A raft of sketch-show comedians in Edinburgh are going it alone as standups this year. But are they in for a rude awakening? Brian Logan finds out if they've got what it takes
We never got to see Michael Palin's standup. Nor will we ever know how the live solo work of, say, Jennifer Saunders might have panned out. But that was back then, when sketch-show comedy knew its place. This year on the fringe, the wall between the two is being trampled down, as a glut of sketch comics try being funny alone. So is comedy just comedy, whatever the number of performers or the style of show? Or are these arrivistes about to make an unhappy discovery: that standup is a very particular skill, for which sketches are no qualification?
The success last year of Greg Davies, Mr Gilbert in Channel 4's The Inbetweeners and a member of the anarcho-sketch troupe We Are Klang, seems to suggest the former. Davies's debut solo show was nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award, taken on a successful national tour ? and led to him appearing on BBC1's Live at the Apollo last December. This year, his fellow Klang member Steve Hall is also returning to standup, as is Matthew Crosby of sketch favourites Pappy's, not to mention all three members (Thom Tuck, David Reed and Humphrey Ker) of well-loved fringe sketchers The Penny Dreadfuls. Why? "We're just obsessed with comedy," says Hall. "Whatever form we can do comedy in, we'll do it."
To Hall, the distinctions between sketch and standup are exaggerated. He points out that Daniel Kitson, very much the standup's standup, made his 1999 debut in sketch act The Monkey Touchers. Even Jerry Sadowitz, a standup who is so misanthropic it's hard to imagine anyone working with him, was once half of a sketch double-act. Hall says he was a standup by instinct, and felt wary of being lured into sketch ? until he realised "it was good for me, as a very static, deadpan comic, to be more expressive with my body, to learn to improvise".
But sketch entailed compromises. In Klang, Hall became "the nominal straight man ? in that Greg and Marek [Larwood] were so big, someone had to be the antidote". But playing one's allotted role in a sketch troupe may be restrictive: the other people can end up getting all the laughs. "It's that eternal struggle," says Hall. "You want your individual voice recognised, and to be seen as funny in your own right, but obviously you want [to make the show work]. One night after a show in Edinburgh, Greg's friends were saying to me, 'Why are you in this show?' It was a really confronting question ? they were hammered. It's a test of self-awareness, being in a sketch show, and a useful exercise in humility."
The sketch-to-standup acts I talk to all single out one advantage of going solo. Thom Tuck of The Penny Dreadfuls puts it best: "I'm the only person who can say yes. I don't have to get everything through committee." But they admit that the self-exposure is alarming. "If it fails completely," adds Tuck, "there's only me to blame." And Matthew Crosby, one of Pappy's, found himself craving collaborators when preparing for his solo debut. "There were times when I thought, I need to sit down with [Pappy's member] Tom and ask him, 'What am I doing wrong?' and 'What do I need to do to improve it?'"
Both Tuck and Crosby are using their first Edinburgh standup shows to address autobiographical subjects. "Most comedians want to talk about themselves," says Crosby. The problem is that sketch comedy doesn't lend itself to such personal or honest material. "And really," says Crosby, "the best person to do an autobiographical show is yourself." But how easy is it to be "yourself" on stage? Most standups project a carefully constructed version of themselves. That's not something many sketch acts need to consider.
"The first time I thought I'd cracked standup," says Tuck, "I was doing a gig with Danielle Ward, and I was like, 'So, what do you think?' And she said, 'It's an interesting character.' And I was like, 'I thought I was being myself.' Apparently, I'm fictional."
Just as hard to deal with, says Crosby, is the loneliness of the long-distance standup. "The long car journeys on your own are far, far worse. If you've gone four hours on the train to a gig with no one you know on the bill, you've died on stage for 20 minutes, proved you were rubbish at comedy, then got back on the train home ? that can be pretty horrible."
The perception that standup is tougher ? more isolating, requiring of greater craft ? has led many solo acts to look down their noses at sketch comedy, says Crosby. "The standup will be sitting there with all their ideas in their head, ready to go on stage, and then there's the three of us [in Pappy's] going, 'We've got this paper hat' and, 'Oh, we forgot to buy a bag of Quavers.' The standup often thinks, 'Write a joke. Don't spend all your time making paper hats ? and maybe you'll be funnier.'"
Nat Luurtsema is a standup who, contrary to the current trend, has formed a sketch troupe for this year's fringe. What has she learned? "After every sketch, an audience does seem to re-set their mind a little. If they didn't like it, they're more willing to go, 'I might like the next one.' Whereas in standup, 10 minutes in, you feel a couple of faces going, 'I don't like you, as a person.' And then they just eyeball you for 40 minutes."
Which brings us to the question: do sketch acts feel they have something to prove ? ie, their comic virility ? by taking on standup? Tuck flatly denies this: "I'm not trying to prove anything. It's just ? if you want to do it, you'll do it. There are people in sketch who consider themselves actors, really, and others who get into sketch just to get their writing on stage, and have no desire to be standups. But some of us have got more than one talent and more than one interest."
A case of spread-betting
And now, more than ever before, they're able to diversify. That's partly because sketch comedy has changed. In the early 2000s, it tended to be tightly scripted and performed behind a strictly observed fourth wall. Today, a standup's skills ? direct audience address, spontaneity ? would be more to the fore. However, sketch still requires a wider portfolio of theatrical skills than standup. And the migration of sketch acts to solo work ? the 2009 Edinburgh comedy award champ Tim Key, formerly of sketch troupe Cowards, is a good example ? is having an undeniably theatrical effect on standup.
Another reason for the fluidity between the two camps is that there are more platforms to work across. "It's so much easier now to do a sketch," says Steve Hall, "and whack it up on YouTube, or do a podcast. No one has any excuse to be blinkered about comedy and its possibilities."
And then there's the standup boom, providing lucrative opportunities for solo acts ? while withdrawing them from sketch groups. The Penny Dreadfuls, says Tuck, "played Pleasance One last year and sold 270 tickets a night, proving we can make a big group of people laugh. After that, we thought, 'What else can we do as a group that's going to make a realistic living for us?' We might as well do solo shows, because we're spread-betting. If one of us has a great year, then collectively we look better."
So the exodus from sketch to solo is partly a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" thing? "We're still comedians," says Crosby. "The thing that bound Pappy's together initially was that we all wanted to be on stage and be funny. Even when we're apart, that's still the impulse that drives us."
? Steve Hall, Matthew Crosby and Jigsaw with Nat Luurtsema are at Pleasance Courtyard, and Thom Tuck is at Pleasance Dome (all 0131-556 6550), until 29 August.