mes is anything to do with comedians who are TV viewers would not to watch these days? They’re on vacation: we’ll watch. With their moms: we’ll look at that as well. They’re in Question Time, they are reviewing books, they drink coffee in a car: more comedians, please! No surprise, then, that a TV show is now coming in promising us a closer and more personal time with the nation’s fun people – in the form of Backstage With Katherine Ryanwho takes the cameras behind the scenes of a series of gigs at Camden’s Roundhouse.
It’s a catchy concept, no question. Backstage at a comedy club is a place with its own mystique, where (we imagine) the true selves of comedians are revealed, where their jokes are uncut, where intense camaraderie reigns between people who do something for a living that terrifies the. the rest of us. When I spoke with the comic Sarah Kendall earlier this year, she sang in sacred expressions this space of private comedians, their anteroom to the stage. Years after mostly stopping standing, “I still love sitting backstage with a bunch of cartoons and talking shit,” Kendall told me. “It’s my favorite place. If my ashes were buried anywhere, it would be backstage at a comedy venue. “
So here’s the challenge for Backstage: Can it show us what the hustle and bustle is all about? Judging by the first episode, the answer should be: a little. What it doesn’t do is shed light on Kendall’s favorite environments. The Roundhouse is not a comedy site. The actions are not just employee comedians, they are, for the most part, celebrities. And the series is supposed to interest us, not only in the backstage life at a comedy club, but in the stories behind the headlines we read about these familiar names.
And so in the first episode, we find Katherine Ryan roasting Seann Walsh in her dressing room about the aftermath of his infamous Strictly Come Dancing kiss. This looks much less like a spontaneous backstage mockery, and more like a chat show in an unusual place. But then, how spontaneous can it be when these comedians know the cameras are looking at them? An episode of one’s biggest laugh comes when Jimmy Carr breaks down the fourth wall and admits that their supposedly private chat is being filmed. (That’s not a fly on the wall, folks, it’s bloody great Jeff Goldblum).
The question then becomes: even if its ploy is striking, does this format offer more overt, or more fun, exposure to comedians than another chat? Or than their own actions? Sometimes: it’s intriguing to see how nervous Walsh is before he goes on stage. Intriguing as well as how the show claims to lift the lid on the writing process, as Ryan spits out ideas with her writer. Geoff Norcott so that gags crack about the other comics on the bill. Why was this work left to the day of the show, who knows? But it’s fun to watch the couple at it. And – no matter how dubious its spontaneity – it’s fun to see the comics interact in the hours before the concert as well, as Carr rips Ryan off her tracksuit and curlers, and Walsh asks Ted Lasso for a star. Nick Mohammed‘s help with punch.
Backstage is only half of it, mind you: 50 percent of the show takes place on stage, as the comics present their sets. It’s like Live at the Apollo splised with backstage reaction shots – and the quality of the standup is high. But I found myself straining to look behind the show’s fabrication – a behind-the-scenes look at Backstage, as it were. We get a lot of footage from comedians smiling helpfully at each other’s jokes. But when Jimmy Carr breaks gags on stage about fat people, we are artistically spared the reaction of Desiree Burch, much of whose work is to combat such prejudice. One can imagine a version of Backstage where the comedians are less gilded and the edges are a little sharper. In the meantime, Ryan’s version is chic, good fun, and sure to please a TV audience always receptive, it seems, to new angles about the lives of standup comics.