It’s rare that comedy makes it into the news so the announcement of the winner of the award for the best joke of the Edinburgh Fringe is an annual highlight. The winner this year is Nick Helm for his joke: ”I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”, though I think I actually laughed more at Matt Kirshen’s effort which came in at number 5: “I was playing chess with my friend and he said, ‘Let’s make this interesting’. So we stopped playing chess.”
The political link – if you’re looking for one – is that Nick received his award from the TV channel Dave, allowing the Guardian to wittily declare “It’s official – Dave loves Nick”. They’re a clever bunch, aren’t they?
Last year’s winner was Tim Vine for his one-liner: “I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I’ll tell you what, never again.” which, whilst quite clever, I remember not finding particularly funny – on paper, at least. Again, number 5 was probably the one I found funniest, just for the brilliant and unexpected imagery from Gary Delaney: ”As a kid I was made to walk the plank. We couldn’t afford a dog.”
The wooden spoon for the worst joke of this year’s festival was won – deservedly – by Paul Daniels: “I said to a fella ‘Is there a B&Q in Henley?’ He said ‘No, there’s an H, an E, an N an L and a Y’.”
Being a bit of a comedy buff, the British Comedy Awards is a show that I normally really enjoy. Instead, as I watched it last night, I found myself venting a mixture of irritation and shock at the results. Let me explain. As much as I understand that people’s judgements on comedy are entirely subjective, my humour threshold is so barrel-scrapingly low that it’s rare that I don’t find a comedy funny. It’s even rarer that I don’t find a hugely popular comedy funny. So it was that I was increasingly bewildered by the success enjoyed by Miranda Hart and her sit-com ‘Miranda’ – the show won ‘Best New TV Comedy’, while Hart won ‘Best Female Comedy Actress’ and the ‘People’s Choice Award’.
I’ll make an assumption that everyone’s seen at least a bit of the show, rather than lowering my editorial standards even further [note to self: is that even possible?] by posting clips of the ‘best bits’. I mean, I wouldn’t know what to show anyway, such is the wealth of material. Perhaps I’d show Miranda tripping over something, as apparently happens – hilariously – in nearly every episode. Or maybe I’d show one of her impromptu soliloquies in which she exaggerates her poshness in a kind of squawky voice for brilliant comedic effect. Actually, wait, perhaps I’d show that widely-trailed scene from the last series in which she gets her skirt caught in a car door, resulting in side-splittingly funny consequences.
Yes, I’m being sarcastic, for which I apologise, but rarely has there been a more over-hyped British comedy. Honestly, I’ve laughed more at Matilda – the kids’ film with Danny Devito as a used car salesman – than I have at Miranda. Using poshness, height (Hart is 6’1″, apparently) and social awkwardness to generate laughs is really resorting to some of the lowest common denominators available to a comedian. In fact, if I was a tall woman, I think I’d be mildly offended that the show’s humour is derived not from a clever script (the script is dire) or well-constructed characters, but from – at a basic level – a person who struggles to maintain normal relationships because she’s a couple of inches taller than average. Hart has essentially negatively stereotyped herself for cheap laughs, portraying both herself and her character as bumbling, clumsy and awkward. That in turn means that she gains a kind of sympathy-popularity from viewers. I refuse, for example, to believe that the public voted for her to win the ‘People’s Choice Award’ because they actually thought she was the funniest nominee. She simply wasn’t.
The role of the opening support act at a comedy gig is an interesting one. It’s commonly referred to as the “bullet-taking” spot – the act’s job is to warm the audience up and get them in the mood for full belly-laughs when the main act appears. Often they struggle to get massive laughs themselves – audience members have only just arrived, they’ve maybe battled traffic to get there on time, and they’re still ‘wary’ (for want of a better word) of the strangers they’re sat around.
Sometimes the support act can prove a surprise hit – I remember when I went to see Ricky Gervais last year, he was embarrassingly out-performed by his support act, Stewart Francis. Admittedly, that said as much about Gervais’s performance (average) as it did about Francis’, but much of the talk as we left was centred around how we’d have preferred a couple of hours of Francis and decidedly less of Gervais. The main act had suffered for his support act’s quality.
There was no such risk on Thursday, when I went to see Lee Mack at the BIC in Bournemouth. The performance of Steve Hall, Mack’s support act, was decidedly average. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he was frequently unfunny, in what was a tired, laboured, frankly dull 25-minute set. You know a comedian’s struggling when he has to start explaining his jokes and re-emphasising points that didn’t get laughs the first time round. At one point, when he was getting a minimal and muted response from the audience, he resorted to the lowest common denominator of stand-up comedy – ‘favourite swear words’. He asked the audience, on the count of three, to shout out their favourite profanity. The irony of the response – in which a few neanderthals shouted “C***!!” at the top of their voices – was that it wasn’t certain whether that was actually their favourite swear word, or if they were just saying what they thought of him.
