Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Laugh? I thought I’d never start! America’s horrible stand-up “comedians”

Modern British stand-up comedy started with Billy Connolly. Most Britons only became aware of the “Big Yin” after he went down a storm onParkinson in 1975, but one of our Glaswegian cousins had already sent us a copy of Solo Concert, a live double-LP recorded in Glasgow.

Some of you will find this hard to believe, given Connolly’s later career,  but it was stunningly original and very, very funny. His retelling of The Crucifixion transposed from Galilee to Gallowgate still makes me laugh out loud – especially the lines “See you, Judas? You’re gettin’ on my tits!” and “Oh, c’mon, Dad – gie us a break!” – both parts can heard here and here. (I warn any Christians reading this that they might very well find the sketch offensive - I’m not sure how I’d react if hearing it for the first time now.  Mind you, you might be safe - an English guest at the time listened to it stony-faced, before admitting that Connolly’s accent meant he couldn‘t understand a word of it.)

I hate to sound like a leftist critic, but in his early days, Connolly was raw and real and witty and, in this instance, blasphemous – but there was no ugliness in his act, no hatred, no sense that Connolly wanted to outrage the middle classes in general or the English in particular,  or anyone else, for that matter: he just wanted to make his audience wet themselves, and, from their reaction on the LP, seems to have succeeded. To employ an overused adjective, it was all very authentic.

In America, it was Richard Pryor who changed the nature of stand-up. His success with white audiences was remarkable given the prevalence of race as a subject in his act – but again, his earliest stuff is remarkably free of rancour or anger or hatred. Like Connolly, he is celebrating a shared outlook  with his audience, and like his Scottish counterpart, he was genuinely funny, although undoubtedly crude. (I was writing Horror at the time, where one of the major problems is explaining why the people being menaced by supernatural entities don’t simply vamoose at the first sign of trouble: I remember roaring with pleasure when Pryor asked why white folk don’t run away screaming as soon as they realise their house is haunted. “Black folks would – we ain’t that stupid!”)

Between them, these two essentially killed off those awful frilly-shirted Northerners who had invaded British TV in the 1970s and those lame, tuxedoed Americans who didn’t seem to have noticed that what had worked on the Borscht Belt in the 1950s might seem ever so slightly dated twenty years on - especially when mixed with execrable versions of “Fly Me to the Moon” and “The Lady Is a Tramp”. 

The trouble was that Connolly and Pryor’s early stuff was pretty much as good as it got - neither was ever really funny again - and many of the 1980s stand-ups who followed their lead seemed to take the wrong lessons from the pioneers: stand-up was all about being foul-mouthed and sexual and political, about loathing Thatcher (or Reagan) and despising ordinary people and conventional morality. It wasn’t about celebrating shared experiences with people from your own class or region or religion or country: it was about trying to bring other people’s attitudes into line with your own narrow, urban, left-wing, atheistic, toff-hating, anti-Monarchy, anti-suburban, victim-obsessed, politically-correct world-view. “See the world through my eyes, or you’re a loser and a tosser” was the underlying message. There was nothing celebratory about any of this – it was all about hating people who didn’t think like them: its tone was threatening and its aim was to frighten people into conforming. Think Ben Elton. Think Jo Brand. Think Alexei Sayle (I’ll never forget one of his TV shows in which he used doggerel to lament the disintegration of the Soviet Union - I wonder if George Formby used to do a routine lamenting the demise of the Third Reich). The words “vagina”, “fuck” and “Thatch” cropped up a lot.  

Of course, there were exceptions: the 1980s also produced the likes of Victoria Wood, Paul Merton and Harry Enfield, who  all harked back to a gentler, warmer comedic tradition. And, unlike their hectoring Comedy Store counterparts, they didn’t give the impression that they hated anyone who didn’t think like them – and, of course, they were naturally funny people, unlike the political lecturers.  

Mind you, even the worst British stand-ups look like consummate comic geniuses compared to the comedians featured in  I Am Comic, a long documentary about contemporary American comedians on Sky last night. It was directed by Jordan Brady, a former stand-up, and heavily featured Ritch Shydner, a 1980s TV performer, who had packed it all in, but who was tempted by his involvement in the filming to get up on stage and try his hand once more. (He gave in to temptation and I have to report he may just be the unfunniest comedy performer I have ever seen. After he was introduced as a “pioneer” of stand up, his first joke was about using a steam-driven microphone. You could have heard a pin drop. He followed it up with some stuff about the pot his fourteen-year old son smokes being much stronger then the stuff he used to smoke. You could have heard a snowflake fall.)

