The Sky is the Limit

Rob Auton’s victory in Dave’s annual Funniest Joke Competition has drawn if anything more than the usual complaints. Without wishing to defend the joke in question (though it’s by no means the worst on the list), at least this time round the award has been given to a relatively obscure comedian who will benefit from the publicity. Auton’s hour, The Sky Show, is quintessentially Fringe, in the slightly old-fashioned sense of being determinedly peculiar and staged without a great deal of polish. Auton sets up his backdrop (several pieces of cloth across which is written ‘The Sky Show’) as the audience enter. The theme, such as it is, is the sky, encompassing surreal stories about a factory where the weather is made and a tatty rival to The Sun which mostly consists of photographs of the sky stuck onto pieces of paper. It’s the kind of humour that’s best thought of as a tightrope act – there is little by way of snappy material, slick stagecraft, audience interaction or big set pieces. Nor is it a piece of deliberately bad or obscure anti-comedy; there was never any sense that the show was a comment on stand-up. Rather, Auton has put the standard tropes of comedy aside in order to do something as much on his own terms as possible. It’s not always successful, but it is far more interesting than his winning joke might suggest.

As for the also-rans, one that stood out for me was Liam Williams’s, which he’s been using for a while to open his set:

It’s a fine joke, but much like the winner it’s a variant on an idea that’s been around for a while. Apparently this was a popular Victorian quip to sum up the difference between the mind and the physical universe: ‘What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind’.[i] Maybe someone should use that at the Fringe next year – there might be a prize in it…

[i] A very quick search reveals a website attributing it to Berkeley, which would obviously place it earlier still. It sounds suspiciously witty to be by of the good bishop, but I’m no expert on his work, philosophical or comic.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Thursday 15th

Yesterday I touched on a genre, or perhaps a sub-genre, that has become prominent on the Fringe in recent years: narratives delivered using many of the tropes of stand-up. A somewhat different genre, though again one that has flourished recently, is a particular take on character comedy which might be termed the one-man sketch show: one performer presenting a rapid-fire succession of different characters in different situations.[i]

Of the examples of this genre which I have seen, Charles Booth’s is the closest to an acting showcase. His characterisation is very precise, the scenes are clearly demarcated (perhaps too clearly – the transitions took some of the energy out of the show), and the writing is aimed squarely at the character in each case. He is careful to vary the style of the comedy: apart from the straightforward monologues, we also have a character delivering a string of one-liners and a scene involving dance and a recorded voice. However, the show lacked variety in a different way, in what might be termed the tone. Booth is a naturally measured performer, and every scene felt controlled, even calm. There was never any sense of threat or even uncertainty as to what would happen next, and over the course of an hour the scenes started to sag slightly. The show could have done with a sharp increase in energy, or perhaps a sudden change in the style of writing, to provide the contrast required.

Joseph Morpurgo’s Truthmouth feels in some ways like a sharper version of Booth’s show: its pace is higher and the feel of scenes differs wildly, but with the same clear characterisation and writing. The gimmick used to sell the show is inspired (it is presented as a piece of verbatim theatre based on the real-life testimony of the characters portrayed), but this is not important as regards the content of the piece. What matters is Morpurgo’s incredible inventiveness is taking a familiar type (a doddering ex-military man, a lonely schoolboy, a researcher conducting an inane interview) and adding enough of a twist to make them fresh in each case. In addition to this, there are three sketches that are completely different again: suffice to say that they involve respectively the show’s technician, the star of a mobile phone game, and a being from the lower depths of hell. Without these scenes, Truthmouth would be a very accomplished offering; with them, it is a delight.

While Morpurgo offers a number of innovative ideas, his approach is in the tradition of creating recognisable characters in recognisable situations. Jamie Demetriou strays as far from this path as I have seen. Unlike Booth or Morpurgo, he presents four extended scenes. Each character has some familiar traits, but in each case the humour comes from elsewhere, though identifying exactly where is (interestingly) different. There are few jokes, little by way of physical comedy, and not much that would qualify as outright silliness, though there is quite a lot here that makes little sense. Saying that he does it by way of facial expressions, body language and the precise wording of the monologues is true, but not very helpful. Perhaps the key to his characters is the voice he gives to each. To take the example of the bullied schoolboy, much of the humour comes from his unusual sentence construction and lexicon; the latter is old-fashioned, the former baroque, and the effect is very precisely that of a child who has grown up largely in isolation from the real world. The final character, Michael, is a smooth-talking longue act, but Demetriou is careful to have him cling to his patter and rhythm even as his plight becomes more evident.

