Having run steadily since 2004 and garnered millions of viewers with each broadcast, there’s no denying that Live at the Apollo is the flagship of BBC’s comedy output.  Still, considering that the BBC’s Post-The Office output has mostly consisted of banal shitcoms such as Dinnerladies, or BBC3 by-yoofs-for-yoofs tripe such as Coming of Age, the competition isn’t exactly stiff, and being the flagship of a sinking fleet is hardly anything to be proud of.

When it comes to what’s wrong with Live at the Apollo, it’s hard to know where to start. The truly average quality of the many performers, the complete avoidance of anything genuinely innovative or subversive, or the frightening prospect of sitting through Jo Brand flogging the same tired routine that she’s been peddling since 1983. Quality is the sticking point, though – for every Reginald D Hunter, there are ten Marcus Brigstockes. For every Rich Hall, there are a dozen Jack Whitehalls. Of course, the producers need to cater to a mass audience, and comedy doesn’t have to be subversive – or even original – to be amusing, but the selection process just seems so utterly lazy and exclusive that it’s hard to accept that these hacks are genuinely the best that our country’s comedy circuit has to offer. Every now and then, an act comes along that blows the roof of the place, and establishes themselves as a critically-respected performer whilst still guaranteeing the untold DVD sale riches that an appearance at the Apollo can bring. Usually though, we are stuck with the Nigerian comic who does jokes about how strict their Nigerian parents were, the Iranian comic who does jokes about how strict his Iranian parents were, and the quirky, progressive young guy who’s actually 34 years old.

Pictured: One of the Russells. Doesn’t matter which.

More irksome than anything, though, is the obligatory awkward back-slapping conversations with F-list celebrities that the performers are presumably contractually obliged to put the rest of us through, for the sake of cross-promotion. Even the relentlessly acerbic Frank Boyle is forced to make nice with Carol Smiley, Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, or the cast of Holby City. Whatever your thoughts on the BBC and the license fee, one can’t help but wonder if a show this lazily curated and self-congratulatory as this would have lasted as long out in the badlands of the free market, were its producers unable to suckle the teat of the British taxpayer.

Life inside this publically-funded cocoon can be a double-edged sword, though. The BBC is expected, more than any other broadcasting organisation, to be a standard-bearer for political correctness, and Live at the Apollo is certainly no exception to the rule. The problem is, while political correctness is ostensibly laudable, what it’s definitely not is funny. Political correctness has a stranglehold on modern comedy, as referred to by Jerry Seinfeld (of all people) in a recent TV interview. While cult hero comedians like Doug Stanhope and Jerry Sadowitz certainly don’t tow the PC line in the way that Russell Howard does, they are generally far more entertaining, and far more likely to send you home thinking about something in a new light, even if they had to be willfully offensive to get you there.

The show is also indicative of our utterly undeserved sense of national superiority when it comes to stand-up comedy. There is a notion, old as comedic entertainment itself, that the British sense of humour is oh-so-refined compared to that of our American cousins. If we’re judging this by our respective leading stand up proponents, all the evidence points to the contrary. American comics of the modern age still carry the anti-establishment torch of their great compatriots of comedy history. Often incendiary, often vitriolic; almost always intended to make you think about something in a way that you never have before. Here in Blighty, we are represented by dowdy middle-aged men making sub-par jokes about hotel room etiquette and their inability to perform basic DIY tasks. Genuine eccentricity is cast aside, and mediocrity is not just accepted; it is worshiped. Still, in a country where Adele records sell by the millions, we should hardly be surprised.

Alexander James

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