People that know me generally tend to think of me as a bit of a comedy snob. Some would suggest that sentence works without the word comedy; others would go further and drop the “S” too.
Actually I do watch some mass appeal stuff, as much as How I Met Your Mother has declined massively, I’m still hooked trying to find out who the mother actually is and Josh Radnor as “douche-Ted” is not without his moments.
Like every student in Britain I have watched F.R.I.E.N.D.S. on E4 in my boxers whilst eating cornflakes and trying to ignore the fact I have an essay on Virginia Woolf to do. I would find it easier to write an essay on F.R.I.E.N.D.S., on its sharp writing, or its excellent use of a bottle episode in “The One Where No-one’s Ready” which really showed what can be achieved in that limited form.
So I’m not quite the comedy snob, but I do genuinely think comedy matters. I know the reaction to this column already, “it’s just a laugh”. It’s a retort that I think is at its worse when used as a defence by comedians. If your job is laughter then surely you should be taking your job more seriously than that? You don’t get doctors going, “it’s just medicine, lighten up”. If you’re a comedian you should know that jokes matter, they matter to how society sees itself and I wish sometimes comedians whose humour is totally aimed downwards would recognise that fact.
Like most people I have made a joke amongst friends that I probably shouldn’t have. I’ve said things that invoked laughter at the expense of various disenfranchised and othered groups in society because I knew they might get a cheap giggle. But afterwards I did have to deal with the fact that the gag I just made had made the world a little bit worse, a little bit less understanding of difference and a little bit sharper and more unpleasant for people for whom the world might not be the most soft and warm place anyway.
Bearing in mind how much of a shit I have felt like in the past for going for the easy and the brutish how do half of Mock The Week live with themselves? Mock The Week is a pretty vicious bearpit for the 6 comedians on there. As Stewart Lee – if you’ve read this far and haven’t guessed I’m a Stewart Lee fan, minus ten points – correctly observed…
Since I’ve had kids, I don’t like Mock the Week, I’m more sqeamish. I find it cruel. I don’t like it when they make fun of handicapped people, or old people, do jokes about poor people, ugly people. When they Mock the Weak, basically. Mock the Strong, that’s what I say! Have a bit of ambition. It’s what raises us above dogs.”
For me Mock The Week is a bit like a Findus Lasagne. Living in Manchester I am not far from some excellent stores selling fresh ingredients and neither am I far from pubs or clubs offering fresh comedy. Yet despite my high-minded plans by the time 6 o’clock comes round I am usually piercing holes in the cellophane lid of a ready meal before putting it into my never-clean microwave and resigning myself to a night watching “witty banter” on Dave. Both the ready meal and the panel show are cheap to produce, mass market and both do satisfy me to some extent, but both also make me feel vaguely sick and with a lower opinion of myself than I had started the day.
I recently did have the good pleasure to see a young, interesting comedian live. Upstairs at my local pub a woman did a 45 minute preview of a show she was looking to tour that was both hilarious and intelligent. But what is the future for this incredibly talented woman? The route from fringe success to mainstream success seems in many cases to rest on a few decent performances on Mock The Week with a hope that you might find yourself on Live At The Apollo. That means for many female comedians being the only woman on a panel of white men whose voices you vaguely recognise from car insurance adverts. The manner in which this harms female comics is well documented.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries has hit out at Mock The Week for not featuring sufficient female talent, showing that she doesn’t think women should be in charge of their own reproductive organs, but does think they deserve a chance on “scenes we’d like to see”. Elsewhere Victoria Wood has hit out at Mock The Week for being like a bearpit, Jo Brand has said she no longer has any interest on appearing on the show.
Look at the great female comedians out there who do deserve a chance but won’t get it on Mock The Week. Isy Suttie – famously Dobbie from The Peep Show – has a brilliant live act combining stand-up, anecdotes and songs. Josie Long has won critical acclaim for her performances that are times both whimsical and subversive and rely on audience interaction. Neither of these women could really fit into the confines of Mock The Week as their acts are too leftfield too work within the tightly honed parameters that most panel shows rely on.
