When I arrive at the Odyssey Arena for tonight’s first of four shows here by comedy superstar Michael McIntyre, I’m surprised and slightly disconcerted to find I’m sitting right in the middle of the second row.
The floppy-haired funsmith isn’t known for merciless audience-baiting, but the prospect of being singled out in front of a crowd of 8,700 is enough to have me shifting uncomfortably in my seat.
Thankfully, there’s an apparently grumpy-looking bloke positioned directly in front of me for McIntyre to pick on instead. So, phone switched off, arms unfolded, rictus grin in place and neck duly craned, I settle down to watch a performer who manages to straddle being the most successful British stand-up comedian of his generation (three arena tours to date, 2.5million DVDs sold, a television audience of seven million for last year’s Christmas Comedy Roadshow special) and being derided by many of his peers.
On tonight’s evidence, jealousy must play a part in the latter. For while there’s nothing ground-breaking, edgy or particularly insightful about McIntyre’s material, the man himself never comes across as anything less than likeable, talented and fully committed. ‘Fair play to him,’ is the phrase that springs to mind, as he prances across the stage in his trademark too-tight suit.
He certainly works hard to endear himself to the locals, courtesy of some nicely observed banter about Fonacab, Tayto and the Titanic. Though with a reputed salary of £2million for this current tour, a bit about his Belfast hotel room that makes it sound like he’s staying in the Blackstaff Square Travelodge seems too unlikely to be properly amusing. It must be a long time since McIntyre has had to contend with the tiny kettles or broken TVs of cheap chain hotels.
The set proper, however, is precision-tuned to extract the maximum positive response from as wide a demographic as possible. It’s flawlessly constructed, expertly executed and contains just the right amount of ad-libbing to remind us that this is a human we’re watching and not some production-line cyborg (as an amusing intro video of McIntyre being 'assembled', Terminator-style, in his dressing room jokingly suggests).
Segues, callbacks and McIntyre’s studied physicality are deployed in a show that is almost an idiot’s guide to stand-up. The choice of subject matter is similarly by-the-book: the Olympics, the Jubilee, women getting ready to go out, online booking forms… It’s universal, if quite pedestrian stuff, but things take a more original turn in the second half.
McIntyre talks about a game he plays with his kids called 'Pants Down' that, to the comic’s credit, never arrives at any of the smutty punchlines the more cynical amongst us suspect we see coming. Meanwhile, his closer is a deftly crafted anecdote about a disastrous trip to the dentist, complete with funny faces, silly voices and much running about.
If making people laugh is the raison d’être of the stand-up comedian, then Michael McIntyre must sleep easy at night. After two and a half hours, tonight’s audience may not have learned anything, but their facial muscles will have been well exercised, and for most filing out of this cavernous arena back to the realities of work and family that seems to be more than good enough.
Tickets are still available for Michael McIntyre's final gigs at the Odyssey Arena on Friday, October 19 and Saturday, October 20.