Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Problem with Modern Comedy: or The Day The Laughter Died

Red Nose Day is just around the corner and I’m braced for an evening of distress and upset. No, my sadness has nothing to do with the unrelenting scenes of starving children in third world countries or disadvantaged youngsters in the UK. I’ll be breaking out the tissues because the best comics will be paraded on our screens all evening and, no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, British comedy just isn’t the big, furry ball of fun that it used to be.

Comedians aren’t concerned with cracking gags and making people laugh anymore, they’re concerned with appeasing the masses, siding with the majority and sneering at political parties or hate figures in a very middle-class, superior, Oxbridge kind of way. It’s all fake intellectualism and social commentary. Comedy should be an invaluable form of escapism, especially in today’s social and economic clime. I want to go and see a comedian, pay my ticket money, have a laugh and forget how shitty life is. Instead I’m paying to be lectured and preached at.

Take Charlie Brooker, for example. Charlie contributes to modern comedy is little more than a live-action Beavis and Butthead-esque commentary on popular culture. Any student across the county can do the same in front of his own TV in his own front room (and I suspect that many of them can do it in a less self-righteous ‘I’m speaking the mind of the populace, honest’ annoying kind of way). Just count how many times he criticises popular hate figures in some kind of desperate attempt to win the puppy-love of his audience. What happened to the rebellious comedians who would shock audiences by bucking the norm and being outrageous and un-PC? Even so-called ‘offensive’ comics who tap into the common viewpoint of their audiences for laughs have a slightly superior tone which makes them sound painfully self-righteousness.

So why are new comics so eager to show allegiance with majority opinion? Perhaps it’s all to do with popularity and getting the public on-side (after all, those live DVDs aren’t going to sell themselves) or maybe comedians are too afraid to be un-PC in case there is a backlash, ala the recent Top Gear Mexican incident, and they find themselves accused of racism/sexism/homophobia and losing their credibility and fan-base - in which case thanks a lot, neo-Victorian Britain, for squeezing every last drop of freedom of speech and consequently humorous banter out of comedy. I tell you what, let’s just ban TV altogether and gather around the piano for a sing-song in the evenings instead shall we? Or does that offend a minority? Overworked pianists?

It really galls me to say it because I admire(d) them both, but Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand are both guilty of sacrificing laughs for self-importance and self-opinion. Both started out as ambitious, exciting new stand-ups but ambition has overtaken their humour and their desperation to crack America and appear in the latest Hollywood blockbuster is sucking every last drop of real comedy out of them. I can’t remember the last time either of them did anything remotely amusing. Are they even classed as comedians anymore? Russell Brand’s downfall as a comic will come in the form of his over-inflated ego (and I think he’s at peace with that), but Eddie’s downfall will be in his newly-found messianic status as a political commentator. The very second that his twitter feed fell suspiciously serious and political agendas started appearing I could feel the distance between him and his fans growing by the second. This is very dangerous game. The comedian who aligns him/herself against certain portions of society runs the risk of alienating themselves from fans who had previously been unaware of their strong views. Personal opinions are best kept of the stage, I feel.

British comics need to realise that they are not rock ‘n’ roll stars or culture pundits, they are jesters. There’s nothing shameful about standing on-stage with a mic and telling a silly joke. They need to stop desperately showcasing how well educated, knowledgeable and on-trend they are and start throwing custard pies at each other asap before society becomes entirely embittered and cynical and we forget how to laugh at ourselves and each other. And thank God there are some individuals who keep the flag of genuine comedy flying - I’m thinking of comedians not afraid to take a pie to the face and roll out the silly Christmas cracker gags (interestingly, although Jimmy Carr plays the superior, educated role for laughs, his on-stage humour is quite the opposite and he is one of the most popular comics in the UK as a result. Jimmy has achieved the perfect balance between silliness and offensiveness, without the mere whiff of self-indulgent intellectualism. Jimmy realises that he is a jester paid do a silly dance for the masses and he is more than happy to play along. And he’s reaping the rewards in ticket sales).

So here’s a suggestion to you budding comedians out there - maybe there’s a greater satisfaction in a belly-laugh than lighting your torch and leading your army of fans to the gates of the latest hate figure for a mutual tutting and finger wagging session. Try breaking from the (rapidly approaching) norm and saying something genuinely funny for once. Go on, gamble those guaranteed DVD pre-orders.

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