Funny business

Comedy is the new rock n’ roll. This isn’t really the case of course, any more than Rupert Murdoch is the new ‘all say awww’, Clive Dunn-esque, loveable Grandad figure who’d slip you onto his knee and drop a Werthers’ original into your mouth soon as look at you. It’s a phrase that gets trotted out quite a lot though, and what it really means is that comedy has become incredibly popular; stand-up comedy in particular. Comedy has always been popular, but live comedy has really boomed over the past decade or so, such that it’s not unusual to find comedians packing out huge stadia, when they used to be found in smoky dingy clubs, dealing with front row hecklers. Newman and Baddiel were the first comedians to play Wembley stadium, and whereas their show now looks remarkably dated, they were the ‘comedians as rock n’ rollers’ trailblazers, to be followed by Peter Kay, and latterly, Michael McIntyre. Peter Kay seems to be universally popular, despite the obvious ‘Northern-ness’ of his humour, and punters and peers like him equally. It’s difficult not to like Peter Kay.

Michael McIntyre has been in the news a lot this week, coming under fire (so he says) from others in his profession. He’s clearly popular with the punters, but his peers don’t seem to like him much, to the extent that his wife got a load of reflected stick at a recent awards ceremony, despite the fact she’d bought a new dress specifically for the occasion (this is the sad story, as recounted by Mr McIntyre on desert island discs this week). Stewart Lee was singled out as perpurtrating the greatest amount of anti-McIntrye bile, describing McIntyre’s material as ‘warm diahorrea’, though he’s since claimed that the material was taken out of context, and that he was in fact ‘in character’ when he wrote this line (a minor part of a 30,000 word show).

I’m sure that many will take McIntyre’s side in this argument, and some will take Lee’s. But is it an argument with any merit? Is it an argument that can lead to a conclusion?

The argument is very similar to that which tries to compare different types of popular music, and bearing in mind that comedy is the new rock n’ roll, let’s see how far we can get with this comparison. Arguments rage from the pub to the playground over which music is ‘better’, but rarely do two people agree on any definition for the word ‘better’, at least in this context. One can define better as meaning more popular or more influential or more original, but none of these definitions hold more universal sway than any other. One of the most obviously good things about comedy is that something with no comedic merit at all never even makes its way into the public eye (with the possible exception of Rotherham’s finest, the Chuckle Brothers). This is certainly not true for music, where Jedward are able to sell millions. So that’s a disappointing start.

Michael McIntyre is the Take That of the comedy world. Almost universally popular; pretty much everyone would admit to liking him (and them) at least a bit. Stewart Lee is the Elbow of the comedy world. He’s someone that you know (if you consider yourself intelligent) you’re supposed to like, but you can’t get over the feeling that it’s just a bit dreary, and takes itself a little too seriously. Michael McIntyre is trying to be as funny as he can, and is trying to make as many people laugh as he can. There’s no great sophistication to his humour, just as there’s no great sophistication to the music of Take That, but you’d probably feel in a better mood after listening to either of them for ten minutes. They are both unashamedly populist, and exist merely to create enjoyment for people, and by doing so, to fatten their own coffers. If McIntrye’s comedy was so base and easy though, wouldn’t it all have been done before? His brand of everyday observational comedy can’t be that straightforward, can it? Similarly, Take That; how many other similar groups have tried and failed to recreate their success?

Stewart Lee (like Elbow) seems to be trying to do more with his comedy; he’s trying to educate, to make people consider the everyday in greater depth, to debate our beliefs and prejudices. He’s probably not as gag-heavy, but the humour certainly has an ulterior motive. This is a very obvious choice that he’s made, and that’s why he exists at the other end of the comedy spectrum from Michael McIntyre. I like listening to Stewart Lee, but only for a while. He’s certainly original and thought provoking, and there’s clearly plenty of worth in listening to him; just like Elbow though, it just gets a bit too whiny and repetitive after a while (in Lee’s case, literally so, as he continues to pound the same phrase down your throat). After a bit of Lee, McIntyre comes as light relief. It’s not long before one tires of him too, with his skippy smily fatty routines, and there’s only so much of this one can stand. You’re not likely to replace one Take That album with another straightaway, but I’d be amazed if anyone wanted to sit through more than 12 songs of Elbow.

