COMMENT: Dot Dot Dot ...And Very Very Funny
First published March 2000
Dot Dot Dot... And Very Very Funny
WARNING: This article contains criticism directed at the comedy industry. Look away now if you don't want to know the score...

Four-times Perrier Award failure Al Murray has something to celebrate. He has finally won the aforementioned comedy trophy at this year's festival. So congratulations to Al. Hey, maybe he'll get some TV work out of it, who knows. You may have seen his act before - it is a caricature of a pub landlord, you see. A pub landlord who is - get this - thuggishly philosophical and obsessed with lager. Do you understand? Well, in case you don't, Murray has shaved his head alapecia-smooth to look the part. And he stands there holding a pint aloft shouting 'Let's hear it for lager!' until you get the idea. It's a character, everyone! A satire on the hypocrisies of, um...masculinity and bigotry, I suppose. Good for him! The reviews tell us that people reluctantly leave his show holding their split sides, their eyes prickling with tears. He is the epitome of character-comedy, his performances worthy of proper theatre as opposed to mere stand-up. Cut to Murray in an editing suite: 'I think, basically what I'm trying to do is...'

God, give us a gatling gun. Is anyone else suspicious when they read hyperbole on that scale? Murray's 'Pub Landlord' is mildly amusing, up to a point. Okay? A few good lines here and there, the odd nice ad lib. On a good day, he's as enjoyable as Harry Enfield on a bad day. Not much more. Even Murray himself was embarrassed by the review which said 'watching Murray work a crowd is like watching Nureyev dance or Mohammed Ali box' (although he still insisted on quoting it during an Edinburgh Or Bust interview). He's reasonably funny, his comic prowess dissipated substantially by the smug grin which bursts force whenever anybody points a camera at him.

'But that's subjective!' you're thinking. 'That's only your opinion! What right have you got to pass judgement? I happen to think Al Murray is very funny. And so does Gary from work'. Well, fair enough. Enjoy yourselves. But this is the thing - you wouldn't be so utterly defensive if we'd said something positive, would you? If we'd substituted our conditional brickbats for unconditional bouquets, you wouldn't still be taking us to task for the heinous crime of having opinions. And this is what troubles us; the modern comedy fan's hackle-raising mistrust of criticism; a mistrust which stems from the extraordinary idea that we owe comedians a living, that they deserve our 'support' and 'encouragement', even when they're self-evidently mediocre. Murray isn't alone - Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding's unwatchably feeble Mighty/Arctic Boosh shows are given the same sycophantic whitewash, as are bleach-blonde Adam Bloom's long streams of bug-eyed boredom. It's worrying, and it's killing comedy.

A friend of ours was talking at great length the other week about how Murray, Boosh and Bloom represent the 'future of comedy'. We mentioned that we did not share her enthusiasm. After stepping back to allow her jaw to drop onto the floor, she asked us why. The shortcomings of her heroes, we explained, were very obvious. Murray is a so-so creation, over-endorsed by a comedy circuit desperate for a rising star at whatever cost. Barratt and Fielding's work falls into the trap of thinking that surrealism simply means mentioning animals a lot. And Bloom? Well, he's completely devoid of any modesty or context with which to make his stage persona either likeable or interesting. 'Oh', she grinned. 'Stop ruining everyone's fun!'

And this is the problem. Miserable old gits we may be, but we're wary of anyone who mistrusts criticism per se. We advocate criticism, not for its own sake, but as a good and necessary thing, something comedians (and their fans) can learn from.

But people don't want it. Comedy fans definitely don't want it. Channel 4's recent Edinburgh Or Bust docusoap was a case in point. Each week, we were shown tiny snippets of each comedian's act (lest we might actually see the shows for what they are and - heaven forbid - decide for ourselves), followed by gushing vox pops from audience members proclaiming how 'absolutely brilliant' the indiscriminate performer they'd just seen was. No disgruntlement, constructive or otherwise. Just wall-to-wall toadying. Even The Scotsman was nice, scraping the barrel to try and say something vaguely kind about Cathy Dunning's egregious one-woman effort. (Dunning herself of course was furious, throwing her astonishingly generous three-star review into the gutter and musing she could write a review of the reviewer which would 'hurt' him in return.)

