Not many modern television comedians make me laugh. Some irritate me. Some bore me stiff. Some I positively hate.
I like the old masters of mirth: Laurel and Hardy, some of Charlie Chaplin’s films, Les Dawson and Ken Dodd, Tony Hancock, Sid James, Tommy Cooper, Eric Sykes, The Marx Brothers. Who else? Who else who’s a reasonably new modern comedian? Well there’s Charlie Brooker, Jack Dee, Peter Kay, Al Murray, Harry Hill. And er … Well maybe there are comedians I’ve never seen who I would love, but in the 21st century, as far as I can see, there’s a pretty low comedy count. Either that or I’m losing my sense of humour.
I think what I enjoy most about Laurel and Hardy is the sheer anarchic destruction in many of their films. I remember a piano that had to be winched up to the top of a tall block of flats. It was dropped and smashed so many times that right at the top, at the destination apartment, the disappointed concert pianist was given a couple of keys and part of the broken lid. Another time an entire house was destroyed by accident, the result of bungling DIY decoration attempts.
A lot of the joy in the TV series Men Behaving Badly depended on idiocy, namely the idiocy of the likeable male key characters, whose female counterparts were bright and long suffering. I’ll never forget one conversation when the girlfriend of one of them was talking to her boyfriend’s best mate, and curiosity prompted her to ask what they talked about in their many long beer-fuelled discussions. “Well,” said the cheery Tony, “all kinds of things. For instance the other night we discussed how they should close the Channel Tunnel at weekends so it could be used as a giant bowling alley.” He looked hopefully at her. “You should join our discussions, they’re really fun.” She politely declined.
Absurdity is nice in all its forms. I didn’t like the early Blackadders, but I loved the First World War ones, where Hugh Laurie plays the genial upper class moron, and Stephen Fry the bumptious Colonel. I remember years ago when Stephen Fry and Ben Elton were on a late night BBC2 programme, doing comedy improvisations, which was really good, I remember a ‘pretend pub’. And The Thin Blue Line with Rowan Atkinson as the pompous policeman. Very very funny. Intelligent, inventive humour. And, it seems, the best comics are often incredibly intelligent: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are acknowledged as geniuses, while Les Dawson was no academic slouch: he wrote long incredibly complicated novels. And I believe that Al Murray, the apparently moronic xenophobic ‘pub landlord’, has a glittering academic record (I think his discipline was history).
The modern view of Benny Hill is that he was sexist. I don’t agree, I think his comedy was inspired and brilliant. Okay it had an element of saucy seaside postcards, but what’s wrong with that? Each sketch was a full length story, silent for the most part, the comedy visual, and the sexist stuff that he’s condemned for was only a very small part, usually right at the end, a sort of innocent nudge nudge wink wink, never the downright crudity so common today. The Plank was also a silent comedy and a gem of invention, with Eric Sykes, Tommy Cooper, Arthur Lowe and others following the fortunes of a long plank of wood being transported on a van’s roof, and coming off on the way, with predictably bizarre results.
To my mind the beginning of the death of plenty of good comedy started with the advent of ‘alternative comedy’. It heralded the arrival of hours of unfunny drudgery, when talentless nonentities who were ‘young’ mouthed obscenities, jumped around awkwardly and tried to be original, succeeding in being about as entertaining as a limp lettuce. I remember one episode of Hale and Pace on television, when the main jokes were people having their faces repeatedly pressed into cow dung, throwing geriatric people in wheelchairs into a dustcart, jibes about how they hated the Isle of Wight, and pretending to put a kitten in a microwave oven. Of course the joke was convoluted, obviously they didn’t fry the kitten, but to even raise the prospect of it, to me, can never ever be considered funny. There was cold heartless viciousness about their humour that cut like a knife. Has alternative comedy finally found the forgotten windswept grave it deserves? I very much hope so.
The essence of laughing at, or with somebody, seems to me to be that you want to be ‘let in’ to their life, for which reason you have to like them on some level, or at least like something about them. It’s surely impossible not to like a genial character such as David Walliams, and that’s one reason why you’ll make that extra effort to enjoy his humour, because you like him, you want to be inside his little comedy world. I find that the cold hard inscrutable face of Jimmy Carr smacks of a mystified undertaker and to me there’s something satanic about the sex-obsessed Keith Lemon; neither of those two men can ever cut the comedy magic for me. And Jim Davidson can certainly be funny, but his sinister side anaesthetises some of the laughs, as if his comedy engine gets an occasional starvation of petrol.
I remember some Monty Python sketches that were fairly funny, but not that many of them. The cartoons that were supposed to be so inspirational were downright boring. And I thought The Life of Brian was irritating, tedious, blasphemous and completely lacking in any kind of merit. Maybe I missed the point of it, but if I did then I’m glad.
