Tag Archives: cruelty

UK comedy legend Malcolm Hardee – Irresponsible, thoughtless or malicious?

(This was also published by the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Charming comedian Malcolm Hardee got away with it (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Today is the eighth anniversary of the death by drowning of comedian Malcolm Hardee. His autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake begins:

I was born the first son of Frank and Joan Hardee in the Tuberculosis Ward of Lewisham Hospital in South East London. Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to meet again for nearly two years…

When I was one day old my dad bought me a train set. But I didn’t see it until I was almost two years old. It was a steam train and ran on methylated spirits held in a little container underneath the engine. It was bigger than your normal train set with a big circular track. What you did was set light to the methylated spirits and this started the piston. My dad set it up in the hall. When I first saw the train, he wouldn’t let me play with it. You know what fathers are like. He set it off and it went so fast centrifugal force took the train off the rails and the burning meths set light to the carpet. Nearly burnt the whole house down. A lot of people have said I came off the rails myself later on and my mother wonders if this incident may also account for my early interest in setting fire to things.

Yesterday, I was talking to my friend Louise about Malcolm.

“The way his mother told me,” Louise said, “I’m not sure he actually went into an orphanage. His mother told me his granny brought him up while she was in the TB hospital and, when she came out of hospital and was re-united with him, he was cold to her – his mother. That sounds kinda crucial. The mother figure left him and a small kid will transfer his affections to another person and a lot of mothers can be quite angry with a child who does that, even if they try not to show it. You’re talking about a toddler and that confusion between two people… when you’ve gone and attached yourself emotionally to one and they’re whisked off… It’s the very foundation subconsciously. I wonder if that was why he was damaged. You’re always telling me that a lot of the best comedians are damaged.

“With Malcolm, it could have been an anger at the world, you know, because of the mother that left, the one that came back and was maybe a bit annoyed he was attached to the grandmother. Whatever. There would be an anger in that little kid. Sitting back watching if a car catches fire or if someone trips over and falls.

“That anger develops into Oh – I’ll see how everyone’s going to react to THIS! Malcolm with his We’re going to steer the boat under this water… We’re going to set this car on fire.

“Or cinema,” I said. “He set fire to two cinemas and a Sunday School piano.”

“Desperate to shock other people,” said Louise. “A desperate need for attention. And that can turn into cruelty. You worked with Jonathan Ross early on and told me what a nice person he was. But then there’s the cruelty of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand phoning up Andrew Sachs just to say Brand had fucked his grand-daughter. That’s just plain cruelty. They were having a laugh but it’s not funny and, in a decade’s time, people will look back and think How could anyone ever have thought that was acceptable? These are grown men. Jonathan Ross has a daughter of his own. How can they not be thinking that’s disrespectful and downright vicious to the girl and to the grandfather? The girl and the grandfather are human beings, not just comedy props.”

A wreath at Malcolm Hardee's funeral in 2005

Some of the wreaths at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral in 2005

“But Malcolm wasn’t actually malicious,” I said to Louise, “Steve Bowditch said something at Malcolm’s funeral which I had never thought about. He said that he had never heard Malcolm talk maliciously about anyone behind their back. He didn’t do that bitchy comedian thing of slagging people off behind their backs. Malcolm wasn’t malicious. He was just irresponsible in a general way.”

“But,” said Louise, “almost as a matter of principle, he tried to con people on the money he’d agreed to pay them at his clubs. He didn’t pay people he’d agreed to pay and, to some people, that £50 or £100 he conned them out of might have been crucial. There was that thoughtlessness.”

“Well,” I said, “Aaaaa Bbbbb told me Malcolm tried to pay him less than he’d agreed on three consecutive appearances and thought Oh – It’s just Malcolm at his games again. But Aaaaa Bbbbb was screwed over money in much the same way by another promoter 20 years ago and he is still venomous about that promoter. He doesn’t forgive that promoter for that one occasion, but he does forgive and laugh about the three times with Malcolm because, somehow, he knows there was no malice with Malcolm. It was just some sort of game for him.”

“You told me,” said Louise, “that, when you were writing his autobiography, you’d arrange to meet up and sometimes he wouldn’t be there.”

“Well yes,” I said. “Because I knew he was flakey, I’d phone him late morning and check he would be there when we’d agreed to meet. Then sometimes two hours later, after getting stuck in bad traffic but arriving at the time and place we’d agreed to meet… he would have forgotten and gone off somewhere and I had to find him. Even then, he could sometimes only keep up his concentration for 15 minutes. Once, he was in another county.”

“Why did you not mind that?” asked Louise.

“I knew what he was like,” I said. “It was just Malcolm being irresponsible. He could get away with it. An indefinable charm. Schoolboyish irresponsibility.”

“But,” said Louise, “he did some terrible things.”

Wreaths on the hearse at Malcolm Hardee's funeral

Wreaths on Malcolm’s funeral hearse

“It’s not thinking about consequences,” I said. “If you’re evil, you are fully aware of the consequences, but you still do it. If you’re irresponsible, you don’t calculate the consequences. Malcolm was irresponsible. Although he was consciously irresponsible, which is unusual. He knew he had the charm to get away with it. He was actually quite considerate at heart and, if he’d thought about the consequences of some of the things he did, he wouldn’t have done them, but he simply didn’t think about the consequences. And he never analysed what he did. He just did.”

“There was something about Malcolm,” said Louise, “Something about his personality that was like his son Frank… Frank is a good, upstanding, caring citizen and there’s something about Malcolm that would have been that but for some little… something… Maybe the needy thing of the early separation from his mother. It’s like cooking. If you add or remove one tiny ingredient, it can ruin the taste.”

