The Blog

Pryor, Murphy, Carlin... Is It Possible to Have a Comedy Icon In The Modern Era?

Even moving away from voluntarily saturating yourself, I wonder if, as Chris Rock suggested, the advent of the smartphone is destined to push stand-ups into doing 'safer' material, for fear of offending/losing the crowd, having it uploaded before it's ready and getting lynched for being racist, sexist or slanderous. I worry that he's right.

It's a weird time for comedy, isn't it? Scratch that. It's a weird time for popular culture in general. Many a time I've mused on the changing shape of "famous" in the 21st century and what that might mean for those that have to wear it. From the singers of the past, so removed from any prospect of over-exposure were they, what with their once-a-year album release and cover-art, maybe a magazine shoot if they were lucky - that all you knew of them was a poster, a ticket stub and the rare occasion they appeared on your TV - though they were huge stars, they retained a bit of privacy. Maybe that's why Bowie or Lennon had that air of mystique behind their stares on photographs. You didn't know what they were thinking. Probably because they weren't constantly bombarding you with tweets telling you what they were thinking.

That's what you get from singers, comedians, actors in 2014. A horse-shit hurricane of constant them. I mean, can you imagine a singer getting to number one that didn't have a Twitter, didn't appear on twenty TV shows before and after? Me either. To be a fan or to be even aware of someone famous now, is to be waterboarded with their publicist's statements.

Who is Kim Kardashian? Seriously. Who is she? I honestly don't know yet I'm already bored of her.

And it's the same with actors and comedians. You see them on talk-shows and magazine shoots, they're vomited out by a PR agency and smeared over everything. There's no mystery to them. And I wonder if that's an unfortunate price we're paying, especially in comedy. How will we ever get excited by a fresh, iconic, superstar comedian? How will we salivate in wonder at the inner workings of their mind, their perspective on the world, if it feels like they rubbed sewage in our fucking eyeballs 24/7 for the entire week

"Here's how I think we should resolve Israel/Palestine..."

"Bore off!? You've been on everything for the past month!?"

As we enter 2015, a year of further technological progress undoubtedly, we'll marvel at what it'll allow us to do; more memes, more hiLOLrious viral videos; It's easy to just assume that we've gained all this freedom and it's all great for comics. But the same as MP3, MySpace and auto-tune had anyone and their Casio keyboard thinking they could be the next Mariah, the truth is: it just opens up the floodgates. You think six-second Vines of guys annoying people in public is annoying? Wait until Google Glass has thousands of bell-ends uploading full-length nonversations, clumsily spliced into entire box-sets of content.

It wouldn't be so bad, of course, if the sheer volume of that content translated into impressive material, or interesting artists, but the truism seems to be quantity not quality. And when a funny video, Vine account, YouTuber or singer does rise to the top? They're all over This Morning, Sunday Brunch, Twitter, guesting on radio shows; We're sandwiched between the drudgey swamps of amateur awfulness...

"Hey I made a funny Vine. It's me pretending to fall over on a treadmill! Haha, lucky I was filming randomly while running on a treadmill!" the over-promoted, know-everything-about-them, megaphone PR of media-trained pro's.

To be known, to be in the public arena is one thing, but it feels like there's a real 'less-is-more' lean to popular culture. Some of the iconic faces of the 70s and 80s, your Elton Johns, Bowies, Eddie Murphys, George Carlins; I wonder how much of their heyday popularity, now retrospectively seen as 'icon' territory, was achieved by their remaining somewhat out of reach? Would we see them as less credible, less iconic, were they booking themselves onto every promotional junket that they could nowadays? Like a needy lover, would we be less enamoured with them if we knew they were permanently contactable within 140 characters, changing their profile pic and uploading daily content to their Instagram? Every day, every magazine, guesting on panel shows - would that "iconic" connotation take a hit?

Is there a correlation between Kate Moss's refusal to do interviews and our seemingly endless fascination with her? Is there a reason why her approach seems to translate into borderline national treasure territory versus less popular or almost forgotten models from the same era (Naomi Campbell, Eva Herzigova, Cindy Crawford)?

There has to be a gap in the market for public personas that shirk Twitter and this omni-media religion. For those that have risen to the standard but grimace at the glitz of it. Those that are of the grade but off the grid. It's telling how refreshing it feels when someone quits Twitter for any other reason than "I'm sorry if my comments caused offence. I'm disabling my account to spend more time with my family".

Even moving away from voluntarily saturating yourself, I wonder if, as Chris Rock suggested, the advent of the smartphone is destined to push stand-ups into doing 'safer' material, for fear of offending/losing the crowd, having it uploaded before it's ready and getting lynched for being racist, sexist or slanderous. I worry that he's right.

I mean, don't get me wrong. The idea that my material may be too edgy or volatile in its genesis stages to risk in front of a room-full of iPhones, before I get to detonate the polished product on a national tour or DVD release - is a concern that myself and all the big comedy agents appear reciprocally delighted to remain unfamiliar with. Though it remains a legitimate concern for the "HBO Special" stable that I hope to one day emulate. And it will only get worse with products like Glass. I mean, you can see someone holding a phone up, recording you. You can bollock them for doing so. But you can't tell someone to take their glasses off when they're paying to see you.

I wonder if in these days of web-stars, leapfrogging the circuit and getting X-Factor-famous in whatever part of popular culture they're hoping to succeed in, if there's a price to pay for having that freedom, that easy route in, with its almost inevitable boom-and-bust story; Do most Christmas No 1s need to turn out like Steve Bernstein? Does every Vine star have to end in a petition? If Hannibal Buress performs a controversial routine about Bill Cosby, and the amateur-filmed footage of it explodes, he might get 300.000 followers, but does the DVD it would've appeared in need to be shelved?

If a Social Media personality explodes and a hundred thousand people watch his ITV2 show every week, but fifty thousand complain that it's offensive, does the privately educated, ex-City, £120k-a-year CEO of the star's favourite charity have a duty to reject donations because some he and a Twitter mob don't approve of the word "gash"?

Technology is a wonderful thing. And comedy can exploit its collaborative, meritocratic and famously lawless landscape. We can use each of those adjectives to our endless advantage. But sometimes I wonder if progress has taken us so far in one direction - that there's almost as much to benefit in taking a step back from it.

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