Show Me the Funny – and the unfunny

A contest between 10 jobbing standups is more MasterChef than The X Factor bringing as much awkwardness as laughter


It was only a matter of time before standup got its own The X Factor. So we should be thankful that ITV’s Show Me the Funny isn’t as crass as it might have been. A contest between 10 jobbing standups, to win £100,000, a live tour and a DVD deal, the show starts tonight with the first heats in Liverpool. It’s full of blowhard guff about how scary standup is to do, and what a tough crowd Scousers are. And, like The X Factor, it promotes a narrow idea of its artform. But it’s watchable enough, and not without modest insights into the life and work of the professional joker.

In fact, the format is more MasterChef than The X Factor, as judge Kate Copstick has commented. Like its US counterpart Last Comic Standing, it’s a face-off between pros, not amateurs. Some are experienced (Rudi Lickwood, Stuart Goldsmith, Tiffany Stevenson), some are near-rookies (Ignacio Lopez, Ellie Taylor, Prince Abdi). Each week they arrive in a new city to write and perform a new five-minute set assessed by Scotsman critic Copstick, ex-standup Alan Davies and a weekly guest judge.

As fronted in cliche-toting style by Jason Manford, it’s a confused format. Before we get to the standup, the competitors undertake local challenges, intended to inspire their standup routines. Some have to find passers-by called Michelle (a la the Beatles song); others have to arrange a blind date (a la Cilla Black) between members of the public. What this has to do with comedy, nobody knows. In later footage of the gig, none of the standups draw on these arbitrary tasks. Few refer to Liverpool at all. We have to take the newness of their material on trust – and frankly, I doubted it.

The other problem with the idea that comedy should be written in response to a city, is that it proposes observational comedy as standup’s default mode. There’s little room in this format for character or variety acts, meta-comedy or absurdism. (How would, say, Bob Mortimer – next week’s guest judge – fare under such constraints?) It reduces comedy to its least interesting, “a funny thing happened to me today” minimum.

But at least, as both Davies and the comic Susan Calman have noted, the show depicts standups failing as well as succeeding. (One suspects that some acts were chosen, a la The X Factor, to do just that.) It acknowledges – and even, albeit glancingly, attempts to analyse – the difference between good and bad gigs, misjudgements and moments of inspiration, and how audiences differ from one another.

The couple of crash-and-burn moments in tonight’s episode – nonplussed looks in the audience; shadows of panic passing across performers’ faces – bring back cold sweat-inducing memories of laugh-free standup acts I’ve seen in years gone by. Here, then, is what standup is often like – not that you’d know it from most small-screen coverage of the artform. Two cheers for ITV, then – for showing us the unfunny.

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