Everyone knows the show must go on, but must it go on and on?
The last few touring comedy shows I have attended have thrown up a real bugbear of mine about duration.
Having been reared on Edinburgh shows as a critic, before taking in touring shows the rest of the year round, it was a couple of years into my career that I tuned in to the circadian rhythm of comedy and how time slots – as well as venues – can be so crucial.
Covering Edinburgh you graduate, along with the comedian, to a 55 minute time slot and therefore at least 30 minutes more than the typical club slot. It soon becomes apparent that a lot of acts have 40-45 minutes and can’t fill their hour, and even seasoned fringe professionals can struggle. Comedy is hard.
I would have happily paid to get out early, so I might have been persuaded to pay the going rate for a much shorter show
The next level up is to take your successful fringe show on tour and start getting used to two halves of 45 minutes (sometimes more) and an interval. Bill Bailey was one of the acts that demonstrated to me early on what a difference an hour makes when I saw one of his shows both on tour (2 hours 30 minutes including interval) and in Edinburgh (shortened to 75 minutes) – the latter version was infinitely more memorable.
On tour doing 75 minutes often means getting a support act in (one current example of this is Greg Davies, I believe), but, given the current plethora of comedians vying for attention, a chance to showcase new talent is a worthwhile filler. This format also allows the act to play a time slot that it much more likely to bring out their best.
I don’t know many people who can go over 75 minutes. Daniel Kitson, Billy Connolly back in the day perhaps, Bill Cosby. Even the latter, who I witnessed in full flow at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival in 2009, can make you feel both privileged and like a hostage.
I’m sure that I’m forgetting a few others that can go the distance, but the point stands that less if often more, and were it not for the need to justify a certain ticket price range we might get more of less. This would benefit both the act and the punter.
One of the most striking examples of why was Al Murray’s latest show, The Only Way Is Epic. In the suitably epic 2 hour 40 minutes of the show (including interval) there is an hour of top notch crowd working plus some intelligent set-pieces with another hour of anti-climactic routines and material with wafer thin premises. At one point I would have happily paid to get out early, so I might have been persuaded to pay the going rate for a much shorter show.
Quantity or quality? If the act, their promoter and their director (if there is one) haven’t seen fit to trim proceedings accordingly, then only the critic can save you!