Comedy: The New Rock And Roll?

I like Comedy.

I always think that in terms of “writing”, more can be said thru Comedy. In terms of “acting” it is more a challenge to be in a Comedy. I am at heart a subversive. Comedy subverts situation and it subverts words.

It is a delicate balance. A man slipping on a banana skin is not funny. On the other hand, Donald Trump or Richard Branson slipping on a banana skin is funny.

Way back in the 1960s, the top comedians on British TV were old theatre variety stars (or vaudeville as Americans say). They hated TV and it showed. Their appearances were largely limited to five minute slots on Variety shows like the Billy Cotton Band Show. Take Ted Ray….please!

Ted Ray was a low rent English version of Jack Benny. He had a violin. Notoriously he hated TV. Put simply, variety hall comedians toured the Britain…this week a theatre in Coventry…next week a theatre in Bradford. Essentially the “act” was the same for an entire career. The audiences in Coventry and Bradford would not see it again for a year or so.

Television ate up material. If Ted Ray did ten minutes on the Billy Cotton Band Show, he was giving up his entire act. It was not that unusual …Jimmy Edwards had the same act but he had a tuba instead of a violin. Of that generation of music hall men, only the irritating Arthur Askey and his even more irritating “Busy Busy Bee” song had the personality to be popular on TV.

The “Radio to TV” men in the 1960s were younger than the “Variety” Men. The former were used to mass audiences and scripts. These were people like Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine and Eric Sykes who had performed in Forces Entertainment during World War Two. Morcambe and Wise had been too young for military service. These 40 somethings were at the top of their game.

Stereotypically the Goons (the ex-WW2 men) influenced the privately educated Oxbridge Boys from Beyond The Fringe and Monty Python and the rest. But I think thats only half the story.

The Sixties of course changed everything. Not just Politics, Fashion and Music.

The key difference in 1960s comedians and 1970s comedians was the slide in moral or manners standards. Straight from competing with boozed up audiences, Bingo and Strippers in Working Mens Clubs,  “The Comedians” (Granada TV Saturday nights) did not tell us jokes that we repeated in the factory or office on a Monday morning. Rather, Bernard Manning and the rest told the jokes that came off the factory and office floor in all their racist, sexist and homophobic authenticity.

How did it happen? Simply the world was in Moral Freefall. Nobody knew the boundaries. Especially when Charlie Williams (a black man) was telling racist jokes and Frank Carson, Pat Mooney, Mike Newman were doing the Oirish jokes. There was also the small matter that they were actually good gagsters. It was to quote Frank Carson’s catchphrase “its the way I tell them”.

But what reversed it? Well the new wave of “alternative comedians” (late 1970s) get the credit. But I think it was as much the Establishment….Morcambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies etc disliked the crudity and towards the end of the 1970s “alternative comedy” started to make an impact. The revolutionary idea was that it was possible to be funny without being sexist, racist and homophobic.

John Thomson….”a Pakistani, an Irishman and a Jew walk into a bar….and they all have a really nice time”. It might not split your sides but you see the point. The movement was led by drama students and performers from non-Oxbridge universities…middle class rather than upper class.

To me EVERYTHING IS HISTORY. Past. Present. Future. Just like Fukuyama was wrong about an End to History and the triumph of Liberal Democracy….so too were the critics that argued that Alternative Comedy was the the highpoint of that History.

I am conscious that some comedians, Max Miller (died 1950s) are historic in the sense I have no recollection other than TV documentaries. I am conscious that my 1960s recollections of Ted Ray, Jimmy Edwards, Arthur Askey are incomplete. They are in that twilight between History and Memory. But History are events that happen prior to our Recollections and thus Bernard Manning, the Two Ronnies, Morcambe and Wise are Recollections rather than History. I am aware of course that I have readers to whom these figures are “before their time”.

But has the Hand of History moved on?…Again?

Consider just some of the main movers in the Alternative Comedy Movement.

Alexei Sayle (the best) is 62. Adrian Edmondson is 58. Paul Merton is 57. Lenny Henry is 56. Ben Elton is 55.  But are they STILL comedians. If  Alternative Comedy was hailed as the New Rock and Roll, these guys are considerably older than Elvis Presley when he died. And rather like Elvis did not spend that much time Rocking and Rolling and became a fixture in Las Vegas….so these guys are rarely doing stand up comedy. They are more likely to be seen as character actors, writers, Documentary ptesenters, novelists…and of course panel games….for Comedians by Comedians.

Really there is an established pattern. Oxbridge may no longer be the only comedy nursery. But BBC headhunters will still make the trip. Nowadays the headhunters will be active at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. People will be spotted. Given guest spots on “Live At the Apollo”, maybe get on a radio show and be slowly introduced to Television.

Comedy is about… Timing. And a Career in Comedy is also about …Timing.

The window between, the Comedy Club. to Festival to guest spots on TV to supporting, then headlining a Tour to Stadium Comedy is a short one.

There is an endless supply of comedy talent. Every year new people emerge. But almost as soon as they emerge, they seem to merely use the comedy to get on the telly into a sitcom or comedy gameThus the generations who came after the  first wave of alternative comedians thirty years ago are in other things….Hugh Dennis is in sitcom “Outnumbered”, Lee Mack is in “Not Going Out”, Vince Reeves is in “Hebburn” and Harry Enfield is in “Bad Education”. And Alexander Armstrong is presenting “”Pointless”, Frank Skinner is presenting “Room 101” , Rob Brydon is presenting “Would I Lie To You”, and Jimmy Carr is presenting “8 Out of Ten Cats”. Jimmy also had a sideline in tax avoidance. There is always presenting a chat show (Paul O’Grady, Alan Carr and Graham Norton) or writing a booky wooky (Russell Brand). There is always Commercials…Rowan Atkinson and Snickers, Stephen Fry and Twinings Tea, Rob Brydon and Krunchy Nut Cornflakes, Lenny Henry and Premier Inns. And the Corporate Events (Hugh Dennis and the National Car Park Awards Night) which are hardly Rock and Roll. Frankie Boyle has a newspaper column.And the Documentary ….Stephen Fry visiting 48 American States and Paul O’Grady on Animal Rescue, American Rich Hall going back to USA to present excellent documentaries on the Old West and The (American) South as portrayed in popular culture.

