What would the world's worst comedy club look like? Perhaps it would be a brightly lit room under a pub in Shepherd's Bush, with no stage, just a strip of carpet in front of some chairs, which also happens to serve as a shortcut to the toilet.
Perhaps it would be a dingy room over a pub in Kentish Town, run by a man who will only ever put one woman on the bill "because the audience don't like too many females", and who introduces acts by saying things like, "Sorry about this, but all the good comics are up in Edinburgh at this time of year."
Or perhaps it would be a shipping container under a flyover in Deptford, where the audience members sit on packing crates, and there's no heating, so they're given blankets which they have to share, but that's OK, because there are only two of them.
Nope, it's none of these. I know because I have performed at all of them. In fact, the worst comedy club in the world resides in the virtual space, in a game called Comedy Night. It was launched in August 2012, and allowing it to exist on Xbox Live is the most terrible idea Microsoft ever had. Yes, including the Windows 386 rap.
Someone actually sat in a meeting and went, 'Yep, that's the best way to represent our operating system, well done lads.']
The concept is simple, and stupid. Why not create an online environment where people can try their hand at performing standup? Then, why not allow others to watch live, using their controllers to boo or cheer, and even heckle via their headsets?
BECAUSE THE INTERNET IS FULL OF MAD RACISTS, THAT'S WHY NOT. Open mic comedy attracts enough of these at the best of times. There was no need for a new arena where some of the world's worst people vocally could share their hateful opinions in the guise of "jokes", this time without even having to consider the risk of getting actually punched in the face.
Predictably, following the game's release, things quickly descended into endless abusive shouting matches between pre-teens in Tails and Master Chief skins. YouTube is full of evidence for this. There's a particular video where a 12 year-old American boy spouts a load of dreadfully unfunny tosh, including some appalling lines about Ethiopians, only to find himself heckled by a grown man from the UK. I won't link to it here because the video includes such an offensive barrage of racism, but here's a sample interaction:
12 year-old American: "Here's the part of the comedy where I make fun of the people in the crowd. Look at that Batman over there, what a loser."
Grown-up British man: "Right, he's a f***ing multi-milionaire, and he f***s Catwoman. You're on stage and you just told four bad jokes, and two of them were racist. Well done."
12 year-old American: "How about that airplane food, tastes like a plant, am I right?"
Strangely enough, Comedy Night failed to set Xbox Live on fire (which is exactly what I wanted to do after watching those videos.) But don't worry, because later this month, the game is arriving on Steam! Oh God.
The trailer suggests that apart from the characters having bigger heads, little has changed. Assuming it's also supposed to represent the open mic circuit, the Steam version suffers from a similar lack of authenticity. The venue has an actual stage, and lights, and a microphone. There are more than seven people in the audience, and it doesn't look like at least five of them are the other comedians (you can tell because they smile sometimes). However, the trailer doesn't feature a single female performer, so at least that's realistic.
For a more comprehensively accurate video game representation of what it's like to start out in stand-up, there's Comedy Quest. This 32-bit point-and-click effort sees you trying to make it in a variety of crap venues. You must deal with disagreeable promoters, engage in the soul-destroying process of handing out flyers, and enter toilets that reveal the true breadth and depth of man's inhumanity to man. It's repetitive, frustrating, and dull. So yeah, pretty bang on.
The thing is, I'm not sure the world actually needs a stand-up comedy video game. My favourite games are the ones that let me try out things I can't do in real life, like driving supercars, or murdering people. Anyone can have a go at stand-up - you just need to turn up at an open night mic, ideally with some jokes (although if you've been to one of these events before, you'll know this is not essential).
Yes, it's scary. Sure, you might get heckled. OK, there's a possibility that having shared a piece of your soul with a roomful of strangers, they will spit it back at you in disgust with such vigour you will weep as you question every positive belief you've ever had about yourself until each one is rendered bruised and torn and sodden with the wretched tears of inexorable failure. But then, after three or four days, you'll realise that punchline would work better using Ikea instead of Argos, and you'll be fine.
So I'm not really interested in games about being funny - I'd rather just play games that ARE funny. Such as West of Loathing, released on Steam this week. It's a point-and-click adventure in the spirit of Monkey Island (although, to be honest, I think it's funnier. I never really got why everyone thought those games were so hilarious, in the same way I'd go to see a Shakespeare comedy and wonder why everyone else was pissing themselves, when surely we'd all rather be at home watching Weekend at Bernie's.)
West of Loathing is everything a comedic game should be - it's got great jokes, and they're carefully woven in so it feels like you're discovering them as you play. There's no sense of being repeatedly beaten over the head with obvious gags while you try to get on with completing objectives (yes, Leisure Suit Larry, I'm looking at you.) There's a healthy streak of absurdism running through the whole thing, but it's never overplayed, and they even bothered to include things missing from so many "funny" games like solid gameplay mechanics and a decent plot.
So I say let's have more stuff like this, please, and less attempts to turn stand-up into a game. As subject matter goes, comedy's just not that funny.