Is there anything connected to comedians that TV viewers wouldn’t watch these days? They go on holiday: we’ll watch. With their mums: we’ll watch that too. They’re on Question Time, they’re reviewing books, they’re having a coffee in a car: more comedians, please! No surprise, then, that a TV show now arrives promising us more up-close-and-personal time with the nation’s funny people – in the form of Backstage With Katherine Ryan, which takes the cameras behind-the-scenes of a series of gigs at Camden’s Roundhouse.
It’s a grabby concept, no question. Backstage at a comedy club is a place with a mystique all of its own, where (we imagine) comedians’ true selves are revealed, where their jokes are uncut, where an intense camaraderie reigns between people who do something for a living that terrifies the rest of us. When I spoke to the comic Sarah Kendall earlier this year, she hymned in hallowed terms this private comedians’ space, their antechamber to the stage. Years after largely quitting standup, “I still love sitting backstage with a bunch of comics and talking shit,” Kendall told me. “It’s my favourite place. If my ashes were going to be interred anywhere, it would be backstage at a comedy venue.”
That’s the challenge, then, for Backstage: can it show us what the fuss is about? Judging by the first episode, the answer would have to be: a bit. What it doesn’t do is shed light on precisely the environments Kendall loved. The Roundhouse isn’t a comedy venue. The acts aren’t just jobbing comedians, they are, in most instances, celebrities. And the series assumes we’re interested, not only in life backstage at a comedy club, but in the stories behind the headlines we’ve read about these well-known names.
And so in the first episode, we find Katherine Ryan grilling Seann Walsh in his dressing room about the fallout from his notorious Strictly Come Dancing kiss. This comes across far less as spontaneous backstage banter, and more like a chatshow in an unusual location. But then, how much can be spontaneous when these comedians know the cameras are watching them? Episode one’s biggest laugh comes when Jimmy Carr breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges that their supposedly private chat is being filmed. (That’s not a fly on the wall, folks, it’s a bloody great Jeff Goldblum).
The question then becomes: even if its artifice is conspicuous, does this format offer more revealing, or funnier, exposure to comedians than another chatshow? Or than their own acts? Sometimes: it’s intriguing to see how nervous Walsh is before he goes on stage. Intriguing too how the show purports to lift the lid on the writing process, as Ryan spit-balls ideas with her writer Geoff Norcott for gags to crack about the other comics on the bill. Why this work has been left to the day of the show, who knows? But it’s fun to watch the pair at it. And – however questionable its spontaneity – it’s fun to see the comics’ interplay in the hours before the gig, too, as Carr ribs Ryan about her tracksuit and curlers, and Walsh solicits Ted Lasso star Nick Mohammed’s help with a punchline.
Backstage is just the half of it, mind you: 50 per cent of the show happens on stage, as the comics perform their sets. It’s like a Live at the Apollo spliced with backstage reaction shots – and the quality of the standup is high. But I found myself straining for a glimpse behind the show’s contrivance – a glimpse backstage of Backstage, as it were. We get plenty of footage of comedians smiling supportively at one another’s jokes. But when Jimmy Carr cracks gags onstage about fat people, we are artfully spared the reaction of Desiree Burch, much of whose work is about fighting against such prejudice. One can imagine a version of Backstage where the comedians are less gilded and the edges are a bit sharper. In the meantime, Ryan’s version is slick, good fun, and sure to appeal to a TV audience ever receptive, it seems, to new angles on the lives of standup comics.
Backstage With Katherine Ryan is on Prime Video from Thursday 9 June.