Dont laugh but locally Jake O’Kane and Tim McGarry have done the Cabaret at theannual SDLP Conference. Well I said “dont laugh” but lets be honest, it is highly unlikely you would laugh at anything that O’Kane or McGarry said.

So why….and I ask as a lover of Comedy….is there just too much of it on TV?

Well….money, money, money. It is cheap. The endless supply of talent means and the endless supply of panel shows means that some comedians like Marcus Brigstocke, Stephen K Amos and Rufus Hound,  are condemned to Panel Show Hell as re-cycled guests until they get their own vehicle. For they can only realistically be two or three performers who make it big in a year. In recent years we have had Sarah Millican, Michael McIntyre, John Bishop, Mickey Finnegan and Russell Howard.

The arc of a career seems stereotypical. Festival Success. TV Appearances. Stadium Tour. Own Show on TV, Nationwide Tour on TV, Christmas Video Sales, Sitcom, Character Acting….Krunchy Nut Cornflakes.

And it seems that careers can be extended by becoming a parody of yourself. Sarah Millicans act is an exaggeration of herself as a thirty-something, sex starved, woman from the North East of England. Millican has taken on chat show host as her back up career.

Jack Whitehall is an exaggerated version of his posh boy self. He has chosen chat show host and sitcoms as his alternative career. And Cockney, Mickey Finnegan is an exaggerated version of himself. He is going the Documentary Travelogue alternative having a recent series where he cycled in France….”La Detour de  France”.

But do Millican, Whitehall and Finnegan talk like that when they go for a litre of milk in Tescos?

Endless Comedians. Endless Outlets.

The next time you watch a comedy show, look at the closing titles…to the End. The production companies, Tiger Aspect, Generation X, Hat Trick and Baby Cow ….they pitch the idea to Channel 4, BBC. They have a roster of panelists. The Men and Women are the new impressarios.

It is back to the future. In the Golden Age of Variety, before and after the Second World War, the theatres were controlled by rival impressarios and the acts played (for example) the Moss Circuit.

But have you noticed just how often some comedians have been on TV recently. Rather like Youth Team footballers, American Katherine Ryan and Irishwoman Aisling B have been showing up on everything and Joss Widdicombe, after a few years climbing up the greasy pole seems to have arrived?

But is TV the true way to judge the state of Comedy. The surviving 1960s old stagers like Ronnie Corbett and Ken Dodd are on the better golf courses or endorsing the British Conservative Party. The 1970s dinosaurs like Freddie Starr and Jim Davidson are effectively banned from TV, a legacy of their sexist and racist reputation. They were also politically Conservative.The Alternative Comedians of the 1980s are in sit coms, quiz shows, writing, character acting or simply dead (Rik Mayall). They were politically “right on” and leaned to the Left.

And the 1990s and 21st century comedians…are they really the inheritors of the Alternative Comedians? Well….yes and no. The younger lot seem disinterested in Politics…or are interested in issues like Environment or Sexuality or have an unhealthy Libertarian, selfish streak. Where does that come from? The Internet?

Rather than TV comedy on a Saturday night influencing conversation in an office on a Monday morning, things tweeted across the Internet influences TV Comedy. And too much Internet humour is sexist and racist. This is filtering thru to programmes like The Inbetweeners and Fresh Meat. And Top Gear.

Or is it just the case that liberal TV Comedy is not representative of what real people laugh at? Go to the local video store. Depressingly Roy (Chubby) Brown, deemed too offensive for TV, is the biggest seller.


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6 Responses to Comedy: The New Rock And Roll?

  1. hoboroad says:

    None of these British comedians have gone as far as Al Franken who used to be head writer of Saturday Night Live and is now a US Senator.

    • I know that “Professor” Jimmy Edwards was a Tory candidate for Paddington in the 1960s. He was a closet homosexual as of course it was illegal.
      Oddly his alter ego was a Public School Headmaster in a show called “Whacko!”.
      I think Nicholas Parsons might have been a Liberal candidate.
      Then this year we will have Al Murray (the Pub Landlord) taking on Nigel Farage.

      • Rowan Silverbeard says:

        I *think* that a comic stood for Labour at Eastleigh By Election last year, O’Farrell or something. He got in trouble for a joke he made about the Brighton Bomb.

      • Well…John O’Farrell is a journalist/comedy writer. Oddly he used to be on TV a lot…discussion things like Question Time. It crossed my mind a few weeks ago that he was not much on TV these days.

  2. Rowan Silverbeard says:

    Did you see Rory Bremner the other day? I just don’t think he can do cameron or miliband the way he could do blair and brown and hague and howard.

    • I didnt.
      I think thats a problem with Impressionists.
      At the end of 1960s and into the 1970s Mike Yarwood was brilliant. But as well as people like Frankie Howerd, Steptoe and Son , he did Harold Wilson, Ted Heath.
      As well as suffering severe Stage Fright, his career was effectively ended by the rise of Thatcher.
      Likewise Steve Nallon cornered the market in Margaret Thatcher. but when she went…he went down with her.
      So inevitable in a way that Bremner would suffer in the same way.
      Arguably the career of an Impressionist is very limited. He or She is only is good as the people he/she can do. And nobody can do everybody.

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