Read: Yes, make coronavirus jokes
Like The Tonight Show, both are so well established that they have become national institutions, and both are usually recorded in front of a live studio audience. Until now, of course. I was on the first remote episode of Have I Got News for You, broadcast last Friday, and recorded a remote test run of The News Quiz before appearing on the series itself later this month.
Now, I’m not the funniest person in the world. (Maybe the fourth, or fifth? I try to stay humble.) But when I started doing live comedy, I was even worse than I am now. Nothing teaches you how to generate a laugh—or makes you more keen to get one—than ending a sentence and being greeted with the howling sound of absolute silence. I would imagine that only tightrope walkers and bomb-disposal experts have more incentive to get good fast.
As you perform, you begin to understand the underlying grammar of comedy—the order in which to reveal information, for example, or the shameful ease of getting a cheap laugh by swearing, or by mentioning someone’s appearance. You discover all the registers that you, personally, cannot access: I would love to do long flights of fancy, building up the hyperbole until the audience is nearly hysterical, but I can’t. In the words of Flight of the Conchords, “Sometimes when I freestyle … I lose confidence.”
Generating a healthy fear of failure is only the most obvious way that audiences make comedians better. As comedians are fond of saying: The audience is a genius. It knows what’s funny. Good stand-ups will use the audience as an editor, which helps them refine their material, and take established routines into new areas, prospecting for laughs as they go. For a television or radio producer, the audience also provides an instant judgment on each joke.
Audiences provide rhythm too, which the best comics know how to surf. Like that Chopin ballade, a good routine has light and shade, fast sections and longueurs. When I first started doing panel shows, I was wary of emphasizing the punch line, in case the audience disagreed with me that it was a punch line. Instead, I would gabble on and hope that I would be stopped by gales of uncontrollable laughter. This is a bad idea. (I also learned that the professionals are tough enough to accept that a certain percentage of jokes simply don’t catch fire, for whatever reason. And, of course, these misfires do not appear in the finished product of recorded programs such as Have I Got News for You.)
When I interviewed the television producer John Lloyd for the New Statesman in 2013, he was candid about the initial failure of one of his first projects, Blackadder. The historical comedy was co-authored by Richard Curtis, who went on to write Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Bridget Jones film adaptation and Love, Actually. It starred Rowan Atkinson—later known as Mr. Bean—with a supporting cast that was a who’s who of British comedy in the 1980s. It should have been a surefire hit. And yet the first season, set in the medieval era, was a flop; such a bad flop, in fact, that three years passed before a second season aired, after much pleading with the BBC for another chance.