Comedy without gags but with tragedy

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: man looking for a good laugh

Last October, I got an e-mail from Liam Lonergan saying:

“I’m currently compiling a portfolio of long-form articles re. stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of my dissertation at the University of Portsmouth. I was wondering if I could borrow some of your time to have a little chat with you? I’m a regular reader of your blog and feel, with your background and obvious enthusiasm for the subject, you would be great to talk to!”

Enthusiasm? Me? About anything except chocolate? Is he mad?

Nonetheless, we had a chat and yesterday he sent me a 13,000 word transcript of what we had talked about. Liam is doing a BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing. Here, with his permission, much shortened and tidied-up to mask my incoherence, is an extract:

________________________

Liam: Are you a fan of… I mean, there’s a current vogue for this… Are you a fan of awkward comedy?

John: No. I think the current vogue for awkwardness is a current vogue for people who aren’t very funny and they’re pretending that it’s post-modern and they’re being anti-comics when in fact it’s because they’re not being bleedin’ funny. The original joke when Alternative Comedy started was people went: “Oh, it’s alternative because you don’t laugh”. Unfair at the time, but a lot of modern supposedly post-modern comedy is pseudo-intellectual people who are not actually very funny.

Liam: Would you say you’re more inclined to the tailored jokes and the gagsmiths rather than the…

John: There aren’t really many stand-up comedians nowadays who tell gags. There’s Jimmy Carr and there’s Milton Jones and there’s Tim Vine. Almost any new comic who is doing gag, gag, gag material is copying one of those people. Most of the comedy today is actually storytelling comedy.

I enjoy those three comedians as gagmeisters but I prefer stories. A lot of comedians worry about getting laughs and I say they shouldn’t worry because ‘interesting’ is as good as ‘funny’ and the epitome of that is my good friend Janey Godley who in her entire life, I swear to god, has never told a funny story or told a gag. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. And that works just as well.

Liam: Yeah, I follow her on Twitter. She’s Scottish as well, isn’t she?

Janey Godley’s bestselling autobiography

Janey Godley’s 2005 autobiography

John: Yeah, Scottish. I edited her autobiography which is the most horrendous autobiography you’ve ever read in your life. It’s like Edgar Allen Poe. A nightmare from beginning to end. You think the worst has come and then you turn over the page and there’s something even more horrifying. It’s a phenomenally horrific autobiography. And her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was the comedy version of that, which was Good Godley.

People who never saw the show thought she must be making fun of serious subjects but she wasn’t. She was basically just telling some of the same stories that were in the book but because of the way she… It’s the Frank Carson line “It’s the way you tell ‘em”… and, with her, she tells the stories in such a way that you can laugh. In her case, it’s laughter as a release of tension. There’s a wonderful clip on YouTube. What she does is, it’s the beginning of her show and she tells the audience: “Don’t get freaked out but, when I was five, I was sexually abused by my uncle. Now I don’t want you to all rush the stage and give me a hug. It’s OK, cos I got him killed for my birthday later on.” And the audience laughs…

Liam: (Laughs)

John: That’s not funny.

Liam: No. No.

John: Which is the point. Because she then says, “No, I did,” and they laugh even more. She then says, “That’s not a joke,” and they laugh even more. Then she says, “Got his cock cut off,” and they all laugh even more. So she tells them with a completely straight face four separate times that something horrendous has happened and it’s not remotely funny but they laugh more and more and more and more.

Liam: Is it because, like, an expectation?

John: It’s very difficult. I haven’t quite got my head round it. What it is is Janey’s brilliant performance skills. It’s partly, possibly, that they don’t believe it. The killing bit. And I wouldn’t say whether it’s true or not. It’s not even a release of tension. I don’t know why they laugh. You FEEL why they laugh because you laugh along with them. But it’s simply the way she tells it. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. She could read the telephone directory and make people laugh. She’s brilliant. Possibly the best teller of stories I have ever seen.

But she doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny.

My theory on sitcoms that last the test of time in Britain is that they aren’t comedies. They’re tragedies. So, in America, the best sitcoms are gag, gag, gag, gag written by fifteen people in a room. In Britain the sitcoms which have lasted with the exception of the David Croft ensemble comedies – Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? all those ones – With the exception of those, all the best sitcoms which have lasted have been tragedies.

Liam: Things like Steptoe and Son, where they’re eternally bound to each other but they want to escape each other.

Steptoe and Son - a tragedy

Steptoe and Son, comedy on screen; tragedy if it were real life

John: Yes. I mean, Steptoe is a tragedy because you’ve got two people who are totally trapped in a situation they can’t get out of. Hancock is fascinating because he’s not a sympathetic character. You wouldn’t want to be trapped in a submarine or a lift with him.

And in One Foot In The Grave the central character is (if he were real) actually not a very nice man and it’s a terrible situation where they’re trapped and he’s frustrated by life and there’s one wonderful episode with the two of them just lying in bed in the dark, talking and nothing else happens. The payoff to that episode is it turns out they had a child earlier in their marriage and the child died. And that’s the climax of the comedy show.

There’s also a one hour Christmas special where the car breaks down and he goes off to find help. He’s on his own, goes into this old people’s home and it basically then turns into a Hammer horror film because of the way they’re mistreating the old people.

Liam: I can relate. I work in an old people’s home as well. The pathos and the sort of joke divide is so clear in places like that.

John: It’s a Hammer horror film. It’s not a comedy at all. Extraordinary. So I think most of the best sitcoms in Britain are tragedies and a lot of the best Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows are things like Janey Godley talking about her mother being murdered or Mike Gunn talking about his former heroin addiction.

So ‘serious’ comedy I like.

Awkward comedy, I think, is usually bullshit. But you can do…

Liam: Uncomfortable?

John: Yes, there’s always Lewis Schaffer, who I can watch and enjoy endlessly.

… CONTINUED HERE

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy

One response to “Comedy without gags but with tragedy

  1. Checked out Janey Godley. Brilliant! Thanks for that, renewed faith in Edin. Fest. Scene.

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