Tag Archives: dumbing down

Do jokes cheapen serious subjects?

Laugh oh laugh oh laughYesterday’s blog was a diary piece by comedy critic Kate Copstick, basically about the very tragic plight of child brides in Kenya. At the end, she mentioned (factually) a small kitten she had encountered.

After the blog was posted, there was a comment by ‘Glenda’:


It’s all very worthy and honourable Kate Copstick blogging about the plight of these African woman and drawing our attention to their wretched existence, but the seriousness of this situation is eclipsed by an adolescent remark at the end of the article about a cat’s balls. And unfortunately, the witty remark about a cat’s balls is what registers on the reader’s mind and the serious issue concerning these African women is simply forgotten.


After this, another reader, ‘Sandy Mac’ commented:


In grim situations the use of humour, whichever form it takes, reduces tension and lifts the spirits. At least I’ve always found it to be a good coping strategy. Personally, I didn’t feel that the ending detracted from the seriousness of the article, or in any way diluted the message.


I can see both are valid viewpoints.

In Kenya, Copstick’s view of Glenda’s opinion was:


OK. Fair comment. But it is more of a comment on her that she is so readily distracted. The diaries need light and shade… however it is a fair point. Although I really object to being deemed worthy and honourable.


These apparently opposing opinions on adding light to shade link to Edinburgh Fringe ‘comedy’ shows where often very, very serious subjects are lightened by laughter. Does adding humour to something very serious dumb-down and demean the subject? I would be interested to hear other opinions.

(Note: I may quote and credit any comments)

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Why “Peep Show” led one American in Los Angeles to love British comedy

The current image on Naomi’s Twitter page

The current public  image displayed on Naomi’s Twitter page

I have had a Twitter account – @thejohnfleming – since March 2009 but, honestly, I have never got the hang of it. Nonetheless, people follow me – only 2,026 at the moment, but every little helps.

Naomi Rohatyn started to follow me last week. Her profile says: “Wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in LA. Aspiring to become wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in London.”

I thought this was fairly interesting as most comedy writers in London seem to aspire to be writers in Los Angeles.

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

But just as interesting was the fact she runs a Tumblr website called Pun Dumpster.

It is just a series of pictures of PhotoShopped graffiti on large waste containers.

So, obviously, I FaceTimed her in Los Angeles this morning.

“You like British comedy?” I asked.

Naomi via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

Naomi spoke via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

“I think the real obsession for me,” she explained, “started a couple of years ago with Peep Show. I think people of my generation in America grew up watching Monty Python… AbFab was on in the 1990s and even The Young Ones played here I think on Comedy Central in the 1990s.

“A couple of years ago I was just tootling around on Hulu and found Peep Show and now I’m obssesed. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it. So then I became obsessed by everything David Mitchell and Robert Webb did and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have ever done and followed the threads. I could follow David Mitchell round all day and listen to his brilliance.”

“You know he’s taken now?” I asked. “He married Victoria Coren.”

“Yes. I hadn’t really been aware of her before. The only panel shows I’d watched were a fair amount of QI because, of course, Stephen Fry is brilliant, but then I sought out Victoria Coren’s panel show and she’s very funny and witty and… this is so embarrassing… I wanna pretend I have fine taste, but.. I was watching 8 Out of 10 Cats and she had this great riff on Goldfinger. David Mitchell and Victoria Coren are perfect for each other.”

There is a clip of Peep Show on YouTube.

“Where do you see all this stuff?” I asked. “On PBS?”

“All on my computer,” said Naomi. “On YouTube or Hulu or Netflix. All the panel shows have been on YouTube.”

“Have you got BBC America?” I asked.

“I don’t have cable. I just watch everything online.”

“Why UK stuff?” I asked.

“Part of why I love British comedy so much,” explained Naomi, “is what I perceive as bleakness in the British soul; a way of looking at the world with a knowing smirk. So much of British comedy starts from the premise that life is basically a series of humiliations and disappointments – whereas American humour is perhaps still uplifting at its core – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just doesn’t have the same gaping ennui, which is something I just love about British comedy.

Naomi Rohatyn

Naomi insists Americans hold no sole patent on stupidity

“I think we do political satire and social satire really well, but there’s still something missing – a different approach to the human experience. In scripted shows, we still tend to default to things that are ultimately uplifting or protagonists that are either utterly likeable or a a clear anti-hero – they’re not just flawed fuck-ups.

“There is also that stereotype – for a good reason – that British humour is wittier and more intelligent than some American stuff. That has a foundation in truth, though it’s not because Americans hold the sole patent on stupidity and ignorance. But I do think there’s a strange cultural rejection here for anything perceived as intellectual.

“Even if you look at something like (the British TV show) The Thick of It and (its US re-make) Veep. I feel Veep is smooth peanut butter as opposed to the chunky original.”

There is a BBC trailer for The Thick of It on YouTube.

“We do have this weird proto-populist rejection of anything that is too intelligent. In The Big Bang Theory – even though they’re supposed to be super-intelligent – it’s low-brow humour.