But it’s not just women who are ostracised by the current comedic status quo, many interesting male acts are wholly unsuited to the current format as well. Mark Watson wrote in The New Statesman; “I’ve never really got the hang of Mock the Week. Since the dynamic between the regulars is so well honed, it’s not easy for guests to come in and make an impression… The people who tend to do it well are confident, fairly bullish comics with a lot of one-liners.” The whole piece is broadly supportive of the show itself which clearly features people that Watson likes and respects. He does however recognise that, “the show dictates a certain “trying to outdo each other” agenda anyway, because it’s just the way that shows are bound to go, when everyone’s trying to get jokes in at the same time” which does not suit him, “because my “material” is mostly rambling stories and they want jokes about the news.” Whilst I’m not Watson’s biggest fan I do enjoy much of his output and have always found him a fairly thoughtful and interesting stand-up in a culture where ignorance is increasingly not something to be tolerated but celebrated. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia of course people who wore glasses were seen as dangerous intellectuals and were summarily executed by the regime. Mark Watson wears glasses and is often perceived as quite cerebral. Now, I’m not saying Mock The Week is exactly like the Khmer Rouge, I’m just saying there are some interesting parallels to be drawn should you wish to.
It is of course unfair to single out Mock The Week, there are some even worse panel shows out there, it’s just Mock The Week is the market leader. I have never seen League Of Their Own but a Guardian column on the proliferation of panel shows included a 2:17 clip with James Cordon, Jason Mansford, Jack Whitehall, Shane Warne and Frank Lampard. There was a less hateful panel of people on trial at Nuremberg. Looking for erudite comedic performances? Abandon hope all ye who enter here. That YouTube video featured a dance off amongst people I imagine as future defendants in a revolutionary kangaroo court when our Robespierre emerges to take on the ancien regime of banality and lad culture. I know it’s very Daily Mail to judge shows you haven’t watched, but I feel confident in saying League Of Their Own ranks alongside the Iraq war in things to which the correct response is “not in my name”.
Outside of the panel show green room it does seem comedy in general is getting nastier. I have always believed that comedy should punch upwards at deserving targets at the top, I despise cheap gags whose victims are the dispossessed, the vulnerable and the already discriminated against. To a lot of people these battles have been won, growing up I always felt that raging against the cheap suit and a pint of beer comedians who engaged in sexist or racist comedy was a bit like saying everyone needed to be careful about the growing threat of fascism in Europe. I may have liked to imagine myself in the hills of Spain with Orwell during Spanish Civil War, I may have liked to imagine myself in a grimy pub in the 80s watching a young comic tear into his older peers who made cheap gags about their mother-in-law, but ultimately I was secretly pleased to live in a world where I and my loved ones were not under threat from General Franco or Bernard Manning. Yet watching television lately and flicking between election results in countries ravaged by austerity and Live at the Apollo I can’t help but be shocked at the rise of Golden Dawn and Micky Flanagan. From Jimmy Carr’s infamous gypsy gags to the aforementioned Micky Flanagan’s Nigerian accent on Mock The Week it seems all the battles won by the alternative comedians, identity politics and politically correct warriors of the 80s are being reversed. Anyone who follows Ricky Gervais on twitter will have seen the man responsible for the most important British sitcom of the past two decades resort to jokes about “mongs” and his hateful #ChavMum wheeze where a millionaire, white man made jokes about impoverished women. The disdain towards the poor and towards women – and the combination of poverty and femaleness that seemed to particularly irk Gervais given his 19th Century concerns about how sexually liberated the underclass were in comparison to the chaste ladies of the home counties – isn’t anything new in comedy. The public school irritants Little Britain’s arguably most famous creation was Vicky Pollard, a loud, uncouth caricature of what the pair thought of as Britain’s underclass. This phenomenon is well documented in Owen Jones’ excellent Chavs: The Demonisation Of The Working Class in which the Stockport-born holder of the fountain of eternal youth details how since the noughties reactions to the very poor in a number of areas – not least popular culture – has grown teeth-gnashingly vulgar.
I’m sure these comedians imagine their comedy to be edgy, to be actually thumbing its nose at the “politically correct establishment”. This is utter horseshit; sneering contempt towards “the lower orders” is as old as time itself and is the most conservative and privileged of occupations. The government in this country is right now actively at war with poor and disabled people and in this war it requires that the general public are heartless to their plight. Every time Gervais tweets a gag about Chav mums spending benefits on Stella, every time David Walliams puts on some sportswear and does a silly voice then the job of the most right-wing Government this country has suffered since the the war gets a little bit easier. These “controversial” comedians are not fighting against the establishment, they are stooges of the establishment, spineless shills for Cameron, Osborne and their crowd of braying millionaires in the cabinet.
