Stephen Fry discusses a broad difference between British and American comedy.
Stephen Fry discusses a broad difference between British and American comedy.
On Friday afternoon I got a text from Karen, a family friend, commonly know to my fiancé and I as our Fairy Godmother. She was offering tickets to see Gyles Brandreth’s show Looking For Happiness at the Leicester Square Theatre. I accepted, because I’m not the sort of person to turn down free tickets to any sort of theatre, but it certainly wasn’t something I would have booked myself, and I didn’t really expect to enjoy it. I had heard Brandreth on Radio 4 many times, and he always came across as a privileged, snooty, Conservative caricature. I was prepared for disappoint, but as soon as I walked into the seedy cosiness that is the Leicester Square Theatre, I was filled with a great joy. LST is quite possibly, the most perfect venue for this style of show. It’s intimate, yet capacious, with a low ceiling that confuses my perception of space. It’s wonderful venue, with posters of comedy greats lining the walls, such as Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers. The venue made me open to the possibility that this might be a great show, but Brandrath made it happen. Appearing in a jester’s outfit, he paraded around the stage with joy and self-awareness, dispelling any impression I had of him being pompous or aloof. The show itself was well structured, consistent, poignant and very funny in places. Is it stand-up comedy? I was lucky enough to get a few moments with Himself after the show, and asked him how he would categorise it. He was charming, but evasive: he refused to place it in a category. I think I’m happy to call it stand-up theatre – it was one man, speaking directly to the audience, making them laugh on a regular basis, but also featured coherent progression, moments of sadness and an overall purpose. ‘Stand-up theatre’ seems like a very accurate phrase to use, but Karen wasn’t terribly impressed.
“Why to you have to categorise everything, Tory? Why should it fit in a box?!”
She’s right, of course, but at the end of the day, I am an academic.
This week, I have been thinking a lot about how the comedian can convince the audience that they have Permission to Laugh* at jokes about a negative experience that they have not had, i.e. sexual discrimination, racism, disability, whilst remaining empathetic to those who have. Some subjects are so difficult to talk about that it can help to distance ourselves from them by using comedy, but that can, of course, be divisive. In this instance, Conrad Koch distances himself from the words he’d like to say by using a puppet to speak for him. If we put the controversial nature of having a live, white man choose the words of a black man-puppet to one side, we can see that this is a very interesting device – one I hadn’t considered – that allows the comedian to say more provocative things that the audience might not have accepted without the buffer. Don’t blame me, blame the puppet!
*come to my show!
“I did a nude calendar for charity. Childline were livid.”
Jimmy Carr: Being Funny, 2011
That was Jimmy Carr, there, showing us how to make jokes related to paedophilia without seeming like a jerk. Or a paedophile!
This is the transcript of a joke that appears at 1hr 18min 20sec of ‘Jim Davidson: On The Offensive’. The show was filmed in front of a squaddie audience and the DVD is an 18, so nobody can say they weren’t warned. Having said that, I was genuinely shocked by this joke. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse written down, and you certainly lose something in not seeing Davidson’s performance, but it remains starkly obvious, whether written or performed, that Davidson is relishing the sexual aspect of this story. I felt a bit sick transcribing it, but as a ladywoman that works with girls of this age, maybe I’m overly sensitive to this type of thing. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been sexually assaulted a number of times either (although not as a child, thank God). It perplexes and frustrates me that plenty of people (i.e. the audience that the show was performed for) found this very funny. Questions that I’m currently pondering include:
1) Does this joke cause actual harm? Does the sexual and willing manner in which the girl is portrayed by Davidson lead to the assumption that girls that age are ‘up for it’?
2) Does Davidson feel uneasy about the joke? He makes two ‘apologies’ for it, at the beginning admitting that might lead to him getting punched in the face, and halfway through when he asks the audience if they want him to keep going. In doing this, is he effectively asking permission to tell the joke, and would it have been successful if he hadn’t done this? I think it would have been, but that Davidson wanted the ‘backup’.
3) Why does the joke go on so long, and in so much detail?! I feel that the punchline could be achieved earlier, with less indulgence in the painstaking seduction of the girl. Is that an aspect that Davidson enjoys? Does his audience?
4) A small, niggly point, perhaps, but why does he start the joke with ‘Women. Ok’ as if he’s now telling us ‘what women are like’?!
