Channel 4’s new job-swap show is an insult to corona-cancelled performers everywhere

The only thing worse than reality TV stars is watching bad stand-up. NME's resident comedian asks: why combine the two?

Stand-up comedy isn’t the career choice for the faint-hearted. Or people who like organisation, routine (ironically) or any form of stability. The only thing more nerve-wracking than trying to make it as a comedian is trying to do so in the midst of a global pandemic, where the Tories’ rules are changing so often you fear something might be canned as you’re walking to the stage.

As a comedian myself, I can assure you we’re all taking all the gigs we can get until Dominic Cummings decides we should lock down again so he can have a staycation. It was with great annoyance to the entire comedy community yesterday, then, when we read that Channel 4 (usually pretty good at this stuff – I assumed it was ITV2) announced they were launching a show where reality TV stars ‘try their hand at stand-up’.

Now. The other thing about stand-up comedy is that it’s a bit like magic (no, not full of virgins) in that the more effortless it looks, the better it is, and we don’t like telling you our secrets. Yes, we practise day in day out to make it seem like we’ve just said our jokes off the cuff at all times, no you can’t just use famous jokes on stage and get away with it – we’re not a covers band. No we will never use the anecdote about your ‘mad friend Gary’. It won’t be funny if we tell you a joke just because you’ve asked us to when we’ve told you what we do.

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Stand-up comedy, like all art forms, takes time to practise, hone and get good at the craft. You’re still doing open mic and new material nights to 12 people in a pub basement in Stratford even after you’ve been on TV. You’re only as good as the last joke you wrote. It’s hard. But for some reason, we don’t seem to get recognised as part of the arts. Maybe because making you laugh doesn’t seem highbrow? Maybe we’ve made it look too effortless? Who knows.

Comedy wasn’t included in the initial emergency arts funding from the Government post-Covid, hence the #savelivecomedy hashtag that did the rounds on social media asking the Government to reconsider. I spoke to a professional comedian this week who said he did a spot at an (unpaid) charity gig only to find out it was to raise money for struggling musicians. The irony was not lost on him. When does Bob Geldof hold a concert for us?

So you might see why this new show caused such a furore. Comedians Adam Rowe, Alex Kealy and a whole host of others voiced their opposition to the format. If the industry is struggling, and you have a huge pool of extremely talented, semi-unemployed comedians, why not do something where they can… actually be funny? The only thing worse than reality TV stars is watching bad stand-up. Why combine the two? The team behind it are reportedly those behind TOWIE, and they’re funny enough already! You know, in their own way. To top it all off, each contestant on the show will be teamed with a stand-up comedian as their mentor – so, essentially, a writer. It’s shows like this that cheapen comedy and infuriate the circuit, where hundreds of extremely talented people are constantly looking for a break.

The live performance industry as a whole has never gone through a harder time. I’m sure musicians and actors would feel the same if the show was aimed at their profession. I’m sure actors feel this way when they watch Hollyoaks, even. I’m now wondering if Strictly counts as this exact format for dancers? Are they fuming? Let us know.

This may all sound very pious, and of course, there are bigger things to worry about than whether or not stand-up comedians get the exposure they deserve. But it’s the sheer time and energy we put into trying to be good at what we do that makes this sting. Most comedians travel up and down the country doing gigs to varying crowds, for little to no money, for years on end, before we’re alright at making you laugh, so to see it turned into a gimmick with people who are on TV for having no specific creative talent is a kick in the face to an industry that constantly feels like it’s not recognised. What’s better than going to a place that serves booze and having people make you laugh?

The author, comedian Alexandra Haddow

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I’ve got an idea for Channel 4: do a reality show with comedians. What it takes to make it, the ups, the downs, the travelling, the gossip, the stage deaths, the best gigs ever, taking a show to the Fringe, the characters you meet along the way, the comedy circuit and the scene as a whole. You’ll get much better storylines from us than you will watching someone from Geordie Shore read out dick jokes for 10 minutes.

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