The concept of ‘better’ is pointless in music just as much as it is in comedy. It’s probably more important to be open to all different styles of music, comedy, art, theatre, film, food etc than it is to champion some things to the detriment of others. There’s merit in all sorts of diverse culture, and we have the opportunity to dip in and out of all of them whenever we please.

Wouldn’t it be dull if we all liked just one thing?

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What’s so wrong with Fra-Bo?

What a strange time it must be to be Frankie Boyle. Maybe there’s not much news to report beyond travel disaster across the country, but for the Daily Mirror to decide that its lead story should be its own outrage at Boyle’s use of an racist term during his new TV show suggests that there was precious little else that was newsworthy that day. The Daily Mail has of course waded in, and has proclaimed itself to be just as outraged as the Mirror, if not more so. I suspect Frankie is pretty surprised at all the anger being sent his way. It really wasn’t so long ago that he was very much the comedic flavour of the month. He’s gone from one of the nation’s favourite comics to being a national pariah in a few short weeks. Rarely do comedians stay fresh and popular for an extended period, but this must be one of the swiftest falls from grace ever. So what happened such that we all turned against Frankie (incidentally, myself included)?

My extensive research has involved a few seconds of thought, a quick read of Wikipedia and a ten minute viewing of Tramadol Nights on 4oD. I guess this means that I’m giving no more than my tuppence worth, but Jeremy Kyle has been doing that for years, and he seems to get recomissioned. Anyway, it seems that Frankie Boyle rose to fame first on Mock the Week, and was widely regarded as being one of the funniest people on the show. His style of humour was always designed to be shocking; he was one of those people who was genuinely amusing, though more often than not it felt a little wrong to snigger. Nothing was off-limits for Boyle, and his stock gags involved all sorts of taboo subjects. Nevertheless, people loved him, and there was much gnashing of teeth when he left the show.

He has since appeared on TV doing his one-man stand-up (his stock in trade), and has published an autobiography (whose title of ‘My Shit Life so Far’ is almost as bad as Russell Brand’s ‘Booky Wook’). Quite who cares to read this book is unclear, bearing in mind how little time he’s spent in the nation’s conscious. He’s now got his own series, ‘Tramadol Nights’, and it’s the material involved here that has got him into so much hot water. But wait a minute, isn’t this exactly the sort of material for which he was so lauded on ‘Mock the Week’? Of course it is; so what changed?

A few things actually: ‘Mock the Week’ involved 7 comedians each week, and so no-one monopolised the air-time and was hence over-exposed. The range of comedic styles ensured that there was something for everyone (there’s only so much of Michael McIntyre’s smug grinning face that anyone can take). The comedians managed to end up being raisins in a bowl of raisin bran: a real treat when they pop up. Frankie Boyle was the main beneficiary of the show’s format, and his were the gags you tended to remember. Being shocking works so much better in tiny bite-sized chunks. In his new show, he’s exposed for pretty much the whole time, and it’s very clear that he’s a one-trick pony. We’ve heard all the jokes before, or at least variations on them, and when one gets bored of these jokes, all you’re left with is the offensive stuff, and that’s what people have focussed on. We used to have a comedian who was funny and offensive, and people were willing to forgive the material, so long as the comedy was in there. He has now committed the cardinal sin for any comedian: he simply isn’t very funny any more. The reason I was only able to watch ten minutes of ‘Tramadol Nights’ was because it was rubbish, not because it was shocking or offensive. The sketches were particularly bad, and whereas many of them had the kernel of a funny idea, they didn’t have any wit or skill in the writing to back them up. Frankie Boyle also comes across as less than likeable, and here’s another reason that the public and press have turned on him.

So bad luck Frankie – you haven’t really done anything different. You’ve just proved the old maxim: one jelly baby from someone else’s packet tastes great, but after a whole packet to yourself, you just feel sick. Mind you, Frankie would probably refuse to eat the black ones.