Ok, enough analysis. I seem to have made up my mind (although I’m prepared to be challenged), now see what you think.
Jim Davidson, On The Offensive, 2008
Women. Ok. There’s this young lady being interview by a policeman ’cause she’s been molested by a fucking dangler. She’s beautiful. She’s about 14. You can make her as young as you fucking want in this joke. It all depends if you wanna be punched. It’s good if you do this joke at a dinner party where there’s nice posh people and you see ’em doing that (makes sour face) But you know you get army head on. And you know policemen, they speak…”So tell us in your own words, uh, Doreen, what happened?” She said, “Well, you know, I’m 14.” 15, whatever. Eight. (laughter) “It was a hot day and I was standing at the bus stop on the way back from school, and I wore my mummy’s high heels and white socks that day, and I looked rather good in my pleated short grey skirt.” He’s fucking dripping here already! Laughter “Suddenly a man pulled up in a car and he said, ‘Would you like a lift?’ My Mum told me never to speak to strangers, but he looked so nice, I said, ‘I don’t think I could.’ He said, ‘There’s some puppies on the back seat if you’d like to see them.’ I stuck my head in and there were lovely puppies. And I thought, ‘Any man who’s got puppies must be a nice man,’ and so I said, ‘Well…’ He said, ‘Would you like to come back home and see the mummy dog with the rest of the puppies?’ I thought, lovely.” Do you want me to stop or keep going? (AUDIENCE: Keep going!’ Cheers) “So I got in his car and I sat there on his leather seats, and I noticed him looking at my legs. No one’s looked at me as a woman before. So I let my bottom slide down and my skirt go up, and I saw his eyes glisten. I thought, ‘I’m a woman at last.’ And he said, ‘You’re a very beautiful young lady.’ No one’s ever called me a young lady before. And when I got to his house, the mummy dog jumped up and all her dirty paws were on my blouse. I thought, ‘My mum and dad’ll kill me.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. If you take it off, I will wash it for you.’ So he took the thing off, and I was stood there and I only had my little vest on. I don’t wear a bra but I’ve noticed my breast are getting big and sometimes my nipples poke out and it become obvious that I’m a bit cold. He brought me in a glass of champagne. I’ve never drunk champagne before. He said, ‘Would you like a drink?’ I couldn’t help myself pulling my skirt up a bit and opening my legs to let him see my quite warm and now moist white panties. I drank the champagne and I passed out and I can’t remember anything else.” The policeman said, “Well, can’t you just fucking make something up?!” Davidson mimes wanking action, laughter, applause.
The Guardian’s review of Russell Howard’s current show has caused a minor stir in the comedy community (ok, in one group on Facebook that I’m a member of). The reviewer’s main criticism seems to be that although Howard is funny, and from what I can tell, consistently so, he doesn’t have any agenda to speak of, no main purpose to tie the two-hour show together. This has surprised me somewhat. The style of comedy that I enjoy the most is what I call ‘Stand-up Theatre’, i.e., something that is much closer to a scripted show that progresses towards a conclusion than a front-cloth comedian telling a string of jokes. I love the purpose and intent of Mark Thomas, who crafts stand-up shows almost as a side-quest to publicise his life-changing campaign work, or Bridget Christie’s agenda-driven comedy. Stewart Lee’s meta-analysis of comedy is not quite as noble, perhaps, but incredibly clever and thought-provoking. Do we now require more of our big-name comedians than just ‘being funny’? I think so. It’s easy enough to make people laugh, but these days, it can be hard to make them think. If we’ve got their attention, Russell, why not make good use of it?
“Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it.”
Gran, convinced that Chablis cures cancer.
Gosh, what a terrible academic I am! I spend my time writing about and laughing at the most horrible, scary and depressing things in life, extolling the virtues of joining tragedy and comedy together, and then *POOF* something unbearably tragic happens and I lose all interest in comedy.
Yes, it seems that my Gran’s illness and inevitable death caused an emergency shut down of my funnybone. Not to worry though, her timing was GREAT seeing as I have a show coming up and was short on material – thanks, Gran! This is going to be a challenge, I’m not going to lie. A 40 minute comedy show about tragedy, two months after Granny Zlata shuffled off her mortal coil. With Mum watching. Folks, this is not a show you’re going to want to miss!