[i] I say ‘one-man’, but some of its most successful exponents have been women.


Dissecting the Fringe
Wednesday 14th

Watching She Was Probably Not A Robot, Stuart Bowden’s charming one-man show about the apocalypse and a friendly (or at least helpful) robot, I wondered why more shows like this don’t appear on the Free Fringe or Free Festival. The free show revolution which has occurred at the Fringe in the last decade or so has been strikingly dominated by comedy. There are obvious limitations to the kind of theatre that could be staged at free venues, most of which are little more than airless cupboards above dodgy drinking holes. But parallel to the increasing prominence of free shows has been a burgeoning genre, shows which straddle theatre and stand-up and which on the face of it would seem suitable (or at least more suitable) for free venues.

This isn’t entirely true of She Was Probably... It has no set and minimal tech requirements, and while Bowden does use a backstage area for costume changes, these are so simple that it is easy to imagine them working in a more basic space. He does, however, use the full extent of the wide Iron Belly stage, and such space is at a premium in the free venues. Perhaps the most significant demand his show would make, in order to achieve its naïve and slightly haunting atmosphere, is to be insulated from outside noise and latecomers, problems which are particularly acute at free shows.

Bowden’s show is towards the theatrical end of this genre: it is a monologue with the characters acted out, with frequent comedy and some audience interaction. The plays written and performed by Daniel Kitson are closer to stand-up, unsurprisingly given his background. The theatrical elements they use are more to do with the design of the set, lighting and music, and in principle the script and performance itself would work reasonably well (though not as well) without them. A number of performers have staged shows in a manner clearly influenced by Kitson’s, from Stefan Golaszewski’s more straightforwardly dramatic monologues to Terry Saunders’s indie musings. As basically straightforward monologues, any of these could transfer relatively easily to a free venue.

The real reason why theatre has made such little use of the free spaces may be more cultural; the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that free theatre will not be of a high standard, and will not get the press or industry attention focused elsewhere. The sheer volume of free comedy shows has meant that some of these acts have become successful (witness, for instance, Cariad Lloyd who was nominated for a Best Newcomer Award in 2011 on the basis of a free show), and this in turn has made going free a more acceptable option for established comedians. In addition, the financial pressures on comedians incline them towards non-paying venues, whereas this is something from which theatre groups, with more funding available from universities, arts grants and so on, are to some extent insulated. It will probably take one or two successful shows combining theatre and stand-up to lead the way and make at least this form of theatre a respectable presence on the free fringe.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Tuesday 13th

At the Fringe, I make an effort to find shows that are something other than the one-man-and-a-microphone stand-up norm. Apart from the pleasure of seeing an unusual idea succeeding, it can be just as interesting to see how such shows fail to fully realise the ideas they set out with or perhaps should have taken up. I should point out that I enjoyed each of these shows, and they were by no means failures – it’s just that in each case, it was possible to see what (I think) was being aimed at, and how the show fell short of achieving it.

David Trent’s selling point is his heavy interaction with video and music recordings. Save for a couple of stand-out sections where the footage speaks for itself (notably his ruthlessly edited version of John Bishop’s set) this technology is used to illustrate Trent’s riffs on the inanity of popular culture. Advertising, certain popular bands and a well-known internet search engine each receive a kicking. The mode of attack is broadly similar in each case – describe some irritating feature of the target, exaggerate or parody it, and point out its stupidity. This has the odd effect of making Trent’s show feel much more like a traditional stand-up railing at tiny problems in modern life. There’s nothing wrong with this per se – indeed, one of the best sections of the show was his sustained assault on a brand of energy drink called Pussy – but it did feel more like a straightforward stand-up set with a technological gloss than a new vehicle for telling jokes.

