Tag Archives: dark

Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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Sketch comedy with a weird touch of Roald Dahl living in the Twilight Zone

James Hamilton halfway between the darkness and the light?

The sketch comedy group Casual Violence are staging a ‘best of’ show at the Leicester Square Theatre in November with the title Om Nom Nominous – which is a little odd but then they are a little odd. Especially writer, producer and co-director James Hamilton.

Or not.

Well, OK, he is not weird. But his writing is, which is why he has been nominated the last two years for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

Last year, Casual Violence’s Edinburgh Fringe show was called Choose Death. Not an obvious title for a comedy sketch show. This year’s title was A Kick in the Teeth – the title crops up within the show itself as “All life has to offer is just another kick in the teeth.” Both shows felt like comedy set in The Twilight Zone.

“I thought the show was absolutely brilliant,” I told James Hamilton after seeing A Kick in the Teeth.”

“Oh, thank you,” he said.

“But I had absolutely no idea what the fuck was going on,” I added. “Just like last year.”

“It is a weirder show than last year,” laughed James.

“It is very difficult to describe your shows,” I said. “I tell people to go see them, then they ask me What’s the show like? and I can’t come up with any description which does it justice.”

“We always really struggle trying to come up with a sales pitch to define what the show is,” said James. “Last year was easier. You could say: There’s a serial killer with no arms and there are hit men who are Siamese twins. If you say those sort of things, people laugh. The characters in this year’s show are not as easy to describe in a funny way.”

“The Poppy Man, who you play yourself in A Kick in the Teeth, is very difficult to describe,” I said.

“Not easy to describe in a good way,” agreed James.

The character, who pops up throughout the show, is a strangely evil, threatening seller of Remembrance Day poppies.

“So…?” I prompted.

“The Poppy Man,” suggested James, “is one man’s guilt nightmare for not wearing a Remembrance Day poppy. It’s like a Roald Dahl short story… In fact, I guess the Roald Dahl comparison is probably relevant… In October or November last year, I re-read his Tales of the Unexpected which I hadn’t read since I was a child. I remember reading the stories as a child and that’s where I learnt what taxidermy is… in The Landlady.

“That’s the one where a guy goes to stay in a bed and breakfast and the landlady has had two guests previously and she taxidermied them; you never see them, but it’s implied. It didn’t have a conscious influence on last year’s show, but maybe there was an influence.”

“So maybe you were a psychotic, evil bastard as a kid?” I suggested.

“No!” laughed James. “No I wasn’t! This is the thing. People keep saying to me that they don’t really get why I do the comedy that I do, given that I… One of my best friends said You’re one of the straightest people I know and yet the stuff you come out with is really weird.

“Have your parents got any showbizzy genes?” I asked.

“No,” said James immediately, “Not at all. My dad is an antique silver dealer, which is much less interesting than it sounds.”

“Not in that bizarre vault place?” I asked vaguely.

“Yes! Yes!” said James. “The London Silver Vaults. Yes.”

“I went there for the first time a couple of months ago,” I said, “How weird.”

“Am I going to end up plugging my dad’s business?” James asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Vault 25,” said James.

“He must be white-skinned with large eyes and long white hair,” I said. “Like the Morlocks in The Time Machine. A strange subterranean creature.”

“It’s a really, really weird place,” agreed James. “It looks like a Victorian mental asylum.”

“If you were brought up going down there regularly as a kid,” I said, “it would screw your mind up. You would end up like some evil hobbit.”

“Most people’s shops down there,” said James, “are very layed-out and ornate and glass cabinets. But you walk into my dad’s shop and it’s like a junkyard which I think some people find quite exciting, because it’s like it’s full of mysterious treasures but you’ve got to find them. It’s a challenge.”

“I have a strange feeling I might have gone in there,” I said. “There was a really cluttered one I went into and I had a long chat with the guy in there. He looked normal, though, and he was interesting to talk to. What does your mother do?”

“At the moment,” James said, “she’s doing a bit of antique stuff herself, but really different – antique fairs and that sort of thing. There’s a big antiques interest in the family, but not with me. My mother’s dad also worked in the Silver Vaults.”

“Your siblings?”

“I have a sister who is just a year younger than me and has recently fallen to the antiques trade. My other sister is 14 and wants to be a psychologist. She’s the smart one.”

“You’ve done three shows now,” I said. “Choose Death, A Kick in the Teeth and before that…?”

“The first one was a different format. It was more like a play. A badly-written play. Kate Copstick gave it a one-star review and called it ‘irritating’. Obviously, I feel her review was too harsh, but I also feel the good reviews we got for it were too generous. There are so many things I don’t like about it as a show and it’s the one we don’t talk about.”

“And how do you describe A Kick in the Teeth?” I asked.