So what’s to be done? Well firstly it might be sensible to review the man most people credit with fighting the last wave of unpleasantness in comedy. It is fashionable to imagine Ben Elton was never actually that relevant – Mark Steel put him into Room 101 for this very reason, observing, “he always use to say, ‘You know what we say about Thatcher down my end?’ And I always use to think, ‘she probably lives down your end’” – but I think this is a mistake. Observe this stand-up from 1981, which is doing the rounds online, taking apart the old hoary tropes from the dark days of 70s sitcoms. Elton deals with the offensive and crass innuendos that were commonplace in the day and ends with a raised fist warning, “sexism in comedy, watch out for it!” He looks like a bit of a twat because he’s Ben Elton, but at least he looks like a twat because he’s trying too hard. His targets were fair ones and his jokes broadly inclusive.
His new sitcom – The Wright Way – has been torn to shreds by pretty much every critic that reviewed it, perhaps most accurately being described as looking a bit like “When The Whistle Blows” from Extras by various people on twitter. The programme starts with the titular character exasperated at how long his daughter’s girlfriend is spending in the loo. “She’s a woman in the bathroom, she’s never finished” he admonishes his daughter. I mean fucking seriously, that sort of shit was old hat 40 years ago. The only thing of note is how the low-level “pfft, women eh? What are they like?” sexism compares with the more aggressive misogyny one might encounter in modern comedy, it’s sort of quaint when compared to the rohypnol and duct tape gags you will find at most comedy open mic’ nights. The “sit” of The Wright Way is the Health and Safety department of a local council. Those jokes that don’t involve women being innately ridiculous are centred on Daily Mail “Elf ‘n’ Safety” myths, meaning the whole thing looks a bit like a Richard Littlejohn column being acted out by sixth-form drama students who are aware that they are above this. It is also painfully unfunny, if you have not seen it I really cannot stress enough how cringe-inducingly weak much of the material is. I think if you showed this episode to the Durham Miners even they would concede that the wrong 80s icon died. Elton’s descent into this hackneyed conservative bilge is thoroughly depressing. To return to the great Stewart Lee who said. comparing the former doyenne of alternative comedy with the former doyenne of Islamic radicalism, “at least Bin Laden lived his life via a set of consistent ethical principles”.
So what is the answer? In Soviet countries the state media would broadcast poetry and opera at tea time, now I’m not saying state communism was a laugh, all the starvation and the gulags were no doubt pretty shitty, but it seems the free market gives us Andy Parsons. I’m not entirely sure that’s a trade-off we should necessarily be thrilled about.
But it’s a trade-off we have made so what is out there that you can do? Well you can do your best to support the great comedy that is out there. The American Louis CK’s stand-up is controversial but witty, contemplative and interesting. Sitcom-wise NBC’s Community is one of the most experimental and brilliant shows on television today with a perfect cast that means that the creator Dan Harmon’s vision is realised. Similarly its NBC compatriot Parks and Recreation – or Parks and Rec’ as the cool kids call it – is quite simply the warmest and most decent sitcom since Cheers. One of its stars Aubrey Plaza is an acclomplished comedian in her own right and star of the heart-achingly gorgeous indie/sci-fi Rom-com Safety Not Guaranteed. Here in Blighty Simon Amstell’s Numb and Do Nothing are both introspective masterpieces. Stewart Lee is hosting a cabal of brilliant acts as part of his Alternative Comedy Experience. Of those featured Isy Suttie, who I have mentioned, (and who also has a radio 4 show) and David Doherty are my favourites.
If we don’t? Take this excerpt from an incredibly interesting interview Ross Noble did with the Guardian,
There are young acts now tailoring their act so it’s short and punchy and can get on Live at the Apollo,” he laments. “There’s no space for someone starting now who wants to do what I do.” Be creative, in other words, and unorthodox.
After another few minutes of rambling, Noble conjures a dark vision for standup’s future. “We’ll have gone full circle, back to the shiny-suited, dickie-bow-tie stuff that alternative comedy first railed against. And in that post-apocalyptic world, I’ll be in goggles with a shotgun, driving around the wasteland, and there’ll be a TV show with someone who looks like Jim Bowen doing material that’s halfway between Frankie Boyle’s and Michael McIntyre’s.”
I don’t think I have Noble’s resolve or bravery, when that day comes I will be sat there like Winston Smith at the end of 1984.
“Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved John Bishop.”