Thrice sees Sarah and Lizzie Daykin from Toby, Fringe stand-outs from a couple of years ago, teaming up with Nathan Dean Williams, who wrote the show and acts alongside them. It is pitched as dark and twisted, and at times it was (particularly the final sketch, which saw Santa Claus having to choose between a mother and her daughter). However, the dominant tone was better described as grotesque. This marked an important different from Toby, where the plot and characters were much more carefully worked out, giving the comedy a real darkness that comes from pathos. Here, wigs and broad accents dominated, and the characterisation was played for laughs rather than used to bring out what is funny in a situation. This was true even of the scenes which did involve pathos, such as the pair of lonely strangers telling each other what they didn’t like; the characters were so thin that pathos was all they had. Some of the ideas, such as the monstrous ‘baby’ foisted upon a lesbian couple, were wonderfully bizarre but produced less emotional impact than more carefully crafted situations might have.

Nadia Kamil has frequently collaborated with John-LukeRoberts, and their writing shares a love of organised silliness and an unusual precision in their jokes (Kamil has a lovely line about the best and worst forms of cleansing which is very similar in its construction to certain jokes by Roberts). This show is loosely themed around feminism, which means that quite a few of the set-pieces come with a heavily-signposted political point. I found these pieces less convincing than the free-floating absurdity on display elsewhere. Partly this is because fitting discussions of feminism into a comedy routine runs the risk of sloganeering, a trap into which some of Kamil’s pieces fall. More specifically, I felt that in only one of these set-pieces, a feminist burlesque dance, was the political point successfully underlined by the self-consciously absurd humour. Elsewhere, as in the reworking of ‘212’ into a rap promoting smear testing, the effect was strained, closer to the kind of generic ‘crazy juxtaposition’ comedy which is generic on the Fringe. There is obviously a market for feminist comedy, in particular mixed with a style of comedy that might vaguely be called surreal, but making a feminist point (or any political point worth making) in the context of this kind of comedy remains elusive.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Monday 12th

As an inadvertent follow-up to yesterday’s post, I saw free shows by two professional stand-ups, each well-known enough to command paying venues.[i] John-Luke Roberts and Nat Luurtsema are very different comedians, and it was instructive to see how they each made their own use of the free venue. Luurtsema offered a straight-ahead hour of stories about herself, each observation expertly cranked up to the ridiculous. It would work in any venue, but with a crowd of seventy-odd at the Counting House (one of the more impressive free venues), she was able to generate the kind of momentum that only an audience of that size can make possible. Her show revolves around her break-up, last year, with fellow stand-up Tom Craine, who is also tackling the same subject in his own show at Pleasance.[ii] Craine’s might be just as good a show, but it would be a surprise if he regularly gets audiences of the same size. This is one of the big advantages a free show has for a professional with a reasonable Fringe profile – the chance to play to larger crowds than they might otherwise expect.

John-Luke Roberts is the polar opposite of straight-ahead stand-up. His stock-in-trade is high-concept silliness leavened with brilliantly sharp one-liners, best illustrated in a set-piece where he individually insults every member of the audience to lower our self-esteem. Nor is this the kind of off-the-shelf randomness that has flourished in the wake of The Mighty Boosh; the writing is left-field but consistently well-structured. This kind of show is going to divide audiences more than Luurtsema’s, and when put on for free has a higher chance of attracting floating punters who will realise they actually wanted something else entirely. But as a free show it carries less risk and less pressure to get a certain number of audience members each performance, and as a more off-beat effort than Luurtsema’s, it is less reliant on the audience getting on board in any case.

[i] Indeed, John-Luke Roberts has a play, ‘Sock Puppet’, at Pleasance. Nat Luurtsema is in a sketch show, Jigsaw, also at Pleasance, and both have previously performed solo stand-up shows at paying venues.
[ii] Craine is also performing with Luurtsema in Jigsaw. Happy days.


Amateur Hour

The World Series of Poker Main Event, which is held annually in Las Vegas, is contested each year by more than 6,000 players. With such huge numbers of mostly amateur players, the odds against a professional winning have lengthened considerably (by way of contrast, in 2000 there were just 500 contestants). A professional poker player hasn’t won the World Series Main Event since 2002.