“Oh,” said James. “If you like laughing at the misery of other people, you’ll like this. You could describe it as schadenfreude sketch comedy, but that’s not an easy one to lead with. There’s no easy term to describe it.  We had Tales of TragiComedy Sketch Terror on the flyer in Edinburgh, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.”

“What’s the attraction of weirdness?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’m weird!” pleaded James. “I sort of know my stuff is maybe weird, but it doesn’t feel weird to me.”

“Are you afraid that, if you analyse it too much you won’t be able to do it?”

“Maybe,” James said. “At one point, the show was going to be about War; that was going to be the theme. I wrote a full script and it didn’t work, so I chucked 80% of it. The Poppy Man was the only character who stayed. That and the idea of a Battleships game-to-the-death.

“Around Remembrance Day last year, everyone was wearing a poppy and I was joking with my then-girlfriend Remember, remember the 11th of November and just riffing on it and saying there was a lot to remember, because my dad’s birthday’s in November, we had a gig the next week, there’s Remembrance Day, there’s fireworks day…

“Some of the stuff I’ve done before has been much darker and my then-girlfriend was never the kind of person to take offence at it but, for some reason, the Poppy Man thing really touched a nerve with her. I don’t know why, but I found it funny she was reacting in that way. I don’t ever want to do comedy that I couldn’t argue was not offensive.”

“Was not offensive?” I asked.

“I don’t actually want to offend people,” explained James. “If people are offended – fine. It can happen. But I’m not setting out to do that. People could be offended by the Poppy Man, but I don’t feel it is offensive.”

“You must have had interest from TV after the 5-star reviews last year and this year?” I asked.

“Not really, no, “ said James. “I think part of the reason for that is we don’t have PR, we don’t have an agent. It’s basically just myself and another producer trying to make stuff happen and it’s very difficult.”

“Weird,” I said.

“Maybe,” said James.

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Perhaps the true spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe is not dead: comedy, anarchy and loose genitalia over the weekend

The Assembly Hall on The Mound

So, on Saturday, I went to see Australian comic John Robertson’s show The Old Whore, at the Assembly Hall venue on The Mound at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I only saw half of it.

It was a hot, sweaty and humid night and the room high up in Assembly Hall was like a sweat box. So John decided halfway through to take the show and the audience outside into the cool mid-evening air.

His narrative – the show is a fascinating, full-throttle dissection of his very odd family – soon   merged into a fully-fledged outdoor event involving passing pedestrians, rickshaw drivers, people in double decker buses and, with the audience sitting on the pavement, a virtual recreation of the galley sequence from Ben-Hur. Every time a significant number of people was spotted coming up the slope, the audience were under instructions from John to mime as if they were, en masse, rowing an invisible Roman galley on the pavement.

The admirable Assembly staff did not complain; they just came out on the pavement with the audience, donning dayglo safety jackets and made sure passing pedestrians and the traffic were not obstructed. They also laughed a lot and enjoyed John’s seat-of-your-pants show.

Topless entertainment at its best at the Edinburgh Fringe

It ended, suitably, with John taking off his shirt and getting his entire audience to stand up so he could be crowd-surfed with his audience carrying him halfway down the Mound and then addressing them standing on the top of the railings.

When this sort of thing happens, it makes you think maybe the spirit of the Fringe is not dead and the pay-to-enter festival has not been taken over by bland comedy clones only intent on finding TV producers to impress. There was a smell of sought-for anarchy in the air.

I did find it a little suspicious, though, when John told me he had done this once before – on a similarly sweaty night.

Is John Robertson (left) schmoozing me?

“Yeah,” John told me, out of breath after his crowd surf. “It was the night reviewers from The Scotsman and The List were in. They ended up doing a review of the bit where we went outside instead of the show itself and this is a structurally sound narrative. It’s a really carefully-crafted monologue. So it made me a little unhappy they reviewed the going-outside bit. But, when a crowd is having a hard time because of the heat, I will take them outside and do whatever.”

Could he have reckoned there was a greater chance of me writing a blog – and a longer blog – if he went outside again. Who knows? Who cares? When in doubt, go with what makes a good story.

John Robertson in The Dark Room in Edinburgh

John is also performing a separate show, The Dark Room, as part of the Alternative Fringe/Laughing Horse Free Festival at Bob Slayer’s Hive venue. Bob is a wonderful publicist and so is John. So the two together are quite something.

The Dark Room – which I saw yesterday – is basically a video game, which John created, but performed as a live interactive show in Edinburgh. He put the original game on YouTube and, he says, “it went viral in February. Variety and Wired did feature articles on it and Kotaku covered it – they’re a big multi-platform video gaming anime thing.”

