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In this analysis I will evaluate the approaches to stand-up comedy undertaken by comedians Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay, commenting on techniques such as role play, comic exaggeration, lexical choices, and changes in pitch and tone, used to establish humour.
Michael McIntyre is a proud middle-class comedian raised in the heart of Hampstead, north London. Over the last four years, his exuberant observational style has seen him grown into one of the biggest names in British comedy. His appeal is built on the fact that people genuinely seem like him, in that his comedy is accessible to all. On this occasion, McIntyre is performing a sketch on ‘Herbs and Spices’ at Birmingham’s NEC Arena, in front of an audience in excess of ten thousand.
McIntyre’s observational style turns the pettiest of everyday domestic engagements into the most humorous of affairs, and therefore relies largely on his audience’s ability to relate with what he saying. In this instance, neglected herbs and spices are anthropomorphised, to express their discontent at being left at the back of the kitchen cupboard, whilst rival seasonings, Salt and Pepper sit ‘arrogantly’ on the kitchen table.
The introduction to the sketch consists largely of simple and compound declarative utterances, containing unsophisticated, high frequency lexis, ensuring that the audience can absorb what is being said. The second person subjective pronoun, ‘you’, in combination with formal vocatives, ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ in the first line, is an example of McIntyre addressing the audience directly. He engages with his audience in an attempt to make his words feel more conversational, and less like a performance, thus establishing an amicable rapport.
The opening declarative utterances (lines 1-2) are stated as fact, using Standard English. They are said in an informative manner, and are the basis on which the joke is built; his observation. The imperative utterance on line two highlights this observation. McIntyre exclaims; ‘salt and pepper are so phenomenally successful in the herb and spice arena’. The monosyllabic, adverb of degree ‘so’ coupled with the polysyllabic intensifier ‘phenomenally’ emphasises the metaphor, crediting the popularity of salt and pepper to success in a metaphorical arena. McIntyre then later goes on to remind his audience that salt and pepper are not the only herbs and spices available. The declarative utterance on line 7, presents this information as somewhat of a revelation, with the stressed conjunction ‘but’ and adjective ‘other’, helping to intensify his point.
Much of the comedy in McIntyre’s routine is derived from comic exaggeration, fuelled by his very own larger-than-life personality. The humble world of culinary additives is metaphorically introduced to the audience as an ‘arena’, implying that there are winners, and there are losers. The clear winners of this metaphorical battleground, being the ever-present collocation of ‘salt and pepper’. Salt and Pepper also happen to be the first spices anthropomorphised by McIntyre (Lines 3-5). On line 3, he begins his utterance using the 3rd person, subjective pronoun, ‘they’, but then replaces this with the 1st person objective pronoun, ‘us’, marking the transition into role-play, later confirmed by the, again, 1st person, reflexive pronoun ‘myself’. In personifying the usually inanimate figures of salt and pepper, McIntyre is able to create character depth. On line three, Salt and Pepper are described as ‘arrogantly’ sitting on the table. The stressed polysyllabic adverb of manner ‘arrogantly’, personifies Salt and Pepper making them seem conceited, which provokes spite and even envy, amongst their on-looking counterparts
McIntyre is technically adept, he knows how to build on a routine and squeeze it for maximum effect. From line 10 onwards his sketch becomes very routinely question and answer, with a high frequency of adjacency pairs and interrogatives throughout. Each spice is, in turn, asked the same question, only to respond with an amusing personal anecdote, reflecting the character of each individual. For example when Mediterranean herb, Cumin is faced with this question, he recollects a time in 1992, when he last left the cupboard for an ‘experiment’. McIntyre uses the abstract noun ‘experiment’ ironically, suggesting that this was his defining moment, his time to shine. Then just as this cycle verges on the edge of predictability, the routine is broken, with the comical introduction of yet another new character. Step up; John West tuna (line 25-26). With the introduction of John West tuna and his wife ‘Tinned Salmon’, McIntyre plays on a shared reference, implying that they had been in the cupboard for such a long time, they were able to forge a relationship.
Through the medium of comedy, McIntyre is able to express his observation which doubles as a criticism of the fact that at some point in time, perhaps influenced by a magazine article or television commercial, most people will deem it a good idea to embrace the possibility of change in the long-term future, whilst lacking any real willingness for immediate change. Consequently, it is relatively easy to justify the purchase of reasonably inexpensive items (such as herbs), in knowledge that we may not require, nor use them at any time in the foreseeable future. Rather, they are bought in faith that one day they will serve an intended purpose. But of course things rarely change; meaning that ‘one day’ never comes, leaving the victims of this wasteful ideology to remain as forgotten relics, more ornamental than practical.