Something similar, I’ve heard it suggested, is happening at the Edinburgh Fringe. The sheer number of acts has made it much harder for professional comedians to get the audience numbers they require, or the attention from the press, agents and various industry types that they crave. In a jungle of two thousand shows, it has become too easy to get lost. To be more precise, this worry applies not to the likes of Omid Djalili or Rich Hall, but to comics who have not yet made a national reputation for themselves. They find themselves squeezed from both above and below: audience members who want to conserve their cash will opt either for free shows, or for faces familiar to them from television.[i]

It’s not clear whether the massive expansion of the Fringe in the past couple of decades really has impacted on how professional acts have performed. There is no doubt that it is difficult to break even at a paying venue, or to even come close. What is not so clear is whether it has become more or less difficult since the advent of the Free Fringe and the Free Festival. Furthermore, the difficulty of breaking even is in part due to other factors, such as the increasing cost of hiring a paying venue. And while it stands to reason that the vastly increased competition would drive down the audience sizes of many paying shows, it is also worth bearing in mind that the huge overall audience at the Fringe is partly due to the huge overall range of acts performing there. Without the various amateur acts, the Fringe would still be bigger than any of the other comedy festivals that take place across Britain and beyond, but it would be unlikely to be quite as dominant.

The second and more interesting issue concerns an assumption in the background of this complaint: that professional acts are more entitled to be at the Fringe, and are being unfairly hobbled by competition from amateur acts which in many cases are little better than vanity projects.[ii] There is, it must be admitted, a grain of truth to this complaint. Anyone who has seen free shows at the Fringe has likely seen at least a few which were thoroughly misguided, and will probably have passed up the opportunity to see many more in the same bracket. And while the same could be said of certain paying shows, the greater financial pressures on these (plus the influence of management, agents etc.) tends to keep down the number of utter follies.

However, complaints about the low standard of some, or even many, free shows miss the point of the Fringe. It was, after all, started in 1947 precisely as an (often amateur) alternative to the professional shows of the Edinburgh International Festival. To the extent that the Fringe has a guiding principle, it is precisely that there is no vetting process; that anyone can put on a show if they have the time and enthusiasm. Of course, performers with these attributes may not have the talent or craftsmanship to produce worthwhile work, but that’s the inevitable risk of an unjuried festival. There is also a lot to be said for the idea that the Fringe belongs at least as much to those performers for whom being there is an end in itself, as it does to the (mostly professional) acts for whom being there is a month-long means to a television contract. It’s a bit pat to say that there should be room for both in the biggest arts festival on Earth – the complaint is motivated precisely by the worry that there is not – but it is reasonable to ask why professional acts should automatically be granted precedence.

[i] Some professionals do have free shows, and some amateur performers (such as the better-known university sketch troupes) play at paying venues – but these are in each case very much in the minority.
[ii] I should confess an interest here – I’ve been involved in a number of Fringe shows, none of which were professional.



Stewart Lee, well known for his musings on the authorship of jokes, has returned to the topic, criticising prominent stand-ups for using jokewriters without making it clear or acknowledging the hired help (from 23.50 here): 

His talk, which is well worth a look, only touches very briefly on this topic. But it was these brief comments that, predictably enough, generated the usual Stewart Lee-sized media furore.

There are a couple of separate issues which we can distinguish here. One is the treatment of the writers. To use someone else’s ideas and not acknowledge them, even if you have paid for the privilege, does seem shoddy practice. The more idealistic among us might question the propriety of using someone else’s ideas in this way, even if credit has been given. People who make a living writing jokes might reply that they can rarely afford this level of idealism.

Another issue is whether comics, especially when doing stand-up or television panel shows, should be bringing in this kind of help at all. I’m inclined to say that they shouldn’t, or at least that it should be the exception. Stand-up audiences go to a show with the reasonable expectation that the jokes coming from the stand-up’s mouth originated in the recesses of his or her brain. It is true, as Lee acknowledges, that this was not always the case; this expectation has only become prevalent in recent decades. Nonetheless, that change has occurred, to the point where a comedian who performs other people’s material should have some excuse for doing so (it’s a tribute, or they are re-interpreting it, etc – i.e., they are engaging creatively with the writer or the work, rather than just using it willy-nilly).

