No point in heckling: standup comedy at the cinema

Smile - Aleksandra P.

Friday night at Cineworld Wandsworth, south London, and people are filing in to see the nail-biting psych-thriller Trance and the carnival of pulchritudinous teen flesh that is Spring Breakers.

Not me. Oh no. I'm here to watch a film about other people watching middle-aged men tell jokes about how daft they look wearing Crocs.

Put like that, Comedy Store: Raw & Uncut sounds like a galaxy far, far away from anything you'd normally see at the movies – and not especially alluring. But that's what they said before Met Live, National Theatre Live and their numerous imitators trounced the doubters and proved that broadcasting theatre and opera to multiplexes worldwide was not only big business, it could also change the way we experience live performance.

Now the Comedy Store, Britain's best-known comedy venue, is getting in on the act, broadcasting club-night comedy to the nation's multiplexes. The pilot season of Raw & Uncut saw four nights at the Store made into four feature-length films, screened at fortnightly intervals a couple of months after they were originally recorded.

Speaking via email from India, where he's currently visiting his Mumbai club, Comedy Store supremo Don Ward calls it "a unique and pioneering action". One hundred and fifty UK cinemas have screened the four films, and Ward says they're working out how to expand worldwide. Of the pilot season, he continues: "The response from the public has been excellent, and there is enthusiasm on the part of exhibitors to continue [with] the format."

This is where I'm not so sure. In Wandsworth, the public isn't exactly rushing the doors: I've been forewarned by the publicist that "this cinema hasn't had the biggest take up audience-wise", and sure enough, when I arrive at Cineworld there are only around 25 people in attendance (some 5,000 people bought tickets for the season overall).

The market for NT Live is obvious: the many thousands of people around Britain and the world who would love to see the National Theatre's shows and will never get the chance. But aren't frustrated comedy fans thinner on the ground? Comedy on DVD has rarely been more available, and because of the standup boom of the last decade, more people than ever have the chance to see live comedy in clubs or arenas.

That's not the only problem I see with the format. Inside the cinema, before the screening begins, we weather a humorous advert for a sponsor, which asks us not to heckle the comedians, because they can't hear us. It's a joke, of course, but it nails an obvious flaw. One reason people go to comedy is to be part of a live, communal experience. Here in Cineworld, where there's little attempt at liveness (the gigs we're watching have long since finished), the atmosphere leaves something to be desired. When the film's first comic, Ian Stone, leaves the stage, people can't quite decide how to respond, whether to applaud or not.

Ward insists standup "loses nothing" being screened. I'm not entirely convinced by that either, though it's true that there are some gains. The screening certainly recreates the intimate Comedy Store atmosphere – but with close-ups. And the four standups, plus compere, are all funny. OK, so they're not the top tier of UK comedy, who would presumably prefer to withhold their material for their own DVD releases. But they're capable pros, trading in unadventurous but reliably amusing man-at-a-microphone comedy.

Here, though, is another issue. It's impossible not to notice that every one of the 20 participating comics in Raw & Uncut is a man. And, watching the film in Cineworld, the event comes across as strikingly male (two of the acts – Tom Stade and Jeff Innocent – major in blokey tales of sexual derring-do). Again, Ward refuses to see the problem: when I ask why Raw & Uncut is a woman-free zone, he answers, with breathtaking chutzpah, "There are hardly any female comics on the circuit."

That may not hurt Raw & Uncut's commercial chances, but it surely weakens Ward's rhetoric about doing things differently. The Comedy Store could be right that standup in cinema has a future – but if it's going to capture a wide audience, it needs to think much harder about who it's putting up there in the spotlight.

Powered by article was written by Brian Logan, for The Guardian on Tuesday 16th April 2013 20.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Rachael