Sian Bevan talks about the rise of comedy storytelling nights, and learning about standup the hard way
Humour has changed in the last few years. The rise of Twitter and text messaging has meant the death of the traditional pub joke and an increased appetite for one-liners. In spite or perhaps because of this, comedy storytelling nights are becoming increasingly popular across the country.
The forerunner of these in Scotland is Electric Tales, a monthly event that started off in the Scottish Storytelling Centre about three years ago before finding a permanent home in The Stand. Sian Bevan, the regular host there, says that the night started as a bit of an experiment. "Me and Susan Morrison had an idea to being comedians and storytellers together, to share skills, see each other’s venues and swap audiences."
So, first of all, just what is the difference between a joke and a story?
"There's not that much difference," Bevan replies. "A joke can be a story and a story can be a joke. The telling of the story is the important bit, rather than the gag or the reveal. A story is about the journey, a joke is about the destination."
That is one of the most enjoyable parts of a comedy storytelling night: to see a standup spend a bit more time in the world of their jokes. Bevan agress. "If you go the Storytelling Centre you'll see acts who have the knack of drawing people in. It's considered, it isn't rushing. That's what we wanted to bring from storytelling to comedy, a kind of relishing of language and of detail. It's a chance to explore the details of things in way you don't get to do in standup because you want to hit a punchline every 20 seconds."
So what about the other way around? How can storytellers benefit from comedy?
Bevan winces a bit before answering and says she's going to get into trouble for saying this. "I love storytelling but I have mixed feelings about spoken word. It can be lazy and the audience can be way too forgiving. With standup, you have to meet a certain standard of performance or you'll die on your bum. I think a lot of spoken word performers would benefit from the brutality of standup and occasionally dying. I don't get people just reading out of a book in a monotone voice. It's like, I can read."
Bevan started off her comedy career in 2005 while living in Newcastle, a month after her friend Sarah Millican's first gig ("I believe she's doing alright"). Geordie comic Jason Cook gave her some helpful advice early on in her career.
"I was chatting to him just before I went to do this thing that was going to be recorded for BBC7 – where winners go – and he was filled with horror to discover that I thought that every time you did a standup gig you had to write a whole new set. I had this thing I had written on the way there and I was just like, 'I'll do that, it'll be fine.' Him and a few other comedians said, 'don't do that just do what you did in your last gig' and I was like, 'I didn't write it down, I can't remember what I said!'"
After a path to comedy that she herself describes as "rocky and miserable," she's come to be known as one of Scotland's most versatile performers. As well as Electric Tales, she does standup, cabaret, kids’ comedy and sketch. "None of them very well," she laughs. "The trouble is I'm really interested in everything so I do nothing to a high standard.
"I think I'm more interested in the art of standup. If you want to earn a living you either have to do the traditional route and travel the UK and work incredibly hard and invest lots of money. Or you accept that you're going to have to have a part-time job and just get involved with comedy.
"Scotland is amazing because it's such a small scene that there are lots of people who get involved in different things. It's possible to see so many different types of performance in one small space. I think that's the thing I really love about Electric Tales."