Of course, that this expectation exists does not mean that it should. Bruce Dessau suggests that Lee is drawing on the distinction between comedy as art and comedy as entertainment, “the difference between Samuel Beckett and Andrew Lloyd Webber”. I don’t think this is quite right. What Lee is pointing to, it seems to me, is the role of authenticity (which need have little to do with any artistic purpose). In the alternative comedy world in which Lee’s comic sensibility was formed, the stand-up would perform their own material, written in their own voice, drawing on their own experiences to express their own worldview (see Lee’s description of Lenny Bruce at 10.30 in the video above).[i] The comedian is the sole creator, more or less, of what the audience get.

There’s a lot to be said for this as an ideal for stand-up (other forms of comedy, such as sketches, are more complicated, but then again they are more obviously collaborative enterprises to start with). However, it’s worth pointing out that authenticity is a slippery notion. While popular music has placed a premium on singers and musicians performing their own material since at least Bob Dylan, there is also a long tradition of re-interpreting and re-inventing other people’s music. Sometimes this is a matter of simply performing a piece from one genre in a different one

but often the performer’s own individual style comes through 

In that case, the line between authentic and inauthentic becomes blurred – or better, the idea of authenticity becomes harder to apply.

This isn’t directly applicable to the issue of comedians using writers to contribute individual jokes– for one thing it is much harder to say where the contribution of the writer ends and that of the performer begins, unless you know which jokes have been written by whom. But it would be possible, in theory, for a comedian to perform a whole set written by someone else (another idea that Lee has floated, in a slightly different context). In that case, the writer and the performer would be (more or less) equal creators of the show, and to think of it as an expression of the experiences of one or the other might well be a non-starter.

[i] It is true that comedians on panel shows don’t try to do this, but for the most part they are on the panel shows because they have done exactly this on the live circuit.


Sincerely Yours

Edgy comedy is a little passé; the most recent furore over rape jokes is nearly a year old, and civilisation seems less likely to collapse at news of Frankie Boyle doing what audiences pay good money to hear him do. Nevertheless, it remains instructive as regards the relation between the comedian’s attitude to their act and the audience’s attitude to each.
For instance, Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais have each been embroiled in controversy over jokes concerning disabled people. Discussing these cases with a work colleague, he was willing to give Carr but not Gervais the benefit of the doubt. The suggestion was that Carr didn’t mean to offend paraplegics but was poking fun at those who would find straightforwardly offensive comments amusing, whereas Ricky Gervais was hiding his genuine prejudice behind a veneer of irony, or so my colleague maintained.
I don’t know enough about either Carr or Gervais to judge whether they mean to cause offence, or are flirting with it for the sake of edgy but ultimately acceptable comedy. But what I found interesting is the suggestion that it’s valid to judge a comedian’s act partly on their attitude towards what they say. A comedian who says things which on the face of it mock vulnerable people, and who fully intends to do this, can be judged differently to one who says similar things but without this intent.
One obvious issue this raises is knowing what a comedian’s attitude really is; another is the danger that remarks intended for a comedy-savvy audience who are aware that the comedian doesn’t mean them will reach those who don’t or won’t appreciate such subtleties. But more generally, it is interesting that the sincerity or otherwise of a comedian’s comments can be seen as relevant. This marks quite a change from the days before stand-ups wrote their own material, when comics would simply recycle material without any thought being given to the attitude expressed.
It also allows stand-ups to play with a kind of irony which can be particularly potent because it is unclear, at least some of the time, what the comedian’s own attitude is. More precisely, a stand-up can do this in real time, in a game of chicken where they dare the audience to draw an implied conclusion which is never actually stated. For instance, consider the following Tim Minchin ditty:
The dynamic of the comedy is pretty clear, and by this I mean not just misdirection, but that the misdirection concerns Minchin’s own attitude. Indeed, this is a sophisticated example, with two different suggestions which are confounded: that he’s about to use a certain epithet; and that he’s making a point about the use of this epithet and so setting himself up as something of a do-gooder (a point he still makes, but in a round-about way). Not all of this kind of misdirection involves edgy comedy – consider the introductory words to this song, which perform the same trick:
But comedy about taboos and our attitudes towards them is where it flourishes most easily.
A final thought: this kind of comedy seems to rely on irony, so in theory it shouldn’t work if the comedian is sincere in the apparently offensive things they say. But I suspect that once this kind of game has started, it might be possible to play it successfully regardless of one’s own opinions. In which case, a kind of comedy that relies on the audience’s views as to the comedian’s attitude would in effect become independent of that attitude.  Whether this is actually ironic or not, I'll let Alanis Morissette decide.