“When I watch Peep Show it is so grim and vérité, but then they make allusions to Stalingrad and I feel that would come off as somehow so elitist here or people simply wouldn’t get the references. It’s not part of discourse here except in academia. And there’s not such a culture of self-deprecation here as there is in Britain.”

“You’re a writer or stand-up or both?” I asked.

“I would say 90% writer and 10% performer. What I mostly am is a dork.”

“And you write for…?” I asked.

“Yeaahhh…” said Naomi. “We are still working on that.”

“What did you study at college?” I asked.

“Critical Social Thought,” replied Naomi. “Probably the subject least applicable to any actual career. It was the liberaliest arts degree one could get. Our joke was it made you even less employable than an English Major.

Naomi Rohatyn_selfie2

When she moved to LA, Naomi worked on the devil’s testicles

“When I first moved to Los Angeles (from San Diego) I started at the very bottom rung of the entertainment industry, production assisting on many horrible TV reality shows which are woven of the devil’s testicles. I did a lot of random crewing – art department, sound department, post production stuff. Then the 14-hour days started getting to me and I wasn’t writing enough, so I took a day job at a law school for a couple of years and I’ve gone in a straight downward trajectory and now I walk dogs for cash in hand to support my writing habit.

“I feel like now I have goodish contacts here in LA: a lot of friends many of whom do have representation and are legitimate, functioning, employable human beings.”

“What are you writing at the moment?” I asked.

“I’m working on a satirical travel book. A satirical guide to Britain for American travellers. All utterly worthless information – a satire on those Rough Guides.”

“Have far back does your British comedy knowledge go?” I asked. “Do you know British acts like Morecambe and Wise?”

“Yes. This was why Peep Show was such a great gateway drug because it got me into the history of the double act. That’s something we don’t have as much of.”

“Off the top of my head,” I said, “I have to think back to Burns & Allen.”

There is a clip of George Burns and Gracie Allen on YouTube.

“We had Nichols & May,” said Naomi.

“But, in the UK,” I said, “they were not really known as a double act. They were a film director and a writer and, in fact, sadly, Elaine May was not much known here.”

“That’s too bad,” said Naomi.

“Indeed it is,” I said.

“There’s Key & Peele today,” said Naomi, “but double acts seem more of a tradition in British comedy.”

There is a clip of Key & Peele on YouTube.

“I suppose there is a British tradition,” I said. “Reeves & Mortimer, Little & Large, Cannon & Ball… Do you know Tommy Cooper who, in Britain, is really the comedians’ comedian?”

“I don’t know him.”

“You wouldn’t want to live in Britain, though,” I said. “Living in Los Angeles has some advantages. For example, there is sunshine.”

“It is wasted on me,” said Naomi. “I don’t care about the weather, I don’t care about the beach. I can’t swim very well, I don’t surf, I don’t need sunshine. To me, rainy, cold, foggy miserable, dark, damp, grey Britain is perfect because it gives me an excuse to hate everyone and be in a coffee shop writing.”

“You should move to Glasgow,” I said. “You will love the weather and the fact you hate humanity will be much appreciated. If you go round being aggressive, you will fit in perfectly. In fact, if you like bleakness in the British soul… I think Scottish humour is much more dark and dour and straight-faced than English humour – Scotch & Wry or Rikki Fulton or Rab C.Nesbitt.”

“I’ve seen Frankie Boyle on the panel shows,” said Naomi, “but most of my concept of Scottish comedy – or Scottish life in general – is English comedians slagging it off – drug addicts and reprobates and fried Mars bars.”

“That is not comedy,” I said. “That is social realism and reportage.”

There is a clip from Rab C.Nesbitt on YouTube.

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The black man fails to show up but the god-like comic Simon Munnery shines

Last night, comedy club Pull The Other One’s second monthly show in Herne Hill was packed, so word-of-mouth must have spread about last month’s bizarre events which I blogged about here.

During last month’s show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and a doctor’s stethoscope round his neck sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage occasionally re-arranging half-glimpsed works of art on the surface in front of him. In any other show, he would have been a disruptive distraction but, given Pull The Other One’s unique mix of surreality, alternative variety and downright bizarreness, he actually fitted right in with the show. It turned it into a two-ring circus.

I went to the Half Moon venue in Herne Hill again last night half-hoping the black man and his half-glimpsed mysterious works of art would make a comeback. Alas he wasn’t there. But Charmian Hughes, who had been one of four comperes last month and was one of three comperes last night  (look – it works, it adds to the oddness, so don’t ask) told me:

“That man with the stethoscope gave me a picture of a face which is half pharaoh and half enslaved black man. It’s actually really effective and I’ve hung it up. The title is Was my ancestor illegally detained?’’

Charmian had done a sand dance during last month’s show (again, don’t ask).

“He must,” Charmian continued, “have found it quite a strange coincidence that he went to a show on his night off from Egyptology or whatever he’s into and someone started talking about Egypt and the pharaohs and did a sand dance on stage.”

“Well,” I thought, “It wasn’t just him who found it strange.”