The programme featured some twenty to thirty current practitioners being interviewed about their “craft” and life on the road, plus snippets from their performances at clubs all over America.

It was one of the most depressing programmes I have ever watched. With only one or two exception, the comedians were pathetic, horrible, unattractive, charmless, foul-mouthed wretches who displayed not the slightest hint of humanity or warmth or wit or talent throughout the whole exercise. Their attitudes were those of depressed, lippy teenagers, bristling with self-loathing and resentment at a world they evidently hated (the feeling’s entirely mutual). Their material consisted entirely of jokes about sordid sex, drugs, alcohol and bodily functions. The most commonly used word was “motherfucker”. One female horror explained that her keynote “joke” had been supplied by her mother on a visit home: she found “Mom” licking jelly off a spoon and “Mom” winked and said, “It tastes even better on a penis”. 

Wouldn’t you just love to spend time with such adorable people?

The performers’ onstage and real-life personas were exactly the same. One of these pimples said that, early in his career, his mother had lent him $5000. He’d written her a mock-cheque and told her he’d know he’d made it when he could write her a real one. He then pretended to cry. He wrote her a real cheque two years’ later. “It bounced and I thought how great it was to be able to fuck my mother over one more time!”

One female comic was interviewed in one of the condos in which many clubs house performers. As she sat in a featureless room in the afternoon, staring out the window, she said she hated this time of day – it was empty and sad. Just like your life, dear, I thought. David Nicholls’ hugely enjoyable bestseller, One Day, features a hapless male character determined to be a stand-up comedian. He is always “on”, forever doing his dreadful, boring  “act” – and it’s an enormous relief when he gives it all up and get a normal job. 90% of the comedians in last night’s programme really needed to give it all up, go home, sort out some kind of life for themselves, and turn into human beings. I kept thinking:“Ring-wraiths”

And yet people actually choose to go out and spend money to listen to these desperate, repulsive, loveless creatures. Does the audience return home afterwards actually feeling cheered up? Does life seem better after spending time with such damaged inadequates? Are they simply dying to pass on all those great “jokes” about sperm and pussy and blow at work the next day? 

What’s going on here?

I saw Funny People, a film starring Adam Sandler (!) and someone called Seth Rogen, some 18 months ago (it’s currently showing on Sky Movies). It’s about stand-up comedians. It was full of the kind of repellent, dirty, life-hating patter featured in I Am Comic. I was confused as to why anyone would make such a tawdry, disgusting film. Now I understand: this is how these people think, talk and live. Poor, sad bastards!

Mind you, we can’t be too smug - we have Frankie Boyle, Marcus Brigstocke and Jeremy Hardy.


  1. Toksvig. She and Vidkun Quisling are the two persons that sometimes make me ashamed to be a Scandinavian. VQ was executed, but ST is still wih us.. A few years ago she apeared regularly on a daytime quiz programme on the BBC [I have forgotten the name. DM please help]. A word similar to the C-word came up and she went on endlessly with "utter" and "complete" and "total". Her meaning was clear and the discomfort of her fellow panellists was equally clear, but she would not stop.
    Toksvig is a prime example of those soi-disant female comedians who have no humour. Cue attack on Jenny Eclair [deleted]. Women do so many wonderful things - why don't they stay away from comedy? {Except for Catherine Tate and sometime prosecutor in "Spiral" when she does her flatulent lesbian in the rolled-up windows cab?]
    Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 03:05 PM

  2. Toksvig has the really bad comedian's trick of letting out a long "errmm" immediately after the punch line of her carefully scripted spontaneous remarks. It's a signal to the audience along the lines of "I've just said something clever and this noise of errmm marks an interregnum between my wit and the laughter which will show that you are clever enough to appreciate it." Hardy does it too, as does hilarious former barrister Clive Anderson. There is an inverse relationship between the weakness of the joke and the loudness of the "errmm".

    She'll be at it again on Saturday, mark my words errmm.
    Friday, June 10, 2011 - 07:07 PM