For comedians, being cancelled is good for business – and 2022 proved it

Best and worst comedy shows of 2022 - Rebecca Need-Menear
Best and worst comedy shows of 2022 - Rebecca Need-Menear

Anton Tymoshenko’s name may not be well known over here, but if one person represents the resilience of comedy in 2022, it’s him. The Ukrainian refused to let the war stop his first nationwide tour, bravely gigging in bunkers and basements, within earshot of falling bombs, recording his travels for a terrific Radio 4 documentary.

It offered proof that laughter can light up the darkest times – and a healthy dose of perspective to comics in safer countries moaning about the so-called “dangers” of cancel culture. All publicity is good publicity: Jimmy Carr, “cancelled” for a joke about the Holocaust, filled giant venues on his tour. Joe Rogan, “cancelled” for peddling misinformation about vaccines, remains the world’s most popular podcast host. And the uncompromising comedy pariah Jerry Sadowitz – whose always-offensive, often-hilarious “screaming racist shtick” had seemed like a decades-long experiment in self-isolation – was bemused to find himself at the Apollo, the largest stage he’s played in his life, carried there on a wave of negative publicity after an Edinburgh venue pulled his show following complaints about racism and him exposing himself on stage.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with nudity as a punchline, so long as it’s funny. Jordan Gray’s full-frontal strip on Channel 4 was one of the most memorable TV moments of the year, though that routine didn’t work so well divorced from its context – as the finale of her brilliant stage show about superheroes and being a trans woman, Is It a Bird?

Mixing keyboard-stomping comic songs and mercurial stand-up, it was a charming attempt to defuse the increasingly furious debates in the media about trans people. Comedy is a powerful tool for generating empathy, one most effective when it isn’t asking for empathy – you win more hearts and minds by just getting the whole room laughing along. With her self-mocking playfulness and refusal to tug the heartstrings, Gray understands that to a tee.

There seemed to be even more nudity than usual at Edinburgh this year, but exposing oneself figuratively – rather than literally – is going out of style. While the 2010s were the decade of soul-baring confessional comedy, in 2022 sincerity is passé. America’s millennial self-satirists (Kate Berlant, Catherine Cohen, Bo Burnham) have become touchstones for an even younger generation for UK comics, whose every line comes wrapped in inverted commas.

The frighteningly clever Leo Reich, 24, is the best of the bunch. He’s a caricature of an unlikeable Gen Z narcissist on stage, but you’re never sure where the persona ends and the person begins. Each time he seems to be edging towards honesty, it’s a trap.

Leo Reich - Raphael Neal
Leo Reich - Raphael Neal

Stewart Lee, who has long played similar games with the character of “Stewart Lee”, bucked the trend by dropping that aloof pose for his warmest show in years. If he’s going soft, he’s in good company; Hannah Gadsby, the former firebrand of Nanette fame, returned with a feelgood set about falling in love, while  Nish Kumar took a break from skewering politicians to mock himself instead, telling the story of his worst-ever gig, in his fastest, funniest show for perhaps a decade.

Of those young comics still delving into personal territory, the most promising were Mexico’s adorably goofy Lara Ricote – with a show largely about her deafness – and spaced-out Hacks star Hannah Einbinder. They have a common influence in Maria Bamford, the critically revered, trailblazing US comic who at 52 finally staged her first UK tour this year.

Touching on her mother’s death in 2020, Bamford’s show was a triumph. Elsewhere, too many comics of her generation (Harry Hill, Steve Coogan, Dylan Moran, Ricky Gervais) disappointed with over-priced but under-written tours – the exception being Peter Kay, who won over critics with his long-postponed nostalgic comeback. After staging the highest-selling stand-up tour of all time in 2010, he’s likely to break his own record by the time this run finally ends in 2025.

Away from their big venues, though, 2022 was a feast of delights. The picture’s not all rosy – the eye-watering cost of Edinburgh Fringe accommodation is a problem that urgently needs solving. But live comedy’s recovery from lockdown has been nothing short of miraculous. I’ve seen just under 100 shows since January, and they featured some of the funniest work I’ve seen in my time as a critic – particularly in the sidelined genres of musical comedy, sketch and clowning.

I fell in love with Jazz Emu, the pop-star alter ego of Archie Henderson, whose best songs stand comparison with Flight of the Conchords. Old-fashioned sketch trio Crybabies made me cry with laughter in their sci-fi spoof Bagbeard. (They’re a 21st-century Goon Show – why on earth hasn’t Radio 4 snapped them up?) And the rigorous science of the one-liner met the silliness of quantum theory in John-Luke Roberts’s latest hour, tied together with a very fine running joke about Hadron Colliders.

As for the clowns, they used comedy’s oldest techniques for elliptical explorations of immigration and unemployment (Julia Masli’s Choosh), eating disorders (Frankie Thompson’s Catts) and anxiety (Luke Rollason’s Bowerbird). But those themes remained buried below the surface; what these clowns have in common is a refusal to patronise, lecture or over-explain. The big dumb joke always comes first, as it should.