It was the British Comedy Awards this past week. Jack Whitehall again won the title: ‘King of Comedy’ and, the same evening, ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ received a special honour from the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain. This is the same ‘Mrs Brown’s Boy’s’ which is routinely described as the worst TV comedy ever, not just by critics here in the UK but critics in its home country of Ireland.
The contrast is a strange one but probably rooted in the spasm of the old class war we seem to be experiencing at the moment where there are (generally) only two types of comedian.
If you’re working class, you have to conform to a stereotype of the rough diamond, the ‘cheeky chappie’, or the uneducated buffoon. You live by your wits and your comedy is generally perceived as being that of the gifted savant. Wisdom in the mouth of fools. It’s the comedy (with varying degrees of emphasis) of Johnny Vegas, Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Jonathan Ross, Sean Locke, Ross Noble, Phil Jupitus, Joe Wilkinson, Rhoad Gilbert, Greg Davies, Sarah Millican and even the woeful Henning Wehn.
If you’re middle or upper class, you’re allowed to be eloquent and smart. It’s Noel Coward sipping a martini while issuing the clever bon mot. It’s the territory of David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Jack Whitehall, Jimmy Carr, Miranda, Marcus Brigstocke, Russell Howard, Michael McIntye, Alexander Armstrong, and even the woeful Miles Jupp.
Perhaps the class war never went away, though for a brief spell, alternative comedy did seem to offer a chance for everybody to be eloquent and witty or to simply play the fool. It began, I guess, with ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and the good times lasted, I’d argue, until the final series of ‘The Fast Show’. Since then, things have settled into fairly a predictable routine.
Stewart Lee is one of the few comedians who doesn’t seem to conform to one of the stereotypes. There are others: Dave Gorman, Richard Herring, Bill Bailey, Mark Thomas, Mark Steele, Frank Skinner, Jon Richardson, Eddie Izzard… I’m not entirely sure what class Lee is but perhaps that’s why he doesn’t quite fit into the predictable coterie over at the BBC. And that’s the problem. The BBC is the problem. Its comedy output feels like it’s being decided by managerial types, inculcated with safe southern metropolitan middle class values, who this week run comedy and next week could be running sports or Tesco or the Post Office.
Having said all that: I’m not one of those bearded Marxist types who lines his cat’s litter tray with old copies of the New Statesman. I’ve never really believed in ‘class war’. Yet how else can you explain both Whitehall and Macintyre, both of establishment/BBC stock and both of whom are the blandest of comedians, manufactured rather than exhibiting any natural wit? Perhaps they symptomatic of a bigger problem with our country where there’s such a huge difference being born in the north and born in the south. I read this past week that Manchester has had its spending cut by £300 per head. In Surrey, they’ve had a £10 raise. I would normally try to tell myself that it’s a freak of statistics but when you see George Osbourne’s advisor having his pay raised by 18%, you have to question what kind of country we live in.
The answer, of course, is a deeply indifferent one. The government can do what they do because, so long as ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ is on TV, everybody is happy. It’s unthinking comedy for an unthinking audience. Comedy is soma for a politically neutered age.
Comedy should, of course, be dangerous. Yet when was the last time you watched TV and felt nervous energy building in your gut because you didn’t know how a routine was going to end? I remember getting clammy hands as a child whenever Spike Milligan or Peter Cook appeared on a show. They made me so nervous. I remember Tommy Cooper dying on stage. In retrospect, it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen on TV. Having just put on a silk kimono, he sank down into a cross-legged position but it seemed like it was all part of the act. I laughed like so many laughed that night as he fell asleep, his breathing becoming more shallow as he slowly slipped back into the curtains. Then his act came to an abrupt end. It was an age when a comedian was expected to do the outrageous and he seemed to have done just that. It was genius. He’d broken the rules! Or so we thought…
These days, very little is unscripted. Few tinker with the rules to produce something new. The exceptions are comedians like Stewart Lee, Jerry Sadowitz, and, even, Frankie Boyle. They walk on stage and I get that rare hit of adrenaline because I don’t know what they’ll do. That’s what I genuinely cherish about Lee: that he’s always risking failure. I actually admire his failures (for example, perhaps, his ‘Baconface’ routine) more than his successes because too few comedians take risks. It’s easy to make people laugh but hard to make them laugh well.
However, a lack of risk is not entirely the only reason we have so much bland comedy. There’s a big difference between the structure of standup and the structure of TV comedy. The BBC wrongly assume that a competent routine means that any standup can write a sitcom. The Edinburgh Fringe has become a pathway straight into the BBC. Yet anybody who had tried to write knows the difference between dialogue/quips (easy to do) and narrative structure (hard to master). The BBC simply aren’t interested in writers. There are very few Galton & Simpsons coming through the ranks. Both Armando Iannucci and Andy Hamilton, possibly the best of the current crop of writers, perform or have performed. And it’s performers that have the power. Writers struggle even to get inside the system. They are, at most, casual labour and gag writers for the celebs. The worst thing to be these days is a writer who doesn’t want to perform. It makes you a nobody or, rather, an ‘everybody’. Everybody believes they can write. Amazon expect everybody to publish their work for next to nothing. It’s the world of long tail economics and the web consumes the rest. Everybody writes comments for websites for nothing. Effort, skill, thought, time, energy, patience: take it all. Why should anybody be paid for writing words? Writing is no longer a craft. It’s a natural consequence of existing and everybody is a comedian on Twitter.
To give a final example: Johnny Vegas grew up not five miles from my doorstep. Our accents are probably the same. I like Vegas. He’s another with an anarchic growl. However, the BBC used to have a section of their Writersroom website which contained scripts that would-be comedy writers could read to learn their craft. One was a Johnny Vegas monologue. It’s not a terrible monologue but hardly Alan Bennett. Now, perhaps I obsess too much over apostrophes and commas but, if you write and have spent your life studying how great writers construct their prose, then these are the things that give you pleasure as a writer. The Vegas script has a raw energy but nothing more than that. As a model for writers, it was a joke. The only thing it proved was that performers need to reach a much lower level of competence than any writer. Their name carries them the rest of the way.
Yet we’re not supposed to point this out. People say we’re bitter. “Oh, he’s simply a failed writer,” they say and they’re right: I am. One book published (I like to think of it as a ‘cult classic’) but which disappeared off book shelves in under three months for reasons I still don’t understand. Yet if I am a failed comedy writer (I stopped trying a long time ago), I hope that doesn’t invalidate my point which is that too much of our comedy is dictated by standup comedians. Even a few years ago, situation comedies were acted by actors reading scripts written by writers. Strip the craft from comedy and comedy becomes a minor function of celebrity. Ant & Dec are not comedians. They are just famous. And if you only need to be famous to be funny, then that allows the sons of the rich and influential to take it for themselves. It’s easy. Make a few self-deprecating quips on a panel show and the nation love you. It’s a national disgrace and it’s not even remotely funny.by