By the time he’d slunk off stage, the audience was crying out for some material that they could actually laugh at. Lee Mack didn’t disappoint. From the minute he burst onto the stage, summoned a lad up from the audience, got him to get in a big box as if to be involved in a magic trick of some sort, and then just had him wheeled into the wings, before explaining he hadn’t liked the look of him, he had the audience in raptures.
The bloke’s a comedy whirlwind and seriously versatile. His observational comedy is arguably as good as Michael McIntyre’s, his deadpan one-liners rival Jimmy Carr’s, his physical comedy is Lee Evans-esque and some of his insult comedy isn’t dissimilar to Frankie Boyle’s (if, perhaps, less incessant). Add to that an incredible stage presence (second only to McIntyre’s) and flawless improvised interaction with the audience, and you’ve got yourself an incredibly talented all-round performer. Anyone who’s ever watched him in ‘Not Going Out’ or ‘Would I Lie to you?’ will know that panel-show and sitcom comedy are also in his repertoire.
It was his interaction with the audience that added brilliance to the performance. His ability to make belly-achingly good gags with the most mundane of material – the tax-man he’d put in the box, the Geordie who’d moved down south to ‘sell paint’, the student who was studying ‘maths’ and refused to expand on any other details of his life, the woman with four oddly-named children – was actually comedic genius in action. That he was then able to tie this new material into later pre-prepared jokes was just hilariously clever.
I’ve been to quite a lot of comedy gigs, but this was the funniest I’ve ever seen – funnier, even, than Michael McIntyre, whose tour was one of the most successful of all time. If you get the chance to see him live, do it. If not, make sure his DVD’s on your Christmas list.
I spent an enjoyable evening at the BIC in Bournemouth yesterday, watching ‘A Question of Sport Live‘. Hosted by Sue Barker, as ever, with the teams made up of Matt Dawson, Alec Stewart and Graeme Le Saux on one side, and Phil Tufnell, Iwan Thomas and Karen Pickering on the other, the show is touring to celebrate 40 years on air.
It was hugely entertaining – great jokes, decent banter, amusing sledging, audience participation and general hilarity. But none of that directly explains why the show has become such an institution. After all, if you want comedy, there are loads of funnier stand-up gigs you could go and see. If you want sport, you’d be much better off going to see some actual live sport. And yet, despite all that, it’s a hugely well-liked programme – its longevity is proof of that – and the tour has proved similarly popular.
As such, I’ve spent much of the day mulling over why I enjoyed it so much. I think it’s comfortable viewing; comforting even. It’s universally popular – the audience ranged from children to pensioners, and they all connected with it to the same degree but perhaps in different ways. I think that, in itself, gives it a nostalgic feel. Certainly, looking back to my childhood, it would be watched religiously when it was on, all the more so when we stayed with my late grandparents, who were huge fans. I remember that my grandfather, a farmer, would stop anything he was doing – no matter how urgent – and come into the farmhouse to watch it, to laugh along with the rest of the family, to shout out the answers if he knew them. Remembering the pandemonium that would ensue if he and my grandmother disagreed on an answer, and the bragging rights that would be earnt if one of them was right, still makes me smile now.
I’m not suggesting that all comedy should be like this. The genre would be quite dull if it was. After all, I’m the first to enjoy the offensiveness of a Frankie Boyle or the daring of a Russell Brand. But at a time when families are becoming increasingly fractured, and TV is increasingly offensive, there’s surely still a place for harmless, wholesome, innocuous entertainment that everyone can enjoy. ‘A Question of Sport’ fulfils just that role.
Forgive me for the continued blogging inactivity. Having waited patiently massively impatiently all week for our new router from TalkTalk, we gave them a call yesterday to see where it had got to. To cut a dull story short, they seem to have forgotten to send it, so we’re still internet-less. Brilliantly, they asked (regarding the broken one) if we’d tried turning it off and turning it on again. My flatmate – whose mood in such situations isn’t much more temperate than mine – nearly gave himself a hernia in response, but it did remind me of one of my favourite comedies…
Anyway, they claim they’re going to send the router out by special delivery (I assume the ‘special’ part of the delivery will involve them actually sending it this time) so proper blogging may resume soon. In the meantime, I’ve ventured into the pub (martyrdom’s tough) to steal the wifi and share my thoughts on Harriet Harman and snooker. See the next couple of posts…