Comedians (and, by that loose term, we include Cathy Dunning) are, by definition, asking for it. The act of coming onstage and grabbing the microphone is tantamount to announcing 'I am fantastic', and they should know this. People have paid money to see a person who promises to make them laugh: this makes the comedian arrogant beyond words, and - if they fail - any abuse they receive is completely justified. To use a Ben Elton-esque metaphor, if a plumber failed to fix yer toilet, you'd complain; so why doesn't this seem to happen in comedy? Sure, comedians get hecklers lobbing profanities. Sure, they get a lukewarm crowd now and again. But the comedian can blame these on anything, from the laxity of the bouncers to the bloke who got the lighting wrong. Criticism of a comedian's actual material is very rare. The comedy world, instead, is full of luvvies, performers and critics alike patting each other on the back and towing the party line about what's hot and what's not. This isn't what comedy is about.

Truly good comedy never, ever looks like comedy. If a comedy phenomenon is worth its salt, the 'what the fuck?' factor must always be there. From Monty Python's Flying Circus to Vic Reeves Big Night Out, from Beyond The Fringe to Blue Jam, truly exciting comedy (initially at least) baffles and angers as many people as it delights. Bad comedy (Marcus Brigstocke's recent parody of a gap-year student traveller, for example) simply gets the 'Ah, that's what you're doing is it?' response, or 'Oh - it's that kind of character...I see'. Brigstocke, like many others, look and sounds like a comedy performer, but has no recognisable personality or presence to rise above the ersatz feel of his act. It's virtual comedy, and it's insulting.

Comedy should be shocking. And by shocking, we don't necessarily mean sweary and outrageous, but simply surprising. A comedian can shock you simply by appearing to care about his or her material. Joyce Grenfell was shocking beyond belief, precisely because everyone thought she was a gentle figurehead for the public library set, when in fact she was a shit-hot parodist who refused to suffer wankers gladly. Singing trio The Nualas continue this tradition, drawing in audiences, siren-like, to their world before they have a chance to realise how unsettling it is. Simon Munnery has also got the right idea: 'The League Against Tedium' is exciting precisely because a media pigeonhole doesn't exist in which to place him.

But it's a risk: this is why the circuit is full of comedians who fall back on fey, Seinfeld-esque musings on the minutiae of existence - the Tommy Tiernans, Paul Tonkinsons and Chris Addisons of this world, comedians who insist on being so bastard POLITE. The audiences are just as bad, obediently barking and cackling at whatever be-jeaned loon Time Out has told them to like that week. Great stand-up comedians (the Sayles and Mayalls, the Learys and Sadowitzes) used to look like they were possessed by the spirit of comedy itself, which could implode and destroy them at any point; nowadays, comedians are pragmatic and career-minded people who daren't do anything arresting or weird for fear of jeopardising their potential sidelines in adverts and serious drama. Sometimes we think we'd be better off checking into a working men's club to watch stand-up comedy, on the basis that we'd rather watch an hour of unpleasant bigotry than Dominic Holland talking about toasters.

It's this oxymoronic idea of a 'comedian playing safe' that's abhorrent. The decline of all good comedians can be traced back to the point at which they started earning real money: when they had to tell jokes for their supper, the material had to be good; however, as the comedy business blossomed and the demand for slots to be filled increased, they realised that lucrative commissions would still thwack on their doormat regardless of quality, and simply stopped trying.

