The first UK comedy show I ever performed was a total mess. It was in 2012 and it took place at a theatre near King’s Cross that was closing the next day. It overran by hours and it was boozy and hilarious and it was the first time since I moved to New York that I had seen stand-ups trying stuff so obviously bespoke.
Sara Pascoe did a character. Bridget Christie did an impression of Louise Mensch in a gruesome mask and stormtrooper helmet. Two handsome guys with posh accents impersonated Greek gods. I had no idea who anyone was. Besides the hosts, Thom Tuck and John-Luke Roberts, I don’t really remember the other acts on show. Tuck got progressively drunker as the night went on, and Roberts dealt with it in a kind of disapproving stentorian way. Every name they introduced was a name I was hearing for the first time. And I was shocked that any of them – all of them – were funny.
Before I came to the UK for the first time, I thought that British comedians, as a group, were painful to watch. This incorrect opinion wasn’t based on a complete picture of the UK comedy scene, but what had been exported to New York’s comedy clubs. The visiting comedians were for the most part a mediocre bunch. An overwhelming number felt almost aggressive in their averageness, more charming than funny onstage, and florid and grating off it.
The standard British comedy fan would be supremely irritated if they knew which of their comedies and comedians Americans are exposed to. We don’t know Alan Partridge or Chris Morris. There are a few hardcore Mighty Boosh and Blackadder fans but they’re either weirdos or [US TV network] IFC viewers. Obviously we know Izzard and Gervais from their US stuff, and I’m sure there are one or two others in that stratum that I may have missed. Russell Brand has done a few movies here so we’re pretty aware of him. Other than that, stand-up-wise, I got almost nothing for ya in the American mainstream. Which is a real shame for my fellow Americans, but in 2012, it meant an exciting education for me. I saw my first episodes of Blackadder and QI and Big Train in one week. I saw John Bishop live on the same night I found out who he was.
I got the chance to encounter UK stand-ups free of the burden of expectation. When you, a UK person (hello UK person!), goes to see someone like Pascoe or Alan Davies or Simon Amstell, you don’t judge them just as a stand-up comedian in front of you on the night; you judge them against the framework of the lady who was great on Live At The Apollo or the fella who is brilliant on QI or the barbed wit off Never Mind The Buzzcocks or whatever. You have a whole expectation they have to live up to. I didn’t have any of that.
When I first got here, I encountered all these great stand-ups free of context, and all at once. I didn’t know I was supposed to dislike Michael McIntyre if I wanted to like Stewart Lee, or that Brass Eye was supposed to make me laugh as much as it did. I didn’t know Andrew Maxwell or Josie Long or Sarah Millican until I saw them gig. I spent most of my first few months in London picking my jaw up off the floor. Now I’ve found some of my favourite comedy here: the anarchic young sketch groups, Stewart Lee’s Top Gear bit, James Acaster’s bit on apricots and Daniel Sloss’s unapologetically dark atheist stuff spring to mind.
The best thing about the UK comedy scene, though, is that there are more people trying different things across a spectrum that is, in many ways, wider than the comedic spectrum in the US. The sketch and improv scenes in the UK aren’t as big as their stateside counterparts, but there’s enormous talent there. All of this centres on the Edinburgh fringe, where those comics gain the opportunity to showcase those talents. I’m headed back there in about a week, a chance to see comics I’ve never seen before and pick my jaw up all over again.
Original published in The Guardian in 2015.