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Have I Got Nevermind Mock the QICocks For You?: The death of British comedy

December 13, 2009
I wrote this piece for the Irish online magazine Forth edited by JASON WALSH

A CASUAL glance at the listings pages of the posh papers tells you everything that you need to know about the current state of stand-up comedy in Britain.

With Russell Howard playing the 10,000 seater enormo arenas of major cities, Jimmy Carr on an endless profit haemorrhaging tour of the big theatres and Michael McIntyre currently colonising the top of the DVD sales chart, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Mickey Mainstreams are taking over.
But look more closely at the case of McIntyre and you will see the invidious dead hand of a two factors: the power of homogenous, constantly on repeat TV panel shows and a couple of agencies who can now make or break stars at will.
McIntyre, Howard, Carr, Frankie Boyle, Reginald D Hunter and Mark Watson are standing testament to the power of Mock the Week, QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks to break comedians in the modern age. The problem is that the personae they adopt on these shows becomes the one that the audience wants and what is left is a terribly narrow set of comedic styles. And there’s the rub, the comedic canon gets narrowed to such an extreme that there are few genuinely challenging voices allowed entrance to this boys club.
Also if you look at the profiles of the acts currently at the top of British and Irish comedy one can see the power a couple of super agencies wield. Carr, Dara O’Briain, McIntyre, Bill Bailey, Sean Locke, Boyle, Rich Hall, Mark Watson, Phill Jupitus, Jonathon Ross and Alan Carr all come from Off the Kerb, which can often provide whole panels for the game shows. Avalon with Harry Hill, Frank Skinner and Al Murray etc are equally as powerful, particularly on ITV.
With the comedy circuit contracting in Britain due to savage licensing laws, the high cost of selling booze in expensive city centre properties and dwindling recession-hit audiences, there aren’t many opportunities to break the big time from the clubs. Acts here tailor their sets in the hope of getting noticed for TV and then the vicious circle is closed. The homogenous line of faux angry men and banal observationalists continues.
Boyle’s just such a reductive case in point. The often savage, let’s see how far we can go style which fits the short form of the panel games has become elongated for the live environment.
His shtick is unimaginably weak:
Feedline: ‘Yadda yadda (insert famous person’s name here) yadda yadda.’ (Go up a wee bit at the end)
Punchline: ‘That’s like yadda yadda fucking yadda (lewd sex act reference here) yadda.’
Two hours in Boyle’s company is a spirit sapping experience which leaves you wondering if there is anything positive to say in his world.
And while Carr and Boyle may be the apotheosis of the lewd Daily Mail baiting comedic class then McIntyre follows in a line of banal ‘You ever noticed…’ merchants who can also peddle a fine line of crap British nostalgia. You know the type ‘Space hoppers, what were they all about? Remember Spangles?’ ad nauseum.
Peter Kay, who has just sold a quizillion tickets in two minutes for a huge tour of the arenas of Britain in 2011, is the man to blame for this strand of modern British comedic mush.
While Phoenix Nights was genuinely funny in its first series, Kay couldn’t help but milk it dry with the painful Max and Paddy TV series and the more painfully dreadful X Factor skit last Christmas. He even coined it in with a tour which thumbed it nose at the audience by being called ‘Mum Wants a Bunglow Tour.’
His recent chat show appearances have shown just how threadbare his act has become, talking about Matey bubble bath on the Jonathon Ross TV show with that salt of the earth Northern irony that has become the shtick with which we should gleefully beat him with.
Another comic who worked (and financially fell out) with Kay says he witnessed a genuinely dispiriting evening watching the rotund Boltonian’s best mate (and luckiest man in comedy) Paddy McGuinness playing a big theatre in Manchester. As the braying masses roared with glee, McGuinness did observational gags about having a piss in the shower. That’s how far the whole sorry mess of alternative comedy has fallen.
And perhaps a measure of how far off the radar of modern comedy that irony has fallen is watching Al Murray doing the pub landlord arena show. Thousands turn up to see him to do an ironic take on British nationalism – gladly taking it at face value and ignoring its satiric intention.
As if any of that really matters, because beyond the TV there are millions of people who love Chubbby Brown and don’t give a fig about any of this navel gazing right-on cack and just want racism and a more primitive than ‘On the Buses’ style take on sexual politics. It’s just that many of those with ‘alternative’ roots come close to being disciples of His Lord Chubbiness, but conveniently cover it with a version of arch irony audiences can or cannot recognise if they want.
But where are the alternative voices to this cabal? Where are the women? Jo Brand is rapidly becoming the grande dame of Brit comedy by the twin virtues of surviving long enough and being able to out lad the lads when the occasion demands. Sex poppet Lucy Porter occasionally gets a look in, but only in a very tokenistic way.
The future is bleak. Those comedians who hate this kind of mush are retreating and circling the wagons around themselves. Stewart Lee who is the figurehead of those in opposition is a gifted comedian on his night. A stylish innovator with a world view that challenges that of the Never Mind the QICocks generation, it’s just that he’s never going to go mainstream and will run ‘ar nos na gaoithe’ (like the wind) from it should he ever get close to it.
There remains no real sense of invention or a thrill at seeing something different that we all did seeing people like Jerry Sadowitz or Hicks or Dylan Moran for the first time. Oh for the clowns, Oh for the wits and Oh for something other than Michael McIntyre telling us about something that fucking happened to him that morning. Just don’t hold your breath – the BBC and the agencies have DVDs to flog and arenas to sell out.
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