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The US v UK comedy scene

This blog originally appeared in the British Comedy Guide. Of course.

As an American who does comedy in the UK I'm frequently asked to compare what performing comedy is like here vs in the US. My response is always the same. I've got no idea.

I became a stand-up in Britain, and in all my time performing, I've done more gigs in Estonia than I have in my country of birth. I didn't come here to do funnies though. I originally came to the UK by blagging 'special skills' that couldn't be performed by a local. Yes, I came here to steal a job. Get over it. I'm not doing it anymore.

If I had stayed in America, I doubt I would have ever started doing stand-up at all. I'm from Seattle, and while I had performed with some sketch groups the idea of doing stand-up was a mystery. It wasn't something you started to do. It was something done far away, on late night cable perhaps. At the time Seattle had two comedy clubs but I didn't know anyone who ever went to comedy. If anyone did it was rare and special thing.

And that is a big difference with comedy in the UK. Stand-up is everywhere. Every function room in London at one point or another has had a stand-up comedy night. Not necessarily a good one, but it's been tried. Some last for years. Some, in the current market, last a minute.

My stand-up started because of one of these little rooms. On a night out we stumbled into a pub that had comedy for a fiver and we went to check it out. And at my first ever comedy night, with an audience of about 15 people, we watched a group of spots struggle, get a few laughs and a few died spectacularly. I immediately felt I needed to do this. For the first time ever stand-up was a real thing that was possible and accessible.

It was also acceptable to do stand-up. One difference I have noticed between the US and the UK is the reaction to me being a comedian. When I visit the States and tell people I do comedy they look at me like I'm a bit crazy and quickly change the subject. Here when I tell people it's one of the few times I'm partially acceptable. Not completely. Just partially.

That acceptability is because people in the UK are comedy fans. Nearly all of you. In the US, sure it's popular and there is a bigger overall market. But here, everyone has been to comedy, has a favourite comedian, likes to tell a joke and generally has a sense of humour. Something, that is still, sadly, lacking in some Americans. We do have great comedy in America, but at times we are held back because many Americans still think they are slightly 'better than' others. That is always going to get in the way of their humour. Here any sense of pride in oneself is tempered with a strong sense of self-deprecation and self-loathing. Basically being British.

And that self awareness was my way in on stage as well. What worked for me at the start (as I was writing hard hitting observations related to the word 'fanny') was an ability to show that even though I was America I could take the piss out of myself; that I never wore my American origins too seriously.

In America, I think I was generally regarded as what we'd call a smart-ass. But here that translated into normal banter and piss-taking. What I had done for years to annoyance in the States is the way you communicate here. I felt at home.

And now, having been a patron of comedy in the States, I have to say the way we run gigs and generally appreciate live comedy here in the UK is far superior. In the US most clubs run without breaks and have table service throughout the show. The audience order drinks and food and are chatting to the waiting staff. At the end of the show as the headliner is closing, and doing their big finish, the audience is handed their bill and sorting tabs. While the show is still on. And that's in the proper comedy clubs. Comedy is a side dish.

Here we are beyond spoiled with numerous quality rooms where if anyone talks they are gone. The breaks are frequent to keep the audience's attention (and timed in order to refresh a newly finished pint). Even the larger rooms where the comic might have to battle with big groups can be amazing. On a good night, when the audience is on board, the big circuit clubs can be fantastic places to play. Even a woman projectile vomiting in the front row can be funny. Good times.

And the ego in the clubs is different as well. Take the way that you see American comics introduced in the States. The MC will list their long CV of TV credits, successes and solo shows. But here, in a regular club if an act got introduced that way the audience would immediately get suspicious. A British audience wouldn't think, "Wow, we've got a big TV star here." They would think, "Well, if this act was really that good, they wouldn't be playing to us."

So while I still have yet to make a debut as a comedian in the States, I've very grateful to have had my start here. I can't show it too much, because living here you come to avoid too much pride in anything British. But I think the UK is home to an incredible comedy circuit, with audiences that appreciate what we do and hopefully want us to keep doing it.


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