thu 28/01/2021

Best of 2020: Comedy | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2020: Comedy

Best of 2020: Comedy

Outdoor venues and podcasts to the rescue

The third series of the Dear Joan & Jericha (Vicki Pepperdine, left, and Julia Davis) podcast was released this year

What a year that was. Live performance was stopped dead in its tracks for most of 2020, and comedy – as viscerally live as you can get in dark and sweaty enclosed spaces above pubs or in club basements – was particularly hard hit. Never again, I suspect, will comedy fans complain about the privations of broom-cupboard venues at the Edinburgh Fringe.

What a year that was. Live performance was stopped dead in its tracks for most of 2020, and comedy – as viscerally live as you can get in dark and sweaty enclosed spaces above pubs or in club basements – was particularly hard hit. Never again, I suspect, will comedy fans complain about the privations of broom-cupboard venues at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I'm so glad I went to Glasgow in March to see what turned out to be one of the last major gigs of 2020, Steve Martin and Martin Short (pictured below), who were great fun. But while it wasn't a bumper year for comedy overall – how could it be? – many producers, promoters and stand-ups did their damnedest to provide us with laughs when they were allowed to as restrictions eased.

Some were incredibly inventive, and thus we saw the first drive-in comedy shows in the UK, a very welcome import from the United States. There were some real outdoor treats and best drive-in setting was Henley, where the Regatta usually takes place, on a lovely sunny day, with the Thames flowing languidly by.

But top prize for an outdoor setting goes to Picnic at the Castle, where the organisers created a magical space of flower-decorated individual pergolas for the audience to sit under, with Warwick Castle as a stunning backdrop. I really hope that this venue is recreated in 2021, and that promoters can find a way to make other newly reinvented spaces work commercially, such as the terrific Warren in Brighton.

Thankfully much of our spring and summer was temperate, but when the weather reverted to traditional British fare the cold temperatures and rain tested one's mettle.

Some comics worked as gainfully as they could over Zoom and on social media, where the breakout star was Sarah Cooper, with her lip-syncs of Donald Trump's endless stream of inanities. Honourable mentions also to The Pin's Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen for posting their sketches online, and Kieran Hodgson for his spot-on spoofs of 2020's most popular TV dramas, including The Queen's Gambit and The Crown.What also tried my patience was the reluctance of some comics to allow reviews of their gigs when lockdown eased. I wanted, like all comedy critics, to spread the word about the return of live comedy, and listened with wry amusement when some stand-ups or their PRs cited their “rustiness” when live gigs started again, even though many had been busy on live Zoom gigs through the whole of the first lockdown, and (understandably) nearly all were doing tried and tested material or rehashing their 2019 Edinburgh Fringe shows. So hat-tip to Sindhu Vee (pictured above left) for doing some very strong new material at the wonderful, relocated and reconfigured The New Normal arts festival; and Fern Brady, appearing at 21Soho, a welcome new venue opening in central London, also with some delicious new gags.

And another medium that came into its own during lockdown – podcasts – threw up some treats. Chief among them was the recently released third series of Dear Joan & Jericha, Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine's gloriously filthy spoof agony aunts. It's ideal for home listening, as guffawing like a loon will get you some funny looks on public transport.

Sadly, we said goodbye to some comedy greats in 2020. Roy Hudd (pictured right) an expert on music hall and pantomime, was one of our few remaining links to variety, while former Python Terry Jones and ex-Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor were part of the new wave of university-led comedy that followed. Eddie Large and Bobby Ball, both one half of hugely successful TV double acts, proved there was room in British comedy for both the intellectual and instinctual to thrive. And Nicholas Parsons, the much mocked chairman of Just a Minute for several decades, and Des O'Connor, the butt of so many Morecambe and Wise jokes about his singing, both proved that being funny isn't always about telling jokes.

Here's to audiences sitting safely in live comedy venues again in 2021.

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