In 1997, the Cambridge Footlights took a revue called 'Emotional Baggage' to the Edinburgh Festival. Director Matthew Holness and performer Richard Ayoade explained, by way of a disclaimer, that people shouldn't come 'expecting to see John Cleese and Fry & Laurie', their argument being that anticipating great comedy from a group of undergraduates was like asking a junior medic to perform a heart by-pass. In short, we shouldn't expect miracles.

Well why the hell not? If we honestly believe that comedy has passed a never-to-be-repeated glory period, then we might as well all give up now. John Cleese and Fry & Laurie were funny at Cambridge precisely because they had the balls not to aim for second best. More to the point, they lived and breathed comedy, and had total confidence not only in their material but also in the erudition of the audience. This doesn't happen now. An undergraduate audience of today, with their tiny vocabularies and soundbite-lapping inability to think for themselves, simply wouldn't sit through an eight-minute Shakespeare parody along the lines of Beyond The Fringe's 'So That's The Way You Like It'. And even if they did, the Footlights crew wouldn't have bothered writing one because, as one member recently confessed, 'I don't like too much effort'. So cue a lot of bog-standard, easy-to-digest vignettes for the Fast Show generation.

The other side of this coin is the old buffers who harp on in documentaries about 'heroes of comedy' whose 'comedy genius' has 'delighted generations'. Not one word of criticism passes their lips either, unless it's to quote inaccurate received opinions on Tony Hancock's 'decline' or the fact that the Monty Python team were very bad at writing parts for women. The industry reflects this: twenty years ago, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's masterwork Derek & Clive Ad Nauseam came with a free sick-bag; nowadays their TV series Not Only But Also is available in a tasteful collector's box with a picture of the duo smiling politely on the cover. What have they done to our comedy?

It derives from the British 'mustn't grumble' ethic, the idea that bad comedy is better than no comedy at all - an attitude, which results in audiences tolerating increasingly weaker and more derivative acts. Comedy is now an industry to the extent that we daren't criticise anyone who wears a 'Made In Britain' sticker. Certain venues are in league with certain comedians' agencies that are in turn in league with certain journalists whose friends all work for certain television stations. None of these people, of course, know anything about comedy, but this has ceased to matter. Most comedy agents have never seen their clients' work, and have no interest in doing so. After all, why should they? Comedy awards and comedy competitions can be manipulated at will, simply by a promoter threatening to pull out of a theatre and take his star player elsewhere. It's a complete nonsense, and - if it were happening in sport, politics or any other area of the arts - it would warrant an enquiry. But the distaste for criticism means that, even if the incestuousness was exposed, the most we'd get from the public would be a boozy shrug.

It all comes back to a more basic point: why should comedians be encouraged? Why do the judging panels at comedy competitions (usually featuring three perennial pundits and the bloke who won it last year) feel they can only say nice things about the acts? Why does Comedy Café (the only comedy review show on television) allow MacKensie Crook to present the show in character as 'Charlie Cheese', thus making serious criticism of his interviewees (most of whom are his friends anyway) a convenient impossibility. It's a Movies Games & Videos for the comedy world (with a 'Hey, let's take a look at the latest press releases' attitude) when we deserve a Barry Norman (or at least a Barry Cryer) figurehead. It shouldn't continue this way. Comedians should be thick-skinned enough to accept criticism and learn from it. If they survive this, then and only then have they the right to a career in comedy - a career which is, after all, an extraordinary privilege.

Comedy, to use the excellent cliché, is being dumbed down - so much so that it's rarely seen as anything other than something to giggle at over a Vodka Mule on a Saturday night. Audiences don't remember the jokes the next morning because the irrelevance of the comedy has all but washed over them. But journalists and punters alike still conclude that everything was 'absolutely brilliant, dot dot dot and very very funny'. People are afraid to moan about the acts for fear that they'll be accused of 'taking comedy too seriously', despite the fact that bland displays of positivity ('Wickedly funny, 'Brilliantly sharp' etc) would not go uncontested in the same way.

