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Comedy? It Isn't Funny Anymore

23/05/2013 14:35 BST | Updated 29/07/2013 16:37 BST

There's a fat one, stage left, and one who looks like Woody Allen, stage right. Then there's one who's not quite fat and not quite thin, but can do a quirky thing with his eyebrows. There are two others who are an amalgam of the first three. And they are all shouting. They wear coloured ties. This, I am reliably informed, is an evening of comedy, but I appear to have stepped into a bedroom crammed with drunken students. Trenchant satire this isn't.

2013-05-22-600MrtrarawFlickr.jpg

Such is the tedium served up these days, making stark the realisation that the bile and satire of 30 years ago has vanished.

Watching such inchoate comedy (I'm not sure it's even stand-up) is like having your leg humped by a glove puppet: it's attention grabbing but without the necessary aggression which is key to the best comedy. When American author Fran Lebowitz said humour is 'largely aggressive and pre-emptive', she knew whereof she spoke, but what perplexes is how - after Groucho, WC Fields and Laurel and Hardy, not to mention modern greats like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, all who worked tough circuits in the perfection of their craft - could we as a public tolerate, or even desire, such hamfistedness.

A disconnect has occurred. Ask a 21-year-old to expound on the comic delights of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and the answer you receive may well be 'Duck Soup? Isn't that a restaurant?' And sadly, it is indeed a restaurant. In Soho, down the road from the Soho Theatre where you can see the synchronised shouting.

Audiences appear to care not a toss for the ghosts of the past. They care for the moment and that which occurs in it, the providence of which is of little or no relevance. They want instant sound and vision, and to hell with whether it's funny or not. As a baby can be made to joyfully gurgle in its pram by the quick shake of a rattle, so can the inebriated twentysomething egotist be entertained. Shout in a synchronised fashion and a gurgling cacophony will ensue, is the thinking.

It's a new form of canned laughter. One has only to visit a pub in north London to see 'new comedians' try out material to hear the forced bark of the comedy fan. There exists a whole generation of nervous youth bound by the collective delusion that they are living in a golden age of comedy.

Comedy 'spares nothing and spares no one, and in the process asserts the stubbornness of life', said Howard Jacobson, but try telling that to the next generation of comedians who go out of their way to be inoffensive, expunging their acts of ideas and instead relying upon bargain-basement insult, eyebrow gymnastics - and horror of horrors - dancing!

With the likes of Miranda Hart - she who is as funny as genocide (subjectively speaking) - one can almost forgive the new generation their flat gags, given that successful TV joke tellers, and therefore role models, are operating on a Joe Pasquale level.

Jacobson, a comic writer who knows a thing or two about both disciplines, has also asserted that 'comedy breaks every trance - that's its function', but with BBC entertainment commissioners and various theatre-bound paymasters doing their utmost to put the nation to sleep via the peddling of this newfound, marketable mirthlessness, it seems likely that commissioning is based on how palatable comedic content is. Which is to discern a desire to entertain those who have no sense of humour; that is, to tap into a new demographic.

Where Stewart Lee draws a loyal crowd - a comic who demonstrates that 'hyperbole is the soul of comedy' [Howard Jacobson] - John Bishop (who makes jokes about fridges) or androgyne Michael McIntyre (who makes jokes about toasters) both pull in TV audiences that run into the millions. Lee, you see - all satire, linguistics and irony - is too clever. So once more, UK Plc dumbs itself down, even in the joke department.

The rich seam of English absurdism is worked only in fits and starts by Vic and Bob and Harry and Paul (and their unsung sidekick Catherine Shepherd). Similarly, Jewish humour, 'boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation' (Christopher Hitchens), is now hard to find. Other than Larry David, who still dares to say unsayable things? Likewise, the savagery of a programme like Spitting Image will never again be seen on television screens because no one is angry enough to spill their bile and invest money while they do so.

With students having transported the unrefined knockabout 'Fringe' gag straight to the London stage, they draw upon the impoverished, callow minds of those who have not yet lived a life full enough, nor a life funny enough; it is not enough, therefore, to make your friends chuckle because of 'that thing you do': your shtick. A comedian should be prepared to upset an audience, or at the very least, get them thinking.

With British life fast approaching a level of near total absurdity, the decline beginning very publicly in 1991 when Charles Windsor declared to his bride-to-be, Camilla, his desire to be reincarnated as her tampon [www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-522508/Charles-Camillas-lovenest-bugged-Diana-inquest-told.html], perhaps subsequent generations of British comedians were left with little to do. When the very people who demand our ridicule start to ridicule themselves, gag writers find themselves at a loss, hard pressed to comment upon public life when it's a self-perpetuating mummers play with a willing cast who write their own jokes.

These are risk averse times, where a pratfall and a raised eyebrow (accompanied by a blast of the trombone) are preferable to the subtlety of old school wit, be it Glaswegian, Lancastrian, Scouse or Cockney. It is depressing enough to remember that we once had Leonard Rossiter to make us laugh, because now we have Russell Brand.

So our infantilised and puckish comedians are making a return to cabaret, which, if memory serves correctly, was a lower form of entertainment that did very well in the Weimar Republic. It's worth bearing that in mind. And no, I'm not joking, because look what happened there.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk /@JasonAHolmes

Photography by Mr-Traraw ℅ Flickr.com