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Forget stand-up comedians, give me an ordinary funny guy in a pub

This week marks the start of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival here in Australia, the biggest and best in the world, according to the advance publicity.

Given that the folk who pen promotional stuff like that don't lie, it is therefore obviously true.

I have to be honest here: I consistently have a problem with stand-up comedians. Some might say my difficulty is nothing more or less than a technicality and that might also be true, but it's a fundamental detail all the same.

Most of them are not very funny. Comedy, I've always believed, is a serious business.

This is a concept that was continually highlighted for me in the 10 years I worked at BBC Scotland's comedy unit, where I noted very quickly that among the various comedy writers, producers and performers, there was virtually no one who was, intrinsically, funny.

Oh, they could be funny: write funny and even produce and direct funny shows, but nobody - and here I include such comedy legends as the great Rikki Fulton - were exactly what you would call 'funny people'.

Off camera for instance, Rikki couldn't tell you a joke to save his life. He considered himself an actor - not necessarily a comedy actor - and in fact generally gave out the impression that comedy, especially the sort of stuff for which he was rightly feted, was somehow a bit well, tawdry, coarse and to be honest, a little bit beneath him.

Not that this in any way detracts from Rikki's status as a comedy genius - he clearly was - but very much as a performer and writer. In no way could you describe him as a 'funny guy'...that just wasn't Rikki's game.

Over the course of my life I've met loads of funny guys - in the pub, in football teams at work, wherever. They weren't performers, didn't fancy chancing their arm at stand-up, they were just funny. If you've ever met one, and I'm sure you have, then you'll know what I mean.

Which brings us to stand-up comedians, of whom there are at least 500 plying their trade in Melbourne over the coming weeks. And despite continual disappointments, I keep going to see them, in the hope - nearly always forlorn - that eventually, due to the balance of probability, I'll happen across one who's really good. Who's actually funny.

I went to see one the other night there. Billed as one of Scotland's top comedians, I checked out a guy called Geoff Boyz who was playing a Saturday night gig in a pub in the city centre.

Now, I don't intend to rip poor old Geoff to shreds - for one thing he doesn't deserve it, he wasn't actually all that bad - he had a couple of good lines and I'd essentially peg Geoff as mildly amusing, at best.

Obviously there has to be a bit of personal responsibility too -someone billed as one of Scotland's top comedians yet a hitherto completely unknown name to me clearly intimated that there might be slightly more than a hint of over-zealous promotional exaggeration at play here; I knew Geoff would be no Billy Connolly.

He wasn't bad. He just wasn't all that good.

It didn't help that the venue - not overly large in itself - was somewhat less than packed. In fact, the audience comprised 11. I know, because I counted.

This seemed to raise Geoff's hackles right from the off. Not a good start. I've played tiny audiences myself and you have to get over it, concentrate on the people who turned up and make sure they have a good time since it's hardly their fault so few people turned up to see you.

Geoff didn't. Because there were few of us, we irked him.

'I'm actually quite well known in the UK', he told us, though it seemed like he was really trying to convince himself, 'that joke usually gets a big laugh', he then said, more than once, in what came across as rather a chastising tone.

Call me old fashioned Geoff, but I tend to believe that as the audience, we're the ones who'll be the judge of that.

See, this is where, as far as stand-up goes, I don't get it.

I find it a bit uncomfortable, sitting in a room, listening to someone talking at you, trying, increasingly desperately, to be funny. It's contrived and artificial yes, but there's also almost something a bit fascistic about the whole deal.

Comedy for me, is about communication. A bit of banter. If you have a funny guy in the pub being funny, he's doing it because he enjoys making people laugh, because he knows he's funny sure, but more importantly because he knows you know he's funny.

Add in the fact that funny guys in the pub respond to the people around them, chipping in with comments, taking the piss, slagging each off, having the odd pop at the funny guy himself.

No one in the pub sits down to be entertained, uninvolved and passive, it's an interactive experience and it's all the better - and funnier - for that.

Stand-up comedians don't do interaction generally speaking and unless they're really good - and I can only count the ones who truly are on the finger of one hand - they come across a bit like Geoff; a not very funny guy who acts like he's a bit funny, in that he has one or two funny lines which he then pads out with lots of gratuitous swearing, limp, dated observations and hyperbolic story-telling.

Of course, as we all know, comedy is entirely subjective, which means that not everybody will agree with me - in fact I wouldn't be surprised if you (you know who you are) think I'm talking pure, unadulterated bollocks.

Hmm, funny, that.

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