What is a Joke? Same Joke, Different Day

In a previous article in this occasional series, I asked when a joke is not a joke. A slightly different question is when a joke is the same joke but in different clothing.
Some jokes, which different people arrive at independently, are the same in a very obvious way. For instance, someone I know who dabbles in stand-up and comedy writing (and hopefully won’t take that description as an insult) came up with the following gem:

‘I met a guy who insisted that he was an Eighties pop star. I didn’t believe him, but he was adamant.’
A gem which a couple of years later I discovered a fairly well-known stand-up had also arrived at (he didn’t use it in his set, but each audience member got a sheet with extra jokes he couldn’t fit in, and this was one of them). The wording was different, but only very slightly (there’s only so much leeway this kind of joke allows).
A slightly trickier example: compare Demetri Martin’s joke about toilet graffiti (11.20 here)
With Mark Smith’s observation about dates (at 5 minutes):
I’m inclined to say that these are the same joke – they have the same premise, are structured the same way, and only the details of each situation differ. On the other hand, it’s possible to judge them as better or worse jokes (I prefer Smith’s), whereas if they really were the same joke, it should only be possible to contrast the delivery of each, or perhaps the phrasing.
In thinking about these examples together, a short answer is that they fall at different points on a sliding scale, from being all but identical to having something more abstract in common. What’s lacking is the kind of structured way of thinking about jokes that is possible with music, where we can compare pieces in terms of melody, harmony, chord progression and so on.
One practical implication of these questions concerns the thorny issue of joke theft. Apart from cases where the wording (or the relevant gestures) is exactly the same,  such cases can only be accounted for by a common idea, or a common idea set up in the same way. [ii] But of course what counts as a common idea or as the same way of establishing it is very much up for debate, as the above examples indicate.

[i] Full disclosure – this is one of mine. I first told it a few years ago, hence the now misleading age.
[ii] Obviously it requires more than this to show that it’s a case of theft as opposed to comedians independently coming up with the same joke (as was the case in each of the examples above). But without some criterion for the ‘same joke’, the issue of joke theft could not arise at all.


Local Heroes

The internet may or may not have led to the creation of new kinds of humour (depending on how novel you take lolcats to be), but it has certainly allowed existing forms to flourish in new and unexpected ways. An online hit from last year was Sminky Shorts, a series of brief cartoons trading on the basic formula of animals talking like humans:

The Sminky phenomenon raises a couple of interesting issues. One is the degree to which these cartoons work because of their distinctively Corkonian inflections and idioms. Some of them are good sketches in and of themselves

whereas others, such as ‘Crocodiles’ (the first video above) get by almost entirely on charm – although I found this one just as amusing as ‘Tommy’. I’m curious to hear whether readers not fortunate enough to hail from Cork like these films, and if so why.

The other interesting trend Sminky Shorts illustrates is the rise of local humour with global reach. There is an audience on the internet for distinctively regional comedy, either original material (as with Sminky Shorts and a previous Irish hit, the Rubberbandits), or redubbing existing footage, for instance Scooby-Doo with north-eastern accents and copious swearing:

This would have been all but impossible twenty years ago, when local humour tended to be confined to a local audience (for instance on regional radio stations). Humour which reached a national or international audience required a major platform (usually television or cinema), which couldn’t, by and large, risk carrying anything too parochial. Thanks to the internet, people in Colchester, Canberra and Quito have access to cartoons by and about Cork people. And not just people, but agents and production companies as well.

Sminky Shorts has global reach, but can it achieve global popularity? Jason Sullivan has signed to London agency, but it remains to be seen what new markets he can find with them. For all the on-line success, I suspect the cartoons are primarily a hit among Irish people, and more specifically people from Cork. There is no reason in principle why crudely-drawn shorts can’t develop into something with much greater impact, but whether Sminky Shorts can do this while retaining the local flavour which has until now been its selling point is a different question.


