Letters To A Young Comedian

Monday 19 January 2004, The Stage

But there was no room at the inn, so they went next door to the newly-opened comedy store. Alexei Sayle was on and lo alternative comedy was born and a thousand media students had a subject for an essay.

One of the things early eighties comics supposedly had in common was a disdain for the comedians of the previous generation. These guys were fat, sexist, racist and wore bow ties. They were Thatcherites and we were not. While we freedom fighters were doing benefits for the striking miners, they were corpulently exchanging golfing anecdotes in Barbados.

The antipathy was mutual. The men in the DJs considered the young upstarts scruffy, incomprehensible, loonie lefties who were not funny. In the end there was a detente. The alternative comics bought suits, wrote sitcoms and did voice-overs while some of the more sensible older guys recognised that racist material was not on and that the sexist stuff was not always popular with the ladies. Nevertheless the peace is not always easy. Bernard Manning’s act remains anathema to younger comics and some old ones can still be relied on to sneer at the Edinburgh Festival-type act.

Looking back, I think there was a certain Stalinist streak in some of the more strident condemnations. All the owners of the frilly shirts should be taken out and shot, to be replaced by hip young punks in jeans doing material about drugs and social workers.

Three recent events have led me to recall these never forgotten battles, the first being the appearance in my life of a book by Barry Cryer called, Half Price - sorry, Pigs Can Fly. Marvellous old Barry, with whom I shared a wooden bench in Edinburgh last summer. Barry, who has never said anything horrible about anyone except when they really deserved it. Barry, whose book contains more cracking anecdotes per inch than all others. It would be a hard man indeed who would send the great Cryer to a Siberian labour camp, although if it had a bar and a fag machine he would probably be okay.

In truth, no one ever gave Barry a hard time but I was reminded by listening to Desert Island Discs the other week that there were some victims in the comedy wars. Benny Hill, notably, was dropped by the TV people and several others found themselves doing more gigs on cruise ships than they would like. Ms Lawley’s subject on Radio 4 was Jimmy Tarbuck, who revealed how hurt he had been by these attacks. While I cannot recall ever slagging him off publicly, I should nevertheless like to take this opportunity to apologise to the famous Scouser. No doubt he had some material along the way that would look very dodgy now but that was then and even the young Lenny Henry was obliged to do that sort of act. Tarby may like golf and have had an unfortunate relationship with knitwear but he was never in the Bernard Manning school. He was and is a funny man. His Desert Island Discs was a delightful show. As a needless bonus he has an extremely talented daughter who by all accounts is profoundly likeable. Her loyalty to her dad is a testament to both of them.

The third thing that produced this emollient tone was the death of Bob Monkhouse. Here was a comic who once seemed suspicious. He was unctuous, apolitical, insincere and had a chronic need to present game shows. No, no, he was just a man who was very good at his job and worked extremely hard at it. He was also a charmer. In the end the job is only being a comedian.

Mind you, I have been very upset by some of the things young comics have said about me - I hate them. They wear strange clothes and they’re not funny.

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