Monday 12 April 2010

Why Channel 4's 'Greatest Stand-Ups' was actually just the station's latest cock-up

It was with trepidation that I tuned into Channel 4's 'The 100 Greatest Stand-Ups' on Saturday night. The original 2007 line-up was dubious at best and recent publicity claiming that the poll had been repeated to account for new comedians like Russell Howard didn't fill me with hope for the 2010 edition.

Alas, my misgivings were entirely valid. Those expecting a comprehensive list of world class comedians will have been disappointed. The list served only as a testament to the general public's pitiful attention span. That, or many of the voters confused the phrase 'greatest stand-ups of all time' with 'list of comedians who were on telly last week'.

The 2010 update saw Jason Manford ranked 30 places higher than Jackie Mason, Peter Kay more than 20 places higher than George Carlin and Michael McIntyre inexplicably making the top ten. Racist icons like Bernard Manning and Roy Chubby Brown were voted dozens of places higher than the hugely respected Dick Gregory. Recent discoveries Russell Howard and Rhod Gilbert, who have yet to prove their staying power, made the top 50 while comedy legends like Joan Rivers and Andy Kaufman did not. And to top it all off, Ricky Gervais ranked higher than Bill Hicks.

There were also glaring omissions. Rowan Atkinson's stand-up gigs were masterclasses in character comedy, easily rivalling Steve Coogan, who himself took a surprisingly low 59th place. Jeremy Hardy was also noticably absent, despite being one of Britain's most astute and consistently funny comics. Sarah Silverman, whose divisive but taboo-busting material is challenging and original, didn't appear on the list. But shock jock Frankie Boyle, whose 'edgy' material consists largely of calling celebrities 'c*nts' and talking endlessly about paedophilia, ranked in the top 30.

For a show which purported to celebrate great comedy, laughs were surprisingly thin on the ground. The selection of clips was mind-boggling and can't have inspired many viewers to seek out a lot of the showcased acts. To illustrate Sean Hughes's worthiness, programme makers played an unspectacular clip of the comedian pretending to dance with his dog. Frankie Howerd's 'comedy genius', meanwhile, was demonstrated by endless clips of Howerd gurning and saying 'oo-er missus' over and over again.

By far, the funniest moment of the night had to be programme makers playing indisputable footage of Dennis Leary ripping off a Bill Hicks routine word for word - then cutting to Jimmy Carr cluelessly insisting that Leary wasn't a joke thief.

It wasn't all bad, though. Stewart Lee deservedly climbed from 41st place to 12th. Jim Bowen, Mike Reid and John Thompson, who all bafflingly appeared on the 2007 list, have since fallen off the bottom. Mercifully, Andrew Dice Clay has also disappeared after bizarrely making top 40 in the original poll.

Overall, though, the list was a disappointment. Run of the mill modern comics were consistently voted into higher positions than legends with decades of fantastic material behind them. Innovators barely scraped the list while derivative hacks permeated the top 30. But little else can be expected of such polls. I remember watching in horror a few years ago as Little Britain beat Monty Python in a Channel 4 poll to find the greatest comedy sketch of all time.

So here is my alternative list of the five greatest stand-ups of all time.

Bill Hicks

As is often the case with counter-culture icons (eg. Hunter Thompson), Hicks is arguably more popular for his lifestyle than his incisive commentary. His pro-drugs material is some of his best known and most celebrated, despite being some of his weakest. Hicks was truly at his best when delivering impassioned diatribes against hypocrisy and corruption at the heart of government.

Like Thompson, Hicks was a phenomenal political commentator who made the subject both funny and accessible. Both were spurned to some extent by their own country when their frustration led to them being branded unpatriotic. Hicks played to sold out theatres in the UK but was consigned to small comedy clubs in the USA.

Commercially available footage is sparse and never quite does him justice. Hicks's best material is showcased on his various live CDs; 'Dangerous' and 'Rant In E-Minor' are works of art. It is in these collections that we hear Hicks muse on abortion, the military, trailer park culture, religion, his mum's unerring fascination with other people's tumours and plenty of other dynamite routines which never found their way onto his live DVDs.

Stewart Lee

In my estimation, Stewart Lee is the best comedian currently working in the UK. His deadpan delivery and repetitive joke structure infuriate some punters but Lee's world-weary material and eye for the absurd are second to none.

Lee's 2008 DVD '41st Best Stand-Up Ever' is quite possibly the greatest live comedy DVD I've ever seen. In the show Lee details the year after he was voted number 41 on Channel 4's '100 Greatest Stand-Ups' poll, including his mother's insistence that Tom O'Connor is the greatest comedian of all time and Lee's thwarted attempts to record a BBC TV series. Hilarious and touching, the show is an exercise in pathos and was described by the Times as, "Cheerfully heretical, rapturously rhythmic and inspiringly intelligent... He remains the standard by which his fellow Fringe comics must measure themselves."

