Ronnie Corbett, for a lot of Brits of a certain age was a staple of Saturday night television comedy. He recently died aged 85. If you weren’t around in Britain or other countries able to pick up his BBC1 show, The Two Ronnies, in the 1970s and ’80s in which he co-starred with Ronnie Barker, let me give you the basics quickly. And then permit me a few personal reminiscences, as I was privileged to work with him.
It seems hard to recall now, but it was once a novel idea to put comedians on the radio as presenters. It must have seemed a win-win: the radio station believed they were buying into guaranteed laughs – and with them, they hoped, audiences – while the comedian got guaranteed work, often daily, at least until the end of their contract. Both parties should be laughing all the way to the bank.
I can’t blame a comic for wanting to swap a punishing life on the road (or an equally punishing wait for the phone to ring) for an air-conditioned studio. Add to that the liberation from sweaty (or non-existent) dressing rooms, and from the reliance on a ‘good door’ or anxieties about a hostile house. Forget heckling – the worst you’re likely to get is a dead bat from the travel reporter.
Likewise, you can’t gainsay a station manager for thinking they’ve bought into a master (or mistress) ad-libber who can fly by the seat of their pants and turn the trivial into comedy gold. Plus, a lot of comedians come with a built-in fanbase, and concomitant public profile. Why wouldn’t it work?
Except that often, it seems to me, it doesn’t.
As with many things, there’s greater complexity than first appears to be the case, but if it can be reduced it to one main reason, I believe it’s that the template in the performer’s head is wrong. Comics are hard-wired to play to a crowd in the room and to go for every laugh, but laughs are rarer when listening alone. The stage isn’t a loudspeaker. And a merry group (or boozy rabble) isn’t the same as a solitary listener, or even a small ensemble listening in a car.
Successful standup Phill Jupitus is very insightful and refreshingly unegotistical about why he isn’t still a radio presenter in his book Good Morning Nantwich. He swapped living out of a suitcase for being live on BBC Radio 6 Music each weekday morn. In his book Jupitus makes a passing mention of having someone else in the studio and playing to them because, to paraphrase, ‘that’s what you do’. I’m not sure he realises the significance of this; it’s the mike, and by extension the listener you really need to address. Listeners are jealous creatures and demand attention. Heaven help the perfidious presenter!
There’s nothing that says a comedian must make a great radio presenter. But there’s nothing that says they can’t either. For me the difference is a respect for the medium of radio as radio, and not as a supposed soft career option. Remember that and you’re laughing.