Who's laughing now? How TV boosted comedy's comeback

IT was the queues that convinced me that comedy was back.

By about lunchtime they had started to gather on the street – and they stayed there until every last ticket was claimed.

The date was August 12, the soon-to-be-packed-out venue was Leeds Grand Theatre and the event was Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow.

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I'd thought that only rock stars inspired fans to stand in the street all day waiting for tickets, but comedy has clearly once again become "the new rock and roll".

Back in the very early '90s, Rob Newman and David Baddiel first earned stand-up comedy that moniker when they sold out Wembley Arena, but after the zenith of 1993, comedy went back to its roots for a decade. Occasionally an act would sell out really big venues, but nothing approaching Newman and Baddiel's record-breaking gig.

Everything has its cycle and the wheel has turned again for comedy – Rhod Gilbert, Jimmy Carr, John Bishop and the new king of the castle Michael McIntyre have all packed arenas in the past year or are about to do so.

Fans of comedy have mixed feelings about McIntyre's stand-up evangelism. Comedy is cool, but a vital part of its cool used to be about the fact that it was unpopular. It was a back street pub, a Thursday night venue only known to the cognoscenti.

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At least that was the case until Live at the Apollo heralded a new age for the art of standing on a stage and making people laugh. In 2004, just over a decade after Baddiel and Newman changed the face of comedy in Britain, po-faced Jack Dee strode on stage at the Hammersmith Apollo and performed not just for an audience in the theatre, but for millions who would watch the show on BBC1. Stand-up was reborn.

Live at the Apollo did a number of things to comedy. For those who hadn't been to a club in years, it made the art form a viable option – people had forgotten how much fun comedy was, and TV re-introduced it to a mass audience, attracting viewers unheard of since the heyday of shows like The Comedians in the '70s and Saturday Live in the '80s.

One comedian who grabbed the opportunity was Michael McIntyre. In the parlance of the comedy circuit, he "killed it" during his appearance at the Apollo and a star was born overnight.

Live at the Apollo morphed into Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow, which saw unprecedented queues at venues across the country.

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On Saturday night, Manchester comedian Justin Moorhouse will become another name catapulted into the next rank of stand-up stardom when he appears on the BBC1 bill for the Roadshow.

"I have got the utmost respect for Michael," says Moorhouse, best known to TV audiences as Young Kenny in Phoenix Nights.

"The public think he has been around for about three years, but like all of us, he spent years – over a decade – earning his stripes. I remember him telling me about a gig he did in Edinburgh to one person in a shoebox – and he was doing a buy one, get one free offer on his tickets.

"What his show has done for the industry is immense. Comedy has failed on TV over the past decade because people didn't understand that the atmosphere of the comedy club is vital. You can't replicate that in a soulless TV studio.

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"Clearly the producers (of Apollo and Roadshow) knew what they were doing – stand-up on TV is really cheap to make and you can stick it on BBC1 at 9.30pm on a Friday night and reach five million."

If the producers were exploiting the industry, the benefits were mutual. Stand-up comedy and the interest in it surged.

It was timed perfectly for Toby Foster, another Phoenix Nights alumnus, better known to Yorkshire comedy fans as the promoter who runs Sheffield's Grin Up North comedy festival, which last year brought over 5m to the city from visitors, according to council figures.

Since the festival started six years ago, Hull and Harrogate have also opened comedy festivals featuring big names.

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"Over four weekends we've got Dara O'Briain, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray and Rhod Gilbert," says Foster. Stewart Lee will be playing Harrogate and Tommy Tiernan will be in Hull.

"It's the recession. Pure and simple," says Foster, explaining the explosion in the popularity of the form. "People want to know that they are guaranteed a good night out when they choose what to spend their money on."

Foster acknowledges that selling 6,000 in tickets in a day – as his box office did earlier this week for his regular Saturday night comedy club – owes something to the TV shows bringing comedy to the masses.

"Last year, John Bishop couldn't get arrested, but he does the Roadshow and he's playing arenas this Christmas, so it makes a massive difference to some individual comedians.

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"But more than that, it makes it an option for people again. People might not have thought about going to a comedy gig, but they sit down and see on TV that it's a great night out and they're more willing to come out and see something – and take risks on comedians they might not have heard of."

Grin Up North, Oct 1-31. www.sheffieldcomedyfestival.co.uk

Harrogate Comedy Festival, Oct 7-23. www.harrogate theatre.co.uk

Hull Comedy Festival, Oct 21- Nov 8. www.hullcomedy.co.uk.