In most kinds of comedy there’s a strange, almost mystical, balancing point that the masters of comedy know by instinct. One side of a fence it is funny, the other side is insanity. Some people straddle the line and occasionally come down on the wrong side. The Young Ones I found infinitely revolting with the one with the staring eyes talking about vomit, and others looking just plain deranged. John Cleese in Fawlty Towers was generally extremely funny. And yet. Some of the scenes where he yells at and beats Manuel (The Spanish waiter) verge right on the edge of that fence of good taste, and almost fall across it.
Sometimes, when people bend their gender for laughs, again, it can seem as if that elusive line has been well and truly crossed. Matt Lucas is a fine comedian, but his women always struck me as too convincingly real to be funny. And I think Peter Kay is one of the funniest and most likeable men I’ve ever seen, but his large, monstrous Northern Ireland woman character he used to do appeared almost macabre in her androgynousness. Mrs Brown’s Boys, the new BBC comedy, is hilarious in the main part. But when the lead woman, played brilliantly by a man, settles down to talk about with her (his) woman co-star, and seems to enjoy wallowing in explicit details about female sexuality, something jars and clicks on the distaste button for me.
Women comediennes? I think Ronnie Ancona is captivatingly brilliant in her portrayals and imitations, and very very funny. Catherine Tate is also lovely, and a gifted comic in many of her comic parts. But her ‘nasty old lady’ character? Or when she plays a bald gay man? Maybe I’ve just not capable of appreciating her talents but those two, frankly terrify me. And Jo Brand yes, she is really funny.
Talking of Brands, how about Russell Brand? I never even knew he even purported to be a comedian until recently and I’m surprised anyone can envisage him as such.
Here’s some black humour for you. When I was a small boy I helped a dear old carpenter do some work, and he chatted away about his grandfather, who used to let him work with him, and told me about the coffins the grandfather would make, and how if someone died of dropsy they had to nail the lid down quick or else the body would swell up and they’d be unable to get the lid on at all.
And here’s something downright sinister. A well known comedian (I won’t give his name) was doing his stand-up act on television. He referred to the recent rape and murder of a woman that had been currently in the news, and he said with a smirk, how the reference had turned him on sexually. There was a momentary lapse of laughter from the audience, a shocked pause, but he hardly noticed and carried on. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. Ever afterwards whenever I’ve seen this ‘comedian’ I remembered that and I felt chilled and horrified, and the sight of him repelled me, as if he was the personification of evil.
Another odd thing about laughter. It can cover nerves. At the time of the 2011 London riots, the trouble came quite close to where I live and I was talking to someone about the prospect of the riot coming our way. He said yes, he’d spoken to someone in town and the violence might be coming in our direction. And he laughed. He was scared and he laughed. It had to be a nervous reaction. And the same afternoon exactly the same thing happened with someone else, he laughed too. I never understood it.
I think Charlie Brooker is a great young comedian. He’s cynical and self deprecating and has a gloomy outlook on life, and he sees through the puff and bluster of everyday things and debunks them. Good for him, he’s a genuinely funny man. Jack Dee, too. He never smiles, he looks downright miserable, but there’s something about him you can like, he can connect.
The best humour is observation, and seeing the world at a funny angle. I was chatting to a neighbour who had just witnessed my cat torturing a mouse, before I’d managed to stop him, and now , mercifully the mouse was dead. I said how awful it was to witness the mouse’s torture. “Ah well,” said my acquaintance. “You don’t know. That mouse might have been a child molester and deserved it.” The same man, when I was discussing my theory that in years to come each person might have a clone of him/herself growing in a laboratory, so that when the time comes there’ll be a full set of lungs, heart, liver etc ready to transplant with no rejection issues, he said yes, certainly good idea. “Why else do you think I had kids? When my boy gets to be 16 I’m having his kidneys!”
I loved the excellent American comedy series, Cheers. The characters were the comedy: remember the handsome-but-shallow Ted Danson, who never quite won the heart of the beautiful and brilliant Diana, or the classic bore postman, and barman Woody who had nothing between his ears except good natured innocence, not forgetting rude waitress Carla who snarled at all the customers? Frazier, the boffin who was clearly intellectually their superior, lacked common sense and cut a fond figure of pompous absurdity with his deadpan funereal-faced wife Lilith.
Absurdity, pomposity, meanness, vanity. Comedy lies in the puncturing of someone’s delusion about themselves, or perhaps, at its heart in itself it’s a kind of strange delicious teasing cruelty. The humour lies, I think, in balancing and adjusting that cruelty so that you hardly notice it’s there. It’s a delicate art and it’s a difficult balance. Deliberately ‘funny’ writing can sometimes fall flat, yet when someone delivers something straight and an odd edge of absurdity creeps in there can be nothing funnier.
So what is humour? A joy in shared cruelty? A wallowing in pricking pomposity? A kind of psychic mental hug? A release from misery in escapism? An exercise in absurdity? Maybe it’s a combination of all these. Or maybe it’s something so elusive and delicate that when you try to define it, it disappears.
The biggest aspect of comedy is that it is as personal as musical taste and it’s certain that what I love you will probably hate and vice versa.
So what makes you laugh? I’d really like to know.