Random Rules (It’s Kevin, BBC 2)

That The Actor Kevin Eldon has landed his own series is worthy of celebration. His face, a precision-tooled comic device, perennially disappointed but never quite despairing, has provided beautifully judged support in two decade’s worth of television comedy, from Big Train

to Nighty Night

and seemingly all points inbetween.

It’s Kevin, though, can’t be all about this wonderful physiognomy. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, except the pursuit of the random. In some quarters, it has been hailed as part of a welcome return of silliness and 'out there' comedy to the television schedules. While the first episode is recognisably silly, I'd query any suggestion that it is 'out there' in the sense of being challenging or unconventional. True, it doesn't have many sketches with immediately recognisable plots, but random for random's sake is itself a well-established and (dare I say) rather stale convention.  

Obviously, sketches don't need to make sense, and a sketch show doesn’t need to have a central theme or a unifying structure, but there is a danger in pulling too hard in the opposite direction which It’s Kevin unwittingly illustrates. It feels like it’s trying too hard, cramming in non sequiturs, sketches whose only attempt at humour is an unexpected juxtaposition, and what appear to be references for their own sake (e.g., the Monty Python-esque talking cardboard cut-out of the Duchess of Cornwall). Worse, a number of these elements, such as the vox pops, feel overcooked. In A Bit of Fry & Laurie, these were funny because of the lack of context and juxtaposition, rather than because of anything hilarious the talking heads came up with. Here they include a surreal bit about slicing a seal in two to make the perfect sandwich, which is not only trying too hard but perhaps missing the point of this format.

However, the thing about randomness is that sometimes it works, and when it does it is all the more compelling for being inexplicable; witness Hitler speaking in the voice of George Martin:
There is little point in analysing this sketch, beyond noting the slyly subversive juxtaposition of Beatles Anthology-style documentary with every History Channel programme ever made about the Third Reich (that is, every History Channel programme ever made). It simply works; the seal-slicing vox pop doesn’t. But this does prompt the thought that random humour, because if its very starkness, its either-it-works-or-it-doesn’t quality, requires its creators to simply throw lots of ideas at each other and hope that some stick together. And this means that to unearth the comic diamonds of sheer randomness, it is all but inevitable that you'll have to first dig through layers of sedimented wackiness.

This, for all I know, is precisely Eldon's plan. I'm still not convinced; I prefer him in shows with a clearer sense of drama or atmosphere in which his peculiar downbeat energy can work. But it seems that, given the choice, he would rather tit about. And after twenty years of supporting roles, it's hard to blame him for indulging himself.


Making it Explicit

A bit of delayed New Year’s cleaning-up, this: a post I began before Christmas, prompting by seeing Sightseers. The most interesting feature of a worth-catching-though-not-mind-blowing film was the violence, or to be more precise the ways violence was used. A great deal of time is spent building tension as what Tina and Chris are what they will do, interspersed with a few brief but surprisingly graphic depictions of murderous carnage and its aftermath.

I understand that these shots are important to the aesthetic of the film, both as nods to British horror and slasher films, and as providing Tina and Chris with an unpleasant verisimilitude. But, for what it’s worth, they jarred a little with me. In fact, I felt that they worked against the building of tension which preceded them in each case – it might have been better to hold back more, to string us out a little longer by implying rather than showing what happened. They felt a little cheap – which is not to say they cheapened the film as a whole.[i]

All of which poses a perhaps unanswerable question – would Sightseers work without these shots? Unanswerable in that any answer will amount to a subjective judgement and indeed an expression of personal taste regarding the need for violence in a film partly about grisly killings. A slightly more interesting question is whether it would work as a (very black) comedy without explicit violence. I’m inclined to think it would. The explicit bits aren’t funny in themselves,[ii] and I don’t think they were needed to bring out the humour. What’s needed is the contrast between the mundane nature of Tina and Chris’s travels and their wilfully excessive responses to the irritations they encounter en route; and this contrast doesn’t require that we actually see what happens.

