Someone once said ‘comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll’. That very sentiment seems to have been behind ITV’s Comedy Rocks a night ‘featuring some of the biggest acts in music and comedy’. As an avid stand-up comedy and music fan it sounded great on paper. Unfortunately the line-up was less inspiring. Joe Pasquale, John Bishop, Pixie Lott. Hmmm.
It all sounded crushingly familiar. Take Rock With Laughter. A night to be held at Wembley Stadium in the run up to Christmas – it was cancelled. The line-up? Lenny Henry, Bjorn Again, Peter Andre and Lee Mack among others. What market research was done to find that people who liked the comedy of Lee Mack also liked the music of Peter Andre? Who is this cross-section of society? The whole thing was so far removed from the notion of rock ‘n’ roll it’s a surprise they didn’t get Ann Widdecombe to MC. The youthful energy and vitality that we associate with ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ seems to have been completely absent from these events.
In stark contrast is the combination of comedy and rock music in America. In the US alternative comedy and alternative music have fused together much more easily and with greater success. It’s not unusual to see the cream of the alt-comedy crop opening or compering at gigs. At New York’s last All Tomorrow’s Parties festival acts like The Flaming Lips and Animal Collective lined up alongside a stage of comedy curated by David Cross (it included Eugene Mirman and Jon Benjamin/Jon Glazer double-act, The Fuggedabuddies). You can often see the likes of Neil Hamburger opening for sludge-rock legends The Melvins. And that’s before we get to labels like Sub Pop looking after Patton Oswalt and Flight of the Conchords alongside their Nirvana and Mudhoney back catalogues.
But while it seems to be a near-standard practice in the States, why has that not taken off here? When was the last time you saw a comic opening for a band? It’s been tried. Matt Lucas opened for Blur in the guise of his Sir Bernard Chumley character, albeit with little onstage success. Even seasoned performers like John Cooper Clarke often get mixed reactions when opening for post-punk compatriots The Fall.
Perhaps it’s starting to change, after all the Mighty Boosh tried (with limited success) to hold their own music/comedy festival and major festivals like Latitude and the Big Chill are placing more emphasis on comedy. Even newer citywide fests like Swn and Camden Crawl have been getting involved. Meanwhile many of Robin Ince’s nights of super-comedy-geekdom have featured a host of musicians (including Hefner’s Darren Hayman). Add to that the stratospheric success of musical comedy acts like Bill Bailey, Tim Minchin and Flight of the Conchords. It appears that while comedy is very accepting of music, music doesn’t seem as accepting of comedy.
Ultimately it’s not something that can be forced, especially when you don’t understand or know who your audience is. In America organisers of these events seem more aware of the similarities and interests of alternative comedy and music fans, that’s why they work. But if that knowledge is absent then the cack-handed efforts of a clueless marketeer, simply co-opting the word ‘rock’ as shorthand for ‘edgy’, is only going to look like a messy, cynical cash-in.
Is there a demand? Your average gig-goer might tell you something different but I for one would love to see someone take a risk on it. After all if rock and comedy share one trait it’s risk-taking. Why not have John Shuttleworth warming up an Arctic Monkeys crowd, Tim Key and Jarvis Cocker in a spoken-word-off or an infamous Brian Gittins led hokey-kokey opening for Welsh weirdos Super Furry Animals? Now that really would rock.