By making light of comedy in the most ordinary of every-day, Michael McIntyre reminds us that stand-up doesn’t have to be brutal, in order to be funny.
Peter Kay is arguably Britain’s most loved comedian. A thirty-nine year old male from Bolton, northern England, whose style of comedy, like McIntyre’s, is built loosely upon observation. However, a combination of cherishable British values and a trademark loveable nostalgia set him aside from most other acts. Nevertheless, Peter Kay is an unlikely comedian at best. Wide-eyed and clean-shaven, he steers clear of jokes about sex and politics. His routine lacks cruelty and he hardly ever swears. A married man and, in many respects, a bit of an average Joe. In this instance, we find Kay nearing the middle of a routine, performing a sketch on biscuits in front of an audience numbering more than three thousand, at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre in 2002.
Kay’s observation is based around the problems faced whilst performing the universal act of dipping biscuits into hot drinks. In this case, Kay is questioning the structural quality of a Rich Tea biscuit. On line 17 he personifies the Rich Tea, describing it, using high frequency adjectives ‘cocky’ and ‘lazy’, implying that the humble azoic biscuit is in fact, conspiring against him. He later compares this to a Hobnob biscuit, which he metaphorically likens to; a ‘Marine’, ‘the SAS’ and finally to TV hardman ‘Steven Segal’, creating a comparative juxtaposition, which becomes the basis of the joke.
As much of Kay’s comedy relies on audience participation, rapport is crucial. Kay’s working class background is something that many members of his audience will be able to relate to, and so as a result he is able to employ a significant level of informal, high frequency colloquial lexis, including concrete noun ‘brew’ and vocative ‘mum’, which recreates a typical conversational tone. Clipping of the 1st person singular pronoun, ‘I’ in I am, to leave only ‘am’ in the opening utterance on line one is an example of Kay’s regional dialect, which is the primary feature in this informal tone. In addition to creating rapport, Kay’s Lancashire dialect works to his advantage, as it sets him aside from other comedians. The preposition ‘in’ elided with the definite article ‘the’ on line 3, is another example of this regional dialect. Also the 1st person objective singular pronoun, ‘me’, and the possessive determiner ‘my’, are used interchangeably, in typical northern fashion, as seen on line seven.
Another factor contributing to the establishment of rapport is Kay’s regional accent, which, in addition to dialect, adds a certain individuality to his routine. Unlike McIntyre, with his particularly received pronunciation and Standard English, Kay sports a notably lusty Lancashire accent. By clipping the present participle at the end of the emphasised, low frequency dynamic verb, planing (creating ‘planin’) on line five, Kay eliminates the harsh sounding consonant, thus extenuating his speech and alluding to an overall more colloquial tone.
Kay is also able to use prosodics as an effective feature of comedy. Changes in the dynamics of his voice are prevalently used to differentiate between sentence moods. For example an increase in pitch on line 29, in the interrogative utterance, ‘where’s me brew’ creates emphasis and conveys his confusion. Whereas a contrasting decrease in pitch on line 39 is used to express the military-esque seriousness of the hobnob. Since Kay so often chooses to stay clear of taboo, when coupled with the infrequent use of expletives, this technique becomes a particularly effective feature of comedy. On line 18, the cresc, clipped expletive fucking (creating ‘king), followed by the proper noun ‘One-Dips’ stresses the torment that the Rich Tea has caused him, further expressing his anguish.
In McIntyre’s work, there are very few examples of non-fluency features (complimenting his suave stage persona). In contrast, they are prevalent throughout Kay’s. Although Kay will have scripted and, to some extent, rehearsed his routine, the inclusion of non-fluency features (incidentally or otherwise) bestows a sense of spontaneity, which adds to his colloquial charm. Towards the end of line 22, there is an example of a false start, which gives his previous point (‘they’re on their arses’) sincerity, and reflects his enthusiasm towards stand-up as a whole. Then later, on line 23, he exclaims ‘they’re cocky’ which, following a slight pause, he then repeats, partially to stress his point, but primarily to allow him time to gather his thoughts before continuing.
Behind the sparkling eyes and boyish complexion, there is the astute mind of a shrewd operator. It is easy to forget that it takes nerves of steel as well as a few witty one-liners to achieve success in comedy.
Two people, from two very different walks of life. Nevertheless, Kay and McIntyre alike possess the uncanny ability to captivate audiences of the broadest kind; a virtue which has propelled them to the forefront of contemporary British comedy. From gags about herbs and spices, to Rich Tea biscuits; in celebrating the daft little dramas that punctuate even the most inauspicious lives, their honesty and sincerity evoke sentiment, making them feel like a long-lost friend.
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