A possible if slightly random comparison might be with Lena Dunham’s Girls, celebrated for its gritty realism and audacity, a large part of which involves some non-Beautiful People[iii] having non-stylised sex. This might indicate something about my attitude towards sex and violence respectively, but I think these scenes matter more to the success of the show and to its humour. For a start, they tend to be funny in themselves.[iv] They’re also a good way of getting straight to the key themes of intimacy and gender identity.

Furthermore – though this is more speculative on my part – it might just be that relatively explicit sex has a different effect to violence, particularly when it’s presented in the fairly naturalistic manner of Girls. After all, many of us have had naturalistic sex with non-Beautiful People, whereas very few of us have seen a murder take place, let alone carried one out. In the context of a bittersweet contemporary comedy, the sex still has the power to shock, but it doesn’t feel as though it’s there for that purpose. Rather, it gives Girls a feeling of emotional honesty we can relate to, and without which the show would lose much of its charm. Sightseers is honest in its own way about the frustrations of everyday life, but the violence which results jars any fellow-feeling we might have for Tina and Chris.

[i] This isn’t true of all cinematic violence. Sometimes the film requires graphic and even disturbing images (see A Prophet, Hidden, and what seems like half the cinematic output of Korea). None of these, it should be noted, are celebrated as works of comic genius.
[ii] With the exception of the episode involving knitting needles, about which I can say no more.
[iii] Which is not to say that any of the people involved are ugly. This is television, after all.
[iv] A better example is the scene discussed in the opening paragraphs of Elaine Blair’s thoughtful essay on the series.


Attack of the Memecats

Una Mullally’s brief summary of internet humour in one of the many, many round-up-of-the-year articles published last month (a filler of round-ups? A google? An impending Christmas party?) caught my eye. It’s little more than a throwaway comment, but the following in particular got me thinking:

The humour around such ventures is hit and miss, but there’s a jaded predictability to the insistence of laughing at and then spreading increasingly tired gags. Putting the “ah here, leave it out” Dublin holler over footage of an aircraft flying into the Twin Towers just isn’t funny. Neither is a guy looking into the camera on The Late Late Show. Or the laziness of Lolcat text over endless photographs of strange celebrity expressions.

Some gif-based Tumblrs – the scrapbook for a generation – actually yielded some laughs, in particular Dublin Gays and Hungover Owls. But there’s still the nagging sense that trawling through photographs of people who look like things is a colossal waste of time.[i]

I think this is mostly right: there is something about internet humour which tends to make it increasingly jaded and lazy. My best guess is that this is a combination of two broad but plausible generalisations. Humour made for the internet tends to have little depth or nuance. It must work almost instantly, getting a response in the second or two that we typically give to a gif or photo, or the thirty seconds that we might spend on a YouTube clip. That’s why so much of it relies on celebrities or riffs on other well-known clips or tropes such as Lolcat text. The pool from which successful memes are fished is very broad (broader than any previous source of comedy) but very shallow.

Second, successful ideas are reproduced. This isn’t new: everyone has had the experience of hearing the same joke from different people, and usually they won’t have independently come up with the same idea. The internet amplifies this effect, by increasing the number of people who see something amusing and wish to pass it on, and the numbers of individuals who want a slice of the comedy pie and have enough spare time and technical know-how to get involved.  

Something similar has happened in music: the number of people putting out recordings to a (potentially) mass audience is now far greater than ever before, and it’s difficult to see it decreasing in the near future. The means of production and distribution are no longer the exclusive property of a handful of large corporations. But in music, this increases the pressure to stand out by being different (principally by mixing together as many genres and textures as possible). In comedy, the most striking effect seems to be endless variations on existing themes. Ideas tend to get worn out by constant repetition; gems are buried in the landslide of cheap imitations.

That said, I wonder if Mullally’s criticism is a little too sweeping. After all, jokes (particularly short, memorable ones) have been repeated and generated spin-offs for a long time now, without well-established formats (‘What’s the difference between…?’ / ‘How many such-and-suches does it take…?’) becoming obsolete. The fact that there are a lot of bad memes circulating doesn’t make the pictures-of-people-who-look-like-things format, for example, a waste of time in and of itself. It does make the case for greater quality-control, but on the internet it was ever thus.

[i] A number of these examples are specifically Irish, but as far as I can see they’re pretty representative of the world-wide web.