In the economic crisis, we are turning to comedy, whether it be stand-up imitators or the real deal.
In hard times, we roll with the punchlines
One of the most tedious tasks of the proofreader is poring over pages upon pages of "what's on" listings. But the job is always brightened somewhat by the tribute band section. You can imagine By Jovi as a posh Bon Jovi act dressed in smoking jackets. Nearvana is an almost poignant moniker: a band destined never to taste the success of Kurt Cobain's rock trio. Recently, there's been a brand new slot in those much-maligned listings: the tribute comedian. No, these aren't wannabe stand-ups fixated on performing in the style of their raconteur hero Bill Hicks, much as Oasis might idolise The Beatles. These are jokesters with not many jokes of their own, going out on the road and pretending to be much more famous comedians. For money.
The most famous example is the Peter Kay tribute, Lee Lard. Instead of shelling out £35 (Dh208) to see the creator of Phoenix Nights and Max & Paddy from the back of a giant arena, you can, instead, pay £10 to see someone pretend to be him in a hotel function room near you. Lard does the garlic bread catchphrase, he dresses up as Brian Potter from Phoenix Nights and you get a bowl of curry and rice thrown in, too.
So why would you not want to see the real thing? Everyone, of course, would. But when the real thing is often so prohibitively expensive, no wonder many are opting for credit-crunch comedy. Lard has made a career out of telling someone else's jokes. And in a way, it's not surprising. There is a huge appetite for stand-up comedy in the UK: the truly big-name comedians planning arena tours sell those venues out immediately. The punchline? A whopping 2.26 million comedy DVDs were sold in the UK alone in 2009, not including the month before Christmas.
That's a 38 per cent rise on 2008, and, really, one man is responsible: Michael McIntyre. This is a comic who has said: "I don't really do jokes. I just talk about things that I find funny. I don't do gags, just observational comedy. I just collect all these stories and try them out and if people laugh I do them again and make them better." And yet he can boast the fastest-selling debut comedy DVD of all time. His latest, Hello Wembley, accounts for a staggering 90 per cent of that 2009 rise in sales.
Having watched Hello Wembley over Christmas, I can report that it is indeed sharp, memorable, observational comedy. It's true that he doesn't do punchlines, instead slowly building genuinely funny stories everyone can relate to. He adds in lashings of energy and physical humour. Crucially, he makes himself so likeable that you want to laugh. Surely it won't be long before McIntyre has a tribute of his own.
The evening after we'd laughed with McIntyre (and that's his real success - it doesn't feel like he's telling you jokes, just pointing out the inherent humour in life), it was time for Jason Manford to step into our living room. Manford also finds himself in the upper echelons of the comedy DVD charts, but there's a reason why McIntyre is top by some distance. Manford has also, for reasons of geography (they're both from the north-west of England), been compared to Peter Kay, but he is more like a less energetic, less polished McIntyre. Indeed, some of the jokes are worryingly similar, particularly when they're both talking about men's toilets or burglars in the house.
Of course, there are only so many observations on relatively well-off family life you can make - and they have to be obvious so the audience recognises them and laughs. And the key to the huge success of observational comics such as McIntyre and Manford is certainly the family. You don't need to be alert with the remote control in case Granny is offended. It's generally safe, conservative comedy - stand-up for people who don't like the potential confrontation of going to see stand-up live.
If all this is about knowing what we like and liking what we know, no wonder there's money to be made from tribute comedians. It's why, with a Google search, you could hire Billy Connolly, Lee Evans or Borat to be the star attraction at your function. Well, you'd actually book Gary Moir, Ian Jones or Stuart Morrison, but you get the idea. And you can really say you've made it as a comedian or a band when you have a tribute act, which means that, despite the DVD sales, the television programmes and the sold-out signs, McIntyre is still missing that vital last ingredient for genuine crossover success: someone making money by pretending to be him, and telling his jokes. Bizarre, isn't it?