Lee's 'If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One' show was easily the best comedy gig I attended last year. Including an assault on the audience for not buying his DVDs, a faux meltdown which saw him vacate the stage and dangle himself precariously from one of the boxes and a lengthy routine about how and why he'd like to murder Richard Hammond, it was hilarious, theatrical and heart-warming.

There are few jobbing comedians with as much to say and none who say it more eloquently than Stewart Lee.

Billy Connolly

The Big Yin topped both Channel 4 polls and rightly so. While Connolly has never been a political comedian, he was certainly subversive and is credited by many comics as the forefather of 'alternative comedy'.
Connolly never intended to be a comedian. He started out as a folk singer but realised that the chit-chat between his songs got a better reaction than the music itself, so decided to make a career out of it. As such, he was performing long annecdotes, sweary routines and observational humour long before it became a trend. It is for this reason that everybody from Ross Noble to Robin Williams credits him as the greatest comedian of all time.

A naturally gifted raconteur with a delightfully warm personality to boot, you might say Connolly has the gift of the gab. You feel comfortable at a Billy Connolly gig. As he's aged, Connolly has developed more of a 'grumpy old man' persona onstage but he remains down to earth, often collapsing into fits of giggles at his own temper.

I saw Connolly in 2007 and have never laughed so much or left a gig feeling so elated as I did that night. Performing more than two hours with no interval, Connolly held the audience in the palm of his hand and had us all doubled up, stomachs knotted, breathless throughout. Connolly was so good that for a while he ruined stand-up for me - everything seemed anti-climactic by comparison. No subsequent gig has ever come close in terms of unrelenting joy and hilarity.

Andy Kaufman

Kaufman turned the genre on its head to such an extent that, arguably, he wasn't really a stand-up comedian at all. His gigs were more like one-man variety shows featuring characters, skits, practical jokes, music, wrestling and more.

It was Kaufman's unpredictability that made him one of the most exciting live performers in the history of stand-up comedy. Walking into a Kaufman gig you never knew what you were going to get. He might come onstage and deliver an hour of dynamite material. But he might come onstage, sit at a table and silently eat ice cream. Or make carrot juice. Or read The Great Gatsby in its entirity. Later in his career, he wrestled women onstage and proclaimed himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. After one Carnegie Hall gig, he took every member of his audience out for milk and cookies.

Kaufman didn't care whether his audience laughed or not as long as their reaction was strong. It didn't matter whether that reaction was horror, revulsion, confusion or anger. Some have even proclaimed him the forefather of performance art.

Regrettably, Kaufman is best known for his appearances in the sitcom Taxi as foreign mechanic Latka Gravas. But Kaufman despised the show and repeatedly attempted to sabotage it. Perhaps even funnier offstage than on, Kaufman insisted when signing his Taxi contract that the producers guaranteed several guest spots for Las Vegas lounge singer Tony Clifton. (Clifton, of course, was Kaufman underneath latex and a wig.) When it came time for Clifton to shoot his guest spots, he raised hell around the set. One day he showed up with the Hell's Angels as his security. Another day he telephoned the studio claiming to have car trouble and insisted that the execs buy him a new car. They begrudgingly agreed. He arrived shortly afterwards and promptly drove it into the studio wall.

Kaufman may seem a strange choice given that his live shows were very patchy. But his character work was so phenomenal that people were guessing for years as to whether he and Tony Clifton were the same person or not. His live shows were always exciting and unpredictable. Although he wasn't really appreciated in his own time, he has rightfully become a legend since his premature death. He has since been immortalised in the 1999 film 'Man On The Moon', where he was perfectly played by Jim Carrey.

Chris Rock

Although Rock has spent much of his career labouring under the illusion that saying the word 'pussy' over and over again equals instant comedy gold, once you get past his amateurish sexual material Rock is arguably the most important comedian working in the world today.

Rock is one of America's premier political commentators, speaking authoritatively and side-splittingly on racial inequality and social injustice. Like Dick Gregory before him, Rock uses his biting humour as a weapon, revealing widespread hypocrisy and prejudice in modern society and particularly at the heart of government.

I saw Rock in 2008 on his 'No Apologies' tour, during which he delivered a devastating monologue about modern day segregation and the obstacles that African Americans face. In his entire neighbourhood, he explained, there were only four African Americans. The first was Rock himself - a world famous comedian. The other three comprised of a world famous actor (Denzel Washington), a world famous singer (Mary J Blige) and a world famous rapper (Jay-Z). But what about the white guy living next door to Rock? A dentist.
"Black man gotta fly," he said, "to get something a white man can walk to. Do you know what a black dentist would have to do to live in my neighbourhood!? He'd have to invent teeth!"

Previous tours have seen Rock rage against the treatment of African American celebrities by the authorities and the media, including a lengthy rant about the murder of Tupac Shakur. Unafraid to speak his mind, Chris Rock is perhaps the closest we have to Bill Hicks nowadays. If he'd only ditch the endless 'pussy' gags then his important voice might get heard a little more often, too.