Everybody’s been talking about the results of a recent poll among comedians that put Liverpool down as the toughest place to gig. Some 18% of the professionals questioned by Dave TV said this city was the hardest to get a laugh in. In all honesty, it’s rather a surprise that percentage wasn’t much higher. I was pondering whether to throw my two cents into the mix until I read an argument in the Echo that made my mind up for me.
In his column this week, my former colleague Paddy Shennan took a look at the issue. The headline was: “A discerning audience, not a tough one”. Really? He wrote: “To me, the results translate as: “People in Liverpool know their comedy. They know what is funny and what isn’t. And if you’re a comedian (particularly one who comes with a high ticket price) whose job, of course, is to be funnier than the audience, then you’d better meet our high standards.””
I’m a fan of Paddy’s, but come on. This old Echo-tastic cliche, again? Must we? Here’s the deal: It’s about time we faced up to the fact that Liverpool audiences can be awful and some punters’ insistence on being the centre of attention can leave the hardiest comic gigging in this city a nervous wreck.
This ridiculous myth that we must express ourselves – all over someone else’s professional act – because some innate superior god-given sense of humour means the comic deserves the distraction is just nonsense.
Tell that to the Doug Stanhope fans who told me they went to see him in Manchester two weeks ago instead of on their own doorstep, because they expected Scouse fans to let the side down and make it a crap night. And who invariably did, leaving the legendary American comic publicly stating he would never come back.
The hecklers who ruined his show – and there is little doubt that was what they were aiming to do, for everyone – weren’t there for a bit of friendly banter or to check anyone was “meeting our high standards”. They were there – and God knows why people pay to do this – to deliberately mug over his punchlines, repeatedly throw Stanhope off his stride, and to make a nuisance of themselves. The vibe in the room eventually became threatening and deeply unpleasant.
Lots of comedians I’ve interviewed over the years have tried to be positive when talking about Liverpool audiences, acknowledging it’s tough. They’d be almost guaranteed to trot out the “it’s the Scouse sense of humour, you’re all so funny” line at some point. It’s not always convincing.
Marcus Brigstocke termed it “surviving Liverpool”, and wasn’t afraid to say playing the city scared him. “All the jokes I’ve ever told about Liverpool are about how seriously the place takes itself and I get a delicious pleasure in doing so,” he said. Finally, in the wake of this survey (and Paddy’s analysis), it’s easy to see exactly why he’d have that attitude.
Shazia Mirza told the Guardian, investigating this very phenomenon, that “Liverpool is the worst place to play: they’re always pissed and they think they’re funnier.”
Then there was the unforgettable time German stand up Henning Wehn came to town, on an Al Murray bill. Seemingly because many of the audience failed to realise The Pub Landlord was a comic creation, Wehn was booed before he even came on the stage of the Royal Court, purely because of his nationality. And despite the fact he later told me it was quite amusing to him in its absurdity, it remains the first and only time I have ever seen a stand up have to abandon his act out of the sheer futility of carrying on over the jeers.
The famous example of Steve Coogan that Paddy mentioned remains a real exception to the rule. His arena shows in 2008 were truly terrible evenings of under-rehearsed, weak material that no paying audience deserved to suffer, and what he was left to deal with was the disappointment of a very loyal fan base – and not just in Liverpool.
It’s not to say a bit of well-timed and good natured banter can’t bring something to a live comedy show. It makes for a unique night, something an audience knows no other city will get. The challenge can show a stand up at their best.
But in my recent experience, it’s been either something a lot more unwelcoming than that, or a crutch for a comic who is trying to spin out a show by chatting with audience members who nobody else is really interested in. Why should the rest of the crowd care when that overruns? That’s not what we’re there to see.
Silky remains the only comedian to have my complete admiration for his lack of fear of hecklers, and the only man (for my money) who has ever kept the concept of humouring them positive and amusing for the rest of the audience.
Saying all this, I know we really can’t generalise these things. But excusing the sometimes disgraceful behaviour from our comedy audiences with the defence that “we’re worth it” as Scousers is counterproductive, and depressing for those of us who go to comedy shows with admiration, fully expecting the person we’re going to see to know what they’re doing better than us.
This post first appeared on the Liverpool Comedy Blog on April 20, 2011.