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Has TV stolen comedy from the clubs?

When you think of comedy these days, you tend to think of Channel Four rather than the Comedy Store. Are the days of traipsing to some forgotten backwater in the hope of seeing the new big thing in the funny scene fading fast? TV is good, no, TV is great, but is it robbing jobbing comics of their audience?

Comedy is big business, so it’s no surprise that it has established a firm foothold on the television schedules. From panel shows to live stand-up, the comedy affect has even trickled into advertising, with Fosters establishing their own YouTube channel featuring the likes of Alan Partridge Mid Morning Matters.

With all the comedy on television these days, it’s perfectly acceptable to imagine a group of comics physically ‘stealing’ the laughs away from the clubs (think Michael McIntyre beaming like the Grinch complete with sack full of comedians’ broken dreams). However, there’s still quality and footfall to be found in the underground.

A Fosters advert doesn’t highlight the state of an industry anymore than seeing famous club comics like Micky Flanagan appearing on the screen. There are still plenty of places to see genuinely original live comedy. In fact, one could argue that comedy clubs like the Comedy Store are the only places to see pure and undiluted talent before the broadcasters sanitise it.

Sustaining a career in comedy means developing your earning power, and the best way to do that is to get on TV. Then come the DVDs, panel shows and sellout tours. But routines, personas and techniques are honed in the clubs in what can be described as an apprenticeship.

The continued success of the Edinburgh Festival would suggest that there is still a thirst for the ‘up close and personal’. Just looking at the list of previous winners of the festival’s comedy awards provides some proof that nurturing talent and characters can take you to the top. Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Al Murray and Lee Evans are just some of the stellar names to have taken the top prize.

So what we are really seeing is two different formats for the same industry: television comedy and live comedy. A symbiotic relationship if you will, and each format depends on the other for differing reasons. TV takes the talent and marketability of the stars of the comedy world and in return they are offered the greatest mouthpiece of all.

Another thing to remember is that having made it onto the haloed screen, comics continue to create live shows. So the venues are larger, the heckling has to be louder and the subject matter has broadened, but live comedy is still just as vital. Perhaps we should be grateful that comedy is as big as ever and that as long as TV needs its talent drip-fed through the jocular IV of the comedy club, then the relationship is sustainable.

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