Last night, in an unusual move for Pull The Other One, they actually had three straight(-ish) stand-up comics in among real magic from David Don’t, Sam Fletcher’s fake magic, Charmian’s explanation of the Abelard & Heloise story using pandas, Holly Burn’s… well… indescribably odd performances… and the equally odd Nick Sun’s audience-baiting.

Towards the end of his set, Nick Sun persuaded the audience to show their appreciation (and they were very enthusiastically appreciative of his odd act throughout) to boo him and heckle him and he refused to leave the stage except in silence. He took any clapping as inappropriate and refused to leave except to complete silence. A good bit of memorable schtick.

The three stand-ups included the extremely good Maureen Younger, who shamed me. I was then and still am ashamed because I had never seen her perform before and I am amazed I had not seen someone that good. An absolutely top-notch and clearly highly experienced professional. My only excuse is that she seems to have worked abroad a lot. And that’s not much of an excuse. Woe is me. The shame. The shame.

Steve Jameson’s Borscht Belt character act Sol Bernstein – much admired by many – leaves me a bit cold because I have some general problem with watching live character comedy, which brings me on to Simon Munnery, who is on stunningly good form at the moment.

He was introduced as “a legend” which he certainly is, even though his existence is not in question and has been independently authenticated. He has always been extremely good but I have now seen him twice in two weeks and I am very surprised.

It’s rare for a comic to keep getting better. After a lot of experience, a good comic usually reaches a plateau of excellence. You don’t expect him or her to get better and he or she doesn’t have to. They have reached a plateau of excellence. Simon Munnery reached that plateau ages ago but now seems to be getting even better. It’s not that he wasn’t excellent before, but he is even better now.

As I said, I have a blank and difficult-to-explain spot about character comedy and I was never much impressed (though everyone else was) with Simon’s very early character Alan Parker: Urban Warrior.

I’ve always liked Simon as a person but it wasn’t until I saw Cluub Zarathustra at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 that I really started to appreciate his act. I thought the subsequent 2001 TV series Attention Scum! slightly watered-down the amazingly admirable nastiness of Cluub Zarathustra.

Simon’s original character which was OTT with audience-despising Nietzschean superiority and contempt for the audience in Cluub Zarathustra had (it seemed to me) been watered-down into the less-though-still-effective League Against Tedium.

The Attention Scum! TV series (directed by Stewart Lee) was highly original and, legend has it, much disliked by BBC TV executives until it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001, at which point they had to feign enthusiastic support despite having already decided not to produce a second series.

Perhaps it was too interesting for them.

Simon’s League Against Tedium and Buckethead character shows were always interesting but sometimes variable – you can see that a man with an orange bucket over his head spouting poetry might partially alienate a more mainstream audience.

I think the less Simon hid behind a character and the more he started to perform as himself (well, as much as any comic does) the better and better and better he became.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the Random House anthology of original writing which Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited to which 19 stand-up comedians contributed short pieces. (Now newly available for download in Apple iBooks for iPad and in a Kindle edition.)

Simon at first submitted Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind – basically a print version of his 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show which I thought was fascinating. It took me aback that the printed version was even better than the performed version. I think I had seen the hour-long show twice yet, when I read it on the page, I realised I had missed some of the verbal and mental cleverness.

He eventually supplied The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, a wonderfully original story. When I read it, it was one of only three times in my life that I have ever laughed out loud while reading a piece of writing (the other two occasions were both Terry Southern books – Blue Movie and one tiny section of The Magic Christian)

Simon wrote The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes after the publishers of Sit-Down Comedy thought Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind was too complicatedly experimental. Well, I think they thought it was too original and too intellectual; that’s often a problem with publishers.

And it has always been Simon’s semi-problem. Arguably too clever. Too original.

Until now, quite a lot of his acts – with sections often tending towards performance art – have been slightly hit-and-miss and I think sometimes too dense with intellectual, mental and linguistic cleverness to fully succeed with an only-half-paying-attention mainstream comedy audience. That’s not a criticism of audiences as dim; but sometimes audiences who had not seen Simon perform before were not expecting what they got. You had to pay very close attention.

Last night, there was a gag involving Sisyphus and Icarus which was wonderfully explained, became part of a cluster of linked, overlapping gags and even managed to bring in modern-day, up-to-the-minute economics.

Simon used to be intellectual and much-loved by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington – and he still is. But now he seems to have pulled off the neat trick of losing none of his intellectual content but performing a highly intelligent act which is populist and maintains a uniformity of laughter-making for all audiences.

In other words, he’s bloody funny from beginning to end and has an astonishing act of overlapping, densely-packed gags and observations which in no way dumbs down yet is totally accessible to a mainstream audience.

How he has done it I don’t know, but he has.

I once tried to persuade Simon that we should follow in L.Ron Hubbard’s footsteps and write a book about philosophy which many in the UK would see as a joke but which many in California might read without irony and blindly believe in as a new religion. That way, we could make money now, have a laugh and statues of him might be worshipped in 2,000 years as a God-like figure.

He wasn’t impressed.

Maybe because today many already worship him as a godlike figure in British comedy.

Quite right too.

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