Letters To A Young Comedian

Monday 20 September 2004, The Stage

When I first started performing there were three TV channels which all came on in the evenings. There was no television after about midnight - breakfast television was a strange creature that only existed in America - and the news was read by an extremely old man in a dinner jacket whose accent was so posh that only the Queen could understand him.

Now, if you have satellite or digital TV there are so many channels that you could probably buy a couple for under 50 quid. There are about a dozen stations that are entirely devoted to showing muscle-bound men sweating on strangely shaped exercise machines. The traditional grumpy complaint is that there are scores of channels and yet there’s nothing to watch - the implication being that back in the Good Old Days every show was a great event.

In fact a cursory flick around with the remote persuades me that there is nearly always a genuinely funny programme showing somewhere on TV if you’ve got more than terrestrial TV. There’s usually a classy American sitcom - a Frasier, a Seinfeld or a Becker. Then you’ll have a choice old British classic like Yes Minister and a choice modern one like The Office.

Last Wednesday, for example, I saw a repeat of the new sitcom Green Wing and was most impressed. Excellent, quirky performances, innovative direction and interesting music, combined with a clever script that felt a bit improvised, made it fresh and funny. Much of the humour derives from the discrepancy between the characters’ high status jobs and their childish, egotistical antics. It has the bonus of being rather sexy.

On at about the same time was Ali G, a character I have always felt ambivalent about. Those early interviews were brilliant but Ali G on his own is less interesting and I can sympathise with the black comics I know who find him offensive. In last night’s show I caught another of Baron Cohen’s creations - the Kazakhstani reporter Borat. This is another edgy character who has already offended the Kazakhstanis. However, in this episode, Baron-Cohen had created a truly shocking piece of satire. He appeared at an American County Music club teaching the locals the Kazakh equivalent of county and western. In the course of this he started a singalong in which the assembled cowboys and girls joined in enthusiastically with a chorus that included the line, “Throw the Jew down the well”. Did they realise what they were singing? If so, were they anti-Semites? And if not were they stupid? Or was it that they had been superbly manipulated by a comic with a powerful point to make about the nature of propaganda?

Propaganda makes me think of Josef Goebels, who in turn reminds me of Roy Chubby Brown, another comic who was to be found on TV that night on the soft porn and cars channel Men and Motors. Brown is technically a very good stand up but his material is so gross and stereotyped that I presume his audience are required to leave their brains in the cloakroom before the gig. I don’t mind that his routines are crass and old-fashioned but I do object to lines like: “I stopped my wife getting beaten up the other day. I counted to ten.” Shame on the audience who laugh at a comedian whose gag relies on him claiming to be a wife-beater.

Any road up, I conclude that the golden age of TV was in fact made of aluminium and that you could, if you wish, spend all your waking hours watching classy old comedies. Perhaps in the end I will. Until then I’m raking in the autumn leaves.

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