Topical comedy is never funny. Since when has a schoolboy ever made
people giggle in assembly by wryly commenting on the Arms To Iraq affair?
Topical comedy is a bad idea because it rests on one horrible truth
about modern audiences: if you repeat something that sounds like a joke
often enough, eventually they'll start laughing. These you have loved
include: People in Sellafield are genetic mutants'! 'Prisoners who are
held in Group 4 security vans always escape!' 'Cecil Parkinson has sex all
the time!' 'British Rail trains are always late!' 'Pot Noodles taste
disgusting!' 'Princess Margaret is always drinking!' 'Linford Christie has
a large penis and testicles!' 'Geri Halliwell is a lot older than she says
she is!' 'The Millennium Dome will be a bit rubbish!' 'Have I Got
News For You is always being sued!'
Did you spot the odd one out? That's right - it's the last one. The
oh-so-dangerous Have I Got News For You has in fact never
been sued by anyone in its nine-year history, unless you count the
time when Michael Winner complained about his underpants (something he
probably did as a joke anyway). Such a shallow and one-dimensional vehicle
could never realistically be sued by anyone, simply because all it does is
regurgitate and re-heat hackneyed statements - stories of negligible
accuracy about things that ONLY HAPPENED ONCE. Magnified by satire,
however, they become universal truths for which we need constant
reminders. To have one Labour MP outed as homosexual may be regarded as a
misfortune; to have two will result in Rory Bremner doing a Village People
parody in a public toilet.
The jokes on Have I Got News For You aren't jokes at all.
They are references to jokes. They become stock satirical subjects,
ready to be re-applied whenever a cheap jibe is necessary. All jokes about
Sellafield are essentially the same joke, and the different
dressing with which they are presented is rarely noticed by the audience.
When Angus Deayton cracks a quip concerning someone with three heads,
nobody listens to the joke itself but they laugh immediately upon hearing
the word'Sellafield'. It's as if the audience are so relieved by the
shared experience of hearing comedy they understand that the actual
content becomes redundant. Sometimes you don't even need to say a word -
We remember one edition of Have I Got News ForYou
where Deayton cracked some lame feedline about the Channel Tunnel,
followed by footage of something bursting into flames. What was
interesting was that the audience actually began laughing before
the combustion had been revealed: they were literally laughing at nothing.
This is Virtual Comedy, and it's insulting.
Great comedy taps into genuine human passion. At the start of the
decade, a memo was sent to the writers of Radio 4's Week
Ending, informing them that the show was becoming 'too silly' and
that the programme should contain more'proper satire'. This effectively
led to the demise of the show: up until that point, Week
Ending had been written chiefly by Richard Herring and Stewart
Lee, with Peter Baynham as script-editor. Under their control, the show
was - for a brief period - funny precisely because they didn't take
the notion of satire too seriously. Essentially, good comedians understand
the inherent folly of doing topical comedy in the first place. David
Baddiel was particularly skilled at this, opening the first radio episode
of The Mary Whitehouse Experience with the declaration that
'All satire is rubbish'. Talking about The Queen later in
the series, he bellowed the following: '[She] does of course have her
critics - it is said by some that she fulfils no useful function, and that
she is a parasitic, sour-faced lazy bloody stupid fat slag.' What was
refreshing about this line was the way he started the joke as a normal,
tiresome regular joke about the royal family, but ended it with a
shapeless tirade of abuse - as if to convey that he had so little
interest in the subject that he simply couldn't be bothered to think up a
proper joke. Lesser comedians would mistakenly assume that the material is
funny in itself; Baddiel realises that what's funny is the sheer
ridiculousness of standing on stage and delivering it.
This, of course, is the basic problem with topical comedy: most
comedians clearly don't really care one way or the other about the week's
news, and they cannot convince us otherwise. They're haunted by the
Week Ending factor: topical comedy has always been the
crèche for frustrated comedy writers, who would much rather be writing
about their own lives. Remember Mel Smith on Not The Nine O'Clock
News singing angry songs about 'all-out superpower confrontation'?
Y'know, like he gave a fuck. Since it's almost impossible to sound
angry about anything you read in a newspaper, most good comedians seek out
alternative angles. Superpower confrontation aside, Not The Nine
O'Clock News was enjoyable because the writers alluded to news
stories as a consequence of sketches, rather than taking an event
and thinking'hmmm - how shall we approach this?' (The'Constable
Savage' sketch is a good example of this, where the theme of police
racism is only revealed in the last thirty seconds - up until that point,
it's a jolly, Pythonesque'Silly Policeman' sketch.) Similarly, Armando
Iannucci and Chris Morris' On The Hour, The Day Today
and Brass Eye projects ignored the actual content of the
news in favour of satirising both the way the news is presented and the
way the media manipulate public anxiety and stupidity for their own ends.
Even the Friday Night Armistice, for all its clumsy lack of
vision, clearly intends to poke a bemused finger at the appearance
of politics, rather than taking a swipe at specific issues themselves. The
shows work because we believe that such targets actually matter to the
But such examples are rare, and we have recently seen a resurgence of
unimaginative,'proper satire'. We have The Now Show on
Radio 4, where the superb Punt and Dennis have their under-rated
sketch-writing skills pushed aside by a reliance on the 'importance' of
satire, and the intrusion of egregious song duo Dan & Nick. We have
ITV's Stuff The Week, in which four talentless nobodies from
the backwaters of BBC radio fling their arms about and giggle in a
desperate, career-minded quest for approval. And we have the nadir of the
genre: the ersatz, quasi-reactionary 11 O'Clock Show
(true quote from Iain Lee: 'I take what Chris Morris does and extend it').
Comedians know the form, and they have no shame.
Topical comedy is the lowest form of wit. Consider what happens when a
gay MP is outed - comedians rarely seek to spew bile on the media climate
which makes this an issue in the first place; instead, they make some pun
on'the public being behind him' or 'pulling out at the last moment'. With
the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky issue, topical comedy reached a new low,
with the weakest of double entendres being applied in lieu of any real
comedy. Comedy is being dumbed down, reduced to the level of 'football'
jokes, where all someone has to do is name the team they support and the
audience obediently and good naturedly boos and hisses. There is, after
all, little difference between Angus Deayton doing a joke about Sellafield
inhabitants having three heads, and Bernard Manning doing jokes about
Jewish people being tight-fisted. Manning's humour may be more
objectionable, but structurally it is based on the same principle: take a
piece of boring received prejudice and repeat it ad nauseam.