John Robertson after his Hive show yesterday

Comedian Brendon Burns has been coming daily to John’s shows at the Hive to play The Dark Room. And, John tells me, “Ron Gilbert, from LucasArts, who created the first two Monkey Island games played it. Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop also came to play – and lost – and that was terrific.

“Here is a man who is responsible for people like me not getting laid in high school because we were indulging in his wonderful imagination, his wonderful flights of fantasy… and he turned up to play my game and lost! And he knew exactly what he was doing; we thought in a faintly similar way, though his games were made to be fun and my game was made to be fun to watch.”

John Robertson may do very well from The Dark Room because, as I say, like Bob Slayer, he knows how to promote and knows how to insert himself into situations which may get him publicity.

Bob Slayer (left) and John Robertson talk seriously (not)

So when, in the Hive bar after yesterday’s Dark Room show, hard-drinking and frequently drunk Bob Slayer ordered only a Coca Cola and I switched my iPhone audio recorder on, John leapt in as Bob’s interrogator and interlocutor – some people will do anything to get mentioned in this blog.

There was much talk of the fact that Bob had ordered a Coca Cola from the bar, but we will join the conversation at the point at which I said: “I enjoyed the wanking Jeff Leach story.”

“I didn’t enjoy wanking off Jeff Leach,” said Bob wearily.

“Yes you did,” said John.

“Jeff Leach was on stage at Espionage,” said Bob. “It’s not for me to assess another comedian’s performance, but the audience all hated him. So he turned his back on them and decided to talk to one man in the booth, off-mike.

“After about five minutes of this, I was sent on to go and pull him off and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did. I misunderstood them.”

“And did the crowd go wild?” asked John.

“Well,” said Bob, “I sold tickets for my show this morning on the back of wanking in a man’s wife’s face last night.”

Bob Slayer gets carried away during his storytelling spree

“In a man’s wife’s face?” I asked. “Don’t forget this is being recorded.”

“Well, she’s coming today,” Bob said with no sense of knowingness.

“Would you like to re-phrase that?” I asked.

“Today she is visiting his show,” suggested John.

“To be more precise,” said Bob. “I was wanking Jeff and Jeff was wanking me. There was a lot of coming and going. Well, there was no going. That was the whole point: he wouldn’t go so I had to make him come.”

“So you began to jerk the jerk?” John asked.

“You know how I won’t back down?” Bob asked me. “Well, we were playing that Who’s going to back down first? game and nobody was backing down.”

“Are we saying through the pants?” asked John.

“No,” said Bob.

“You put your hand in the pants?” asked John.

“No,” said Bob.

“You took him out of the pants?” asked John.

“The pants were down,” said Bob.

“The pants were down,” said John.

“Yes,” said Bob.

“The little Leach in full view?” asked John.

“The little Leach and big Bob.”

“Not too much detail,” I suggested.

“Was there engorging involved?” asked John.

“I don’t think there was any engorging going on,” said Bob. “Certainly not on my part: I’d had a bottle of Jagermeister.”

“So you were wanking this…” started John.

“Pulling a flaccid member,” corrected Bob.

“It didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth?” I asked.

“No,” said Bob, “The man’s wife on the other hand…”

“And, faced with this chunky comedian porn, the crowd responded with…?” asked John.

“They seemed to quite like it,” said Bob. “I wouldn’t say all of them did, but the point is I sold some tickets today off the back of it, so some people liked it, therefore it’s entertainment and it should be done on a regular basis….” Bob paused and thought for a couple of seconds. “I’m never doing it again,” he added.”I’m disgusted with this hand. It’s the one I dislocated as well. We had already fallen out.”

Bob Slayer holds his hand, if not his head, high yesterday

He held his right hand up so I could photograph it. One of his fingers is missing a joint.

“You look like Dave Allen there,” I said. “Jeremy Beadle built an entire career based on this.”

“What?” asked Bob, “Pretending to be Dave Allen?”

“No,” I said, “you know he had…”

“…a shrunken hand,” said Bob. “Yes.”

James Doohan,” said John.

“Who?” I asked.

“Scotty, from Star Trek,” said John.

“Oh?” said Bob.

“Only four digits on one hand,” said John. “One of his fingers was shot off in the War…. And you know Radar from M*A*S*H?”

“Him too?” I asked, incredulous.

“He’s got a deformed left hand,” said John. “He’s always holding a clipboard.”

“Is any of this true?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” said John.

“Mickey Mouse – three fingers,” I said.

“What you’re saying,” said Bob, holding up his hand, “is that people with deformed hands are genii.”

“Genii?” asked John.

“I think genii is the plural of genius,” said Bob.

“I don’t think Mickey Mouse is a genius,” I said. “and I am going to have to transcribe all this.”

“You may regret it,” Bob said.

“We may all regret it,” I said.

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