On Sunday the 4th of October, the Birmingham Comedy Festival ran a free half-day event in two city centre venues, The Victoria and Cherry Reds. We spent the afternoon upstairs in the Victoria, where we saw performances from four comedy acts and chatted to some of the comedians and audience members in-between the hour-long sets. The audience changed quite a bit over the course of the afternoon, but the atmosphere remained very supportive throughout.
News with Jokes is made up of Karen Bayley, James Cook, Phil Pagett and Andy White, and their regular podcast has the tagline “Some comedians read the newspapers and make jokes about what they see”. They started off the Victoria half-dayer with a live recording that covered topics like Pig Gate, England´s sporting failures and violence in public toilets. From time to time they also commented on the experience of performing their set for a live audience, and joked about editing out bits that didn´t go as planned.
The second act drew the biggest round of applause of the day. Hannah Silvester performed her first hour-long show, where she talked (and sang) about her rule of committing and moving on, being disliked by other school mums, workplace politics, dating, feminism and being a female comedian. (If you´d like to hear more about Hannah´s work, you can listen to an interview here.)
The third act, Gareth Berliner, started out by acknowledging that his set was supposed to be about his trip to New York, and then spent the rest of the set explaining why he hadn´t been to New York and telling us about what he´d been doing instead. That included a stint in hospital and the development of his acting career. Gareth´s set was largely improvised, since he couldn´t talk about the topic he had actually planned to cover, and it involved a lot of interaction with the audience. The obvious lack of planning could have put the audience on edge, fearful of an impending car crash, but Gareth´s easy manner, warm humour and frequent compliments (he told us we were all very lovely and much lovelier than the audience at his previous gig) kept the crowd firmly on his side.
The final part of the event saw James Cook from News with Jokes return as part of sketch comedy group The Lovely Men, alongside Dan Smith, Andy Richardson and Jonathan Lee. In line with Silvester´s motto of committing and moving on, The Lovely Men went through a fast-paced series of very silly sketches, finishing with a Birmingham musical that felt like a very apt end to the afternoon.
Experiencing live comedy
One of the recurring themes in our chats with comedians and audiences was the experience of live comedy. Hannah Silvester was relieved that the audience had been lovely and engaged. Phil Pagett from News with Jokes talked about how the team had prepared together to ensure that the show had the energy needed for a live podcast recording. And Gareth Berliner stressed the importance of making eye contact with individual audience members to connect with them, to get a stronger sense of how the crowd responds to material, and to adapt material by interacting with the audience.
Many of the audience members we spoke to suggested that watching live comedy felt more “real” than sitting at home and watching shows on TV. For example, some found News with Jokes more “raw”, “edgy” and innovative than news-focused comedy panel shows on TV. The lack of “rules” made the content more exciting and unpredictable. However, while some audience members were stand up fans, others were more used to TV comedy, and they found that the similarity between the live podcast recording and the format of a TV panel show made the show seem more familiar and enjoyable. So, feeling like we share some sort of common ground can make it easier to laugh, and that sense of commonality might come from a shared interest in “edgy” comedy, but it can also come from the recognition of conventions and the understanding of cultural references.
Hannah Silvester joked about people telling her that she is “brave” for doing stand up, and trying to make a crowd laugh may seem pretty daunting to most of us. But many of the people we talked to at The Victoria found the atmosphere at the event very “warm” and “intimate”. Some suggested that smaller venues have more “heart and soul” than stadiums where the comedian becomes a tiny dot on stage. This recurring idea of authenticity was also evident in talk about the importance of the Birmingham Comedy Festival as an event that helped protect Birmingham´s identity and culture as a “city of fun” and a “city with heart”.
If you would like to see more shows featuring local comedians, this year´s festival programme gives you a lot of names to look out for, and you can then start preparing your wish list for next year´s event. And if you´d like to tell us about why you like (or dislike!) about watching comedy live, let us know in the comments.