“And Malcolm did enjoy bad taste,” I said.


Filed under Comedy, Psychology

The cruelty of comedians and how to get laughs from very unfunny situations

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee: ‘godfather of British alternative comedy’ (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Thursday this week is the 8th anniversary of the death by drowning of British comedian Malcolm Hardee a man who, it seems to me, got away with a lot of dubious actions because of his personal charm: people (often including me) simply shrugged, laughed and thought Oh! It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm!

In yesterday’s blog, Malcolm’s sometime neighbour Nick Bernard said: “He could be really quite cruel, but it wasn’t like mean or deliberate. He saw the line of humour and the eventual laugh and he thought: I’ll just go for the humorous line and fuck it!

This got me talking about cruelty in comedy to my friend Louise yesterday.

“In Charlie Chaplin movies,” I said, “they’re forever kicking other people in the bottom. It’s even in Laurel and Hardy movies. And, in Three Stooges movies, they stab two fingers in other people’s eyes. I never understood why that was supposed to be funny. Even as a kid, it seemed to me to be cruelty not comedy.”

“What about slipping on a banana skin and falling over?” asked Louise.

“That can be funny,” I admitted. “But that’s laughing at the unexpected.  Kicking someone’s bottom or stabbing their eyes out is something different.”

“It’s childish,” said Louise. “Being childish can be a good thing: innocent, curious, enjoying simple unexpected things. But it’s not realising consequences which is the downside. Not realising you’re going to cause damage to someone.

“When you talk about some of the things Malcolm did, the only people I know who would be doing those sort of things at the moment – really, genuinely – are three children I know, who are aged 4, 8 and 10. They think Oh! That’s funny! Let’s skid on that! or Oh, I’m going to throw this at that person and they don’t think it might blind the other person.”

“When Malcolm died,” I remembered “his obituary in The Times said Throughout his life, he maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences. That was written, I think, in admiration. Everyone wants to be free like that, to do whatever they want, to have no fear of consequences but, in reality, it’s a negative thing as well, isn’t it?”

“There’s a lot of cruelty in comedy,” said Louise. “People laugh at other people’s pain. On TV, there’s You’ve Been Framed.”

“It used to be funnier,” I said, “when Jeremy Beadle did it, because the clips were longer. You saw the build-up and you laughed at the unexpected pratfall. Now you just see people falling over or being hit with things edited tightly together with no build-up.

“It’s like editing the punchlines of jokes together without any build-up. It’s like saying To get to the other side… Terrible… She went of her own accord.” When you just edit together the bits where people always laugh and cut out the build-up sections where people never laugh, you lose what makes it funny.”

“And sometimes,” said Louise, “people are not laughing because it’s funny but as a nervous relief. A release of anxiety. Sometimes, when people laugh, they cry, because they are releasing tensions.”

“I think it’s all surprise,” I said. “You’re releasing your relief in a laugh. A lot of jokes are based on the fact you think you know what is going to happen and then, at the last moment, something unexpected happens… A pun… Someone slipping on a banana skin… Even observational comedy: there’s some situation you know well but the comedian shows you a sudden unexpected angle you hadn’t thought of… You laugh because you’re suddenly surprised by the unexpected.

“Malcolm,” I mused, “was a wonderful compere but not really a good stand-up comedian. He had about six jokes which he told for 20-odd years. People always said his comedy routine was his life, which is why there are endless stories about him. And, ironically, that’s why his fame may live on longer than more successful stand-up comedians. That and his autobiography.”

“And with all the stories about Malcolm,” Louise suggested, “people often laugh because he did something which you could never credit anyone would actually do. The element of surprise and shock.”

“Well,” I said, “you know my theory that all the best British sitcoms which last (apart from the ensemble ones like Dad’s Army) are actually tragedies – Steptoe & Son, Hancock, One Foot in The Grave. All terrible situations. They’re situation comedies but not, at heart, comic situations. What’s happening to the characters is not funny and they’re not ‘comic characters’ but you laugh with their difficulties. You laugh at the situations but they are not comic in themselves; it’s the way they are presented.”

“And Johnny Vegas when he started,” said Louise. “He would go on about how terrible this-and-that was and what a terrible life he had and, he said, You’ve all just come along to laugh at me!

“You know,” I said, “how I think Janey Godley is brilliant because she doesn’t say funny things, she says things funny. Her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was Good Godley! which was a comic version of her autobiography Handstands in the Dark.

“The book (which I edited) is horrific. It’s like Edgar Alan Poe. It’s terrifying. Just horrific. But she told exactly the same stories on stage in Good Godley! and people were falling about with laughter.

“People who never saw the stage show but read the reviews thought it must be in bad taste because they thought she must be making jokes about rape and murder, but she wasn’t. She was telling the stories straight without comedy, but she was telling them in such a way that the audience were able to release their tension at the end of the stories – and during them – and they did that by laughing.

“People who admire her like me and Stewart Lee have said the same thing – that she doesn’t tell jokes. She tells non-funny stories in a funny way. There’s that YouTube clip from a show which I’ve blogged about before, where she tells the audience she was raped as a child by her uncle but, later, got her uncle killed. The audience laughs. She tells them it’s true. They laugh more. She tells them she got his cock cut off. They laugh even more. The more she tells them it’s true, the more they laugh. But she’s not saying anything that’s funny and, in this case, she’s not even saying it in a funny way. It’s working purely on her personality, her timing  and her ability to ride the laughs. Now that is great comedy. Amazing comedy. Big big laughs. But not funny in itself. It’s the comedian making some unfunny situation into something which gets laughs.”

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour