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We must take a serious approach to comedy archives

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If every full show for a comedian is equivalent to their ‘album’ it’s a shame that so much of it goes unrecorded – at least publicly.

While the likes of Jimmy Carr bring out a DVD in the manner that companies publish annual reports, and more indie acts like Richard Herring and Robin Ince use the same platform, many popular performers will go unrecorded.

With downloads the emphasis is on podcast material rather than stand-up sets; meanwhile the comedy album has undergone a sort of renaissance in the States but never seems to have caught the imagination over here.

Comedians are often protective about being publicly recorded, be it on camera, on tape or on paper (when it comes to jokes in reviews, as we know), but a new venture may – I hope – change that attitude so that comedy leaves more of a legacy.

[pullquote]Curiously about comedy and comedians has never been more keen and it would be good to give those curious a wider access to archive material and memorabilia beyond a few Brit comedy albums on Spotify.[/pullquote]

Recently Professor Olly Double, former stand-up and now head of drama at the University of Kent, was given a load of material charting the career of the late Linda Smith, by Smith’s partner Warren Lakin. The items include scripts, audio and video recordings stretching back to the start of her career in the 1980s.

The university’s special collections department duly announced the creation of a ‘British Stand-Up Comedy Archive’, “to collect and preserve material relating to this important aspect of popular and political culture”, further explaining that: “the new archive will benefit from the university’s forty years of experience with the British Cartoon Archive, and the two collections will complement each other very well.”

Double told me that when fully functional (pending a lot of boxes being sorted and a website being set up) the archive would “run along the same lines as the [British Library] newspaper archive.”

Among those who have already stepped forwards as possible donors are Josie Long and Mark Thomas. Further interest will depend on how attractive acts find it to leave a legacy as opposed to feeling somehow exposed.

“The way comedians work shrouded in mystery”, says Double, “people are interested in how they put their thoughts together.”

Though the public has a curiosity as to the method behind the mirth, on the part of comedians perhaps there is a fear of their methods being revealed, rather like the secrecy of The Magic Circle.

Comedians routinely record themselves of course, but usually to note how to improve delivery and word order, so it would take an act pretty confident of their improvement to actively donate such audio material.

Likely qualms aside, I do hope that more comedians come on board. The public’s curiously about comedy and comedians has never been more keen and it would be good to give those curious a wider access to archive material and memorabilia beyond a few Brit comedy albums on Spotify.

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