The Art of Character Comedy

The history of comedy is bejewelled with memorable characters. From Tony Hancock to David Brent, via Basil Fawlty and at all points in between, certain special comic personas have made their way into our collective hearts thanks to the skill and talent of the writers and performers who bring them to life.

While such works of fiction naturally find a home in the make-believe worlds of TV and film comedy, the conceit of most stand-up lies in the idea that the comedian on stage is a real person (or, at least, a hyper-real version of themselves, exaggerated for effect). A select minority of comics, however, choose to forgo convention and step up to the mic in the guise of a meticulously constructed character. It’s the approach that has brought the world favourites such as Rick Mayall’s Brummie investigative reporter Kevin Turvey and Daniel Renton’s hapless ‘burger van man’ Angelos Epithemiou to name but two. But what’s involved in creating an enduring character?

Alexis Dubus has mastered the art. A warm and affable gentleman off stage and on (when not in character), Alexis could hardly be further from his alter ego Marcel Lucont, supremely arrogant French poet and star of numerous hit touring shows. They aren’t even from the same country. To his mind, the approach when writing for a character is only subtly different to straight stand-up: “Essentially it involves coming up with a concept and trying to make myself laugh, when writing jokes to perform as Marcel, certain parameters are set, and there are certain themes that I’m more likely to explore as Marcel, and certain things he would, and wouldn't, do and say.”

Do these new parameters grant Marcel licence to say things that Alexis himself couldn’t? He thinks so: “Those French traits seem to travel, and allow me to get away with a lot of things all over the world, especially combined with Marcel’s old-fashioned nature. The trick is to tread that fine line between getting away with things you’re not supposed to say and things that are just offensive for the sake of it. There are various jokes I’ve written as Marcel about women, religion, children, sex and various taboo subjects which, when taken at face value, could be deemed offensive or bigoted, but for me part of the joy of comedy is being able to throw these little suggestions out there and revel in their inappropriate nature.”

Asked to contrast audience reactions to Marcel to those he experiences outside of character-work, Alexis explained “Marcel was written to provoke, as a quiet affront to the audience, who have paid money to now be verbally abused. I think the idea of an act who doesn’t want to be there, with little respect for those he is talking to is much funnier than someone trying to be a crowd-pleaser.”

So, does the ‘mask’ of a character embolden the performer? Alexis thinks so: “I suppose it does give me armour - it’s very rare I’ll feel nervous stepping on stage as Marcel. Going on as myself, I feel a bit more open to judgment.”

If you’re a fan of character comedy, there are a host of excellent acts awaiting your support on today’s circuit. Alexis recommends Tom Binns, who has won festival adulation with alter-egos such as hapless DJ Ivan Brackenbury and Sunderland-based spirit medium Ian D Montfort.  Spencer Jones’ The Herbert puts a delightfully quirky spin on prop comedy and clowning and Anna Morris’s ‘Georgina the Bride’ went down a storm in Edinburgh and was crowned Best Show 2016 at the Funny Women Awards. We’d also humbly recommend the brilliant Colin Hoult as Ana Mann on NextUp.

by Stuart Boyland