand-up is art, then it is indeed performance art. A stand-up comic presents you with a character, a stage version of herself. No matter how truthful she may claim to be, she is ultimately a performing artist, like an actor or a poet. And while a good comic will appear natural, confident, even artless, it only takes suffering through one or two bad performances to see the craft.

I’ve been to enough ropey open-mic stand-up nights around Manchester to know that there’s a difference between those who can and those who can’t. When you’re sat in the downstairs room of a half-empty bar, watching a compere drown in the silent wake of his own jokes, you realise that this is about more than repeating amusing anecdotes.

The road to stand-up comedy is especially painful. Those who we see on our screens performing Netflix specials or hear on Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy have travelled a long hard road of practice, humiliation, and being the butt of their own jokes. It can be years before a single joke lands properly, let alone before a comic finds her unique act.

The material is of course a major part of any routine, but it is nothing without delivery. Timing, voice, movement, expression, pause. Persona is maybe even more important, because if the comic builds a character that we want to identify with, then we want to find them funny. We want their performance to work for us.

Some comics take the notion of performance to new levels which push past the traditional bounds of stand-up. Bo Burnham is particularly notable for his blend of narrative joke-telling, musical interludes, theatrical lighting, and voice-over skits. Is Burnham a one-man sketch show, a musician, a comedian, a performance poet?

His parody songs mock the genres in which they are written, and his entire act is hyper-aware of stand-up tropes and of the very act of performance itself. The humour won’t be for everyone (what comedy is?), but his idiosyncratic style is a sophisticated and hilarious comment on the ways in which stand-up is an art.

Perhaps stand-up is a taken-for-granted art form exactly because the craft is barely noticeable when it’s executed well, like in so many creative pursuits. You often hear that the best writing is that which doesn’t sound like writing at all. Good art immerses you to the point that you’re not thinking about it as art at all.

An artist is a person who creates an invitation to look at the world differently. A good artist is someone who manages to remove you from your own experience, however briefly, to see life from their perspective. Art takes the material of life, whether through lofty themes of love and death or daily observations, and adds some kind of layer to it, to complicate or simplify, or to help us enjoy it more.

Arts Council England may not fund it, but stand-up meets these criteria and more besides.

Verdict: It’s art. Joke’s on you if you think otherwise.

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