So Al Murray has finally won the Perrier Award, with all the grace of someone getting a solitary A-level at the age of 34. He has become a success because he was designed to be a success; if he hadn't won, the whole competition would be discredited as 'out of touch with popular opinion' - a view shared by many of Murray's colleagues...until he won of course. Comedians are notorious for pouring scorn on the Perrier Award, but this cynicism seems to disappear the minute one of their friends gets nominated. Promoters, journalists, other comedians - they can all benefit from a new enfant terrible like Murray, providing it's on their terms and they know how to channel his success. It's always been like this, but now audiences are following suit.

There's no bribery or corruption going on - if it was, it would be easier to attack. Instead, it's about the currency of opinion and the way media spin-doctors manipulate it to their own boring ends. The comedy industry has finally become one big fat joke.

Mention this to a comedy promoter, of course, and they just laugh. Probably for the first time in their lives.

Spanners heard of a funny incident during filming for a recent edition of Jonathan Creek. Apparently, Alan Davies was so hungry on set he ordered a hamburger from a nearby fast food outlet. Needless to say, the cast and crew were not amused.

News reaches us that Caroline Aherne smokes fags. Apparently, during recordings for the recent Royle Family Christmas special, Caroline was so keen on fags she could be found regularly smoking fags between takes. Fags, my arse! Maybe she should stop smoking fags.

'Tis the season to be merry, and Spanners is no exception. However, we raised a tentative eyebrow this week at some free publicity material we received through the post. Makes you think, doesn't it?

People's genius Al Murray breathes oxygen.

John Cleese was not best pleased the other week. He had arranged a gourmet evening but the chef was drunk so he had to get the food from a nearby French restaurant, but then his car broke down and he hit it with a tree branch and shouted at it. I think he got trifle in the end, by mistake.

Caroline Aherne (her again!) almost certainly did something, yesterday.

Spanners cannot think of any other showbiz news, even though we're a major listings magazine and presumably have loads of contacts. Why not read the letters page instead? Oh, you already have.

Something Which Is Obviously Fantastic (BBC2, 10pm)
Dreary, dated, smug, dated, racist, dated, smug, patronising, smug, dated, disjointed, messy, smug, dated. Next week, I learn adverbs very good. (Preview tapes were unavailable.)

Something That's Well Overdue A Good Emperor's New Clothes-Style Slagging (BBC2, 9pm)
A presenter returns with the weekly television programme about a given subject.

Something Our Media Friends Tell Us We Should Like (Ch4, 11pm)
Unmissable. Actually, preview tapes were unavailable, but that's the great thing - you don't have to actually watch the programme to talk about it excessively in a wine bar the next day. Booyakashah!

Seinfeld (BBC2, Midnight)
Not a great episode - in fact, it's the worst thing we've ever seen. Certainly not as funny as the classic episode last season where Jerry had a cup of tea. But that's the great thing about American sitcoms - they don't actually have to be funny in order to be popular. Or for us to talk about them excessively in a wine bar the next day. So all hail to 'The Pretzel King' from Season 28. Well worth it for the scene where Jerry has a cup of tea.

The Royle Family (BBC1, 10pm)
See Telling You Stuff You Already Know In A Beaming Great Typeface on page 76.

Something Worthy (BBC2, 8pm)
The ubiquitous Twatty McBumstead talks to Martin Scorcese for fucking hours.

EastEnders (BBC1, 8pm)
What we're actually watching, rather than the Martin Scorcese interview. (Preview tapes up arse.)

FILM OF THE DAY: Scorcese's classic People Just Sort Of Standing Around Talking (1979), beginning a season of films by directors with whom we're on toadying, second-name terms. Followed by Titchmarsh's Gardener's World.

Well, that's all we've got time for on Time Out.

Next week, our editor explains that his magazine may be horrendous, but at least it's not as bad as Heat.

Plus: Paul Whitehouse's London ('It's brilliant!').

Available next week, for the price of only £1.95. You will buy it, although you'll never be sure quite why.