The us and them of comedy

Two books which i read within days of each other have got me thinking about comedy – or about British comedy anyway – and modern Britain in general. One of the books was a biography of the singer-comic-ukelele player George Formby who was once the country’s top box office draw. The other was a book about the work of the mysterious Banksy, graffiti artist cum social commentator of our times.

George Formby was your classic Northern comedian. His comedy was as broad as his Lancashire accent; there was nothing political or sophisticated about it. To me though the most important thing about Formby was that his humour was ‘us’ humour. By that i mean he located himself inside the group he was laughing at. Even when he joked about idiot superiors they were ‘our’ idiot superiors. And most of his fans probably thought he was as simple as his stage persona – certainly he never seems to have gone to any trouble to disabuse them of the notion.

Increasingly though comedy seems to be of the ‘them’ variety. The comedian removes himself from the people he’s mocking, observing them as though through a window rather than from in their midst, and tries to remove himself from the joke too. When he makes himself the joke – for example Ricky Gervais as David Brent – then he is careful to cultivate an off-stage persona which disavows the stupidity of the character he plays. No-one wants to be seen as a Fool anymore.

Why is that? A big part of the reason in my opinion is that no-one feels safe enough. The spirit of our time is cynical rather than sentimental. Some people would say more truthful or more honest but cynicism is  not more truthful: grey-tinted shades distort just as much as rose-tinted glasses. Where before people kept unpalatable truths about dysfunctional marriages and back-street abortions hidden from view and concealed their ‘dark side’, now people fear to be exposed as caring too much, trusting too simply or believing too sincerely.

Banksy’s work is often extremely funny. As i looked at one piece after another though i noticed how often the humour seemed to be used as a tool to protect the artist from being mocked for his convictions. He says something serious with one of his stencils and then immediately inserts something humorous as if to assert “But i’m not being earnest. I’m not one of them.” He makes his point and then exits before he can get caught.

It’s ironic because Banksy, like most modern comedians, considers himself a progressive – meaning he wants to move society forward. Yet few things hamper social action more than this withdrawal from ‘us’.  It’s all their fault and we can’t do anything because they have all the power. But – hey! – at least we can laugh at them.

Inspector McHugh

Three excerpts from my spoof crime novel about an artistic serial killer with a grudge against old Music Hall entertainers. I never finished it but it kept me sane-ish for a while.

Excerpt 1:

The body sat propped up on a chair. Its arms had been arranged around an old banjo-ukelele. The dead man’s mouth was open and behind his rictus grin McHugh could see that the teeth had been struck from the inside, so that they protruded outwards. “Odd,” he said quietly.

“Of course it’s bl**dy odd!”

Ah, the pathologist has arrived thought McHugh to himself. Red-haired and rather red-faced, she had obviously not appreciated being called half way through her gym workout. Dr Wiggins was a fierce, argumentative woman. Some of her police colleagues muttered that the reason she’d gone into pathology was because the dead were the only ones who didn’t annoy her.

“Can’t you see, isn’t it bl**dy obvious”, she stopped and looked at them all in disbelief, “He’s been arranged to look like George bl**dy Formby!”

Except 2:

Just as McHugh was wondering if Wiggins would ever finish ranting the surly expression vanished abruptly from her face. God, not the Super, he groaned inwardly. Separately they were “challenging” – to use a term much beloved by the Superintendent. Together they were McHugh’s personal nightmare. Golfing partners, members of the same Rotary Club and, so it was rumoured, of another rather more interesting club too, they were like two peas in the pod.

“Good morning, Stella.” No-one but Hunter ever addressed the Professor by her forename, at least not at work.

“David, lovely to see you,” she smiled back. “I was just explaining my ideas about this case to your colleague, DI McHugh.”

“We’re always pleased to hear your ideas, Stella. Isn’t that right, DI McHugh?”

McHugh smiled politely. It was as much as he could manage in the circumstances. It seemed to satisfy Superintendent Hunter, if not Professor Wiggins herself. She gave McHugh a look which said that she knew full well he was not at all pleased to hear her ideas. McHugh met her gaze blankly. He waited for the conversation to turn as it always did to golf and then made his excuses.

He had a murderer to catch and he needed to do it soon.

It wouldn’t be long before Evans stuck again.

Excerpt 3:

“Good morning, DI McHugh!” Professor Wiggins’ voice sang out across the morgue. She advanced towards him, sporting a dazzling smile.

And I do mean ‘dazzling’ thought McHugh to himself as one of her assistants tripped over a gurney, apparently ‘blinded by the light’. “A good morning to you too, Professor,” he answered. “Am I right in thinking you’ve been to see the dentist recently?”

“I can see why you ended up a detective.” She never passed up an opportunity to be sarcastic. “They’re rather good, aren’t they, the crowns I mean. Top of the range.” Would they be anything else? “I did consider the stainless steel option – more hygienic for the work I do – but I thought the result might be a little off-putting. For colleagues”, she added as though there was a chance he might think she meant her ‘clientele’.

At that moment Hunter arrived. “Good Lord, Stella!” he exclaimed. “As if you weren’t beautiful enough already.” He was so enraptured it took him a while to notice McHugh was standing next to her. The atmosphere immediately became awkward, which wasn’t surprising given the events of the evening before. It was McHugh who eventually broke the silence.

“How is the wife, sir? She seemed a bit unwell at the Chief Constable’s party.”

Hunter flushed slightly.

“Dolores has always been rather delicate. I’m afraid she was rather under the weather.”

Which is why she ended up under the table. McHugh smiled. “Still, she has a grand voice, sir. I think the Chief Constable himself remarked upon it.”

The flush deepened.

Professor Wiggins had begun to grow restless next to them. Her smile and with it her new crowns had disappeared as soon as the Superintendent’s wife was mentioned. “Shall we get down to some work,” she said petulantly. “I really don’t have all day you know.”

Dedicated to my dear friends D, M and “Evans” who inspired three of the characters. Although let me assure you: D’s real life wife is no lush and there is nothing wrong with M’s teeth.

And, as far as I know, “Evans” isn’t a serial killer.