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Comedians using their fans for co-ordinated, safety-in-numbers bullying

This tweet was made - and quickly deleted - just as I was finishing proof-reading this blog.  Whether or not it's in reference to the current MissSpidey controversy, I don't know.  it certainly strikes me as being insensitive, unfunny and inappropriate, though.This is going to be a long, involved blog, and I make no apologies for that. I will detail occurrences of co-ordinated, safety-in-numbers bullying which were presided over by three different celebrities: Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais and Noel Fielding. They’ve used their combined follower count of just under 6 million to bully people – Gervais in particular does so repeatedly – and I’m sick of the fact that they’re not called to account for it. You will have heard plenty about “trolls and haters” in the wider media, but very little about celebrities endorsing and directing this behaviour. I’ve included extensive source material so you can make up your own mind about these witch-hunts, and the sometimes sly way they are tacitly endorsed through selective retweeting. TRIGGER WARNING: Please be warned that the final tale of bullying gets very upsetting.

“Teach the horrible snob a lesson”

Comedy can be vicious. It often seeks to illuminate a ridiculous state of affairs through mockery, and I find this to be an effective way of opening people up to new ways of thinking. Laughter makes us drop our guard, and previously entrenched positions can end up deserted as a result. Comedy can also be about control, and approval. Think of stand-up comics, who attempt to cajole large groups of strangers into laughing. Stand-up comedy often becomes adversarial, as pissed-up punters attempt to heckle the on-stage comic, hoping to stump him and secure the limelight, however fleetingly, for themselves.

Competent stand-up comedians skewer such interruptions immediately, of course, and the audience relishes the interaction, valuing what seems like spontaneous, cutting witticisms, which are in fact often pre-scripted adlibs. Heckling can often spoil the flow of comedy, particularly if it’s a more narrative-driven, story-based affair which is reliant on creating, sustaining and then puncturing a dynamic. Again, though, most comics can work around this with an impressive amount of skill. Heckling is, for better or worse, part and parcel of the world of stand-up comedy.

Whether comedians like it or not, critics are also an integral part of comedy, and of art in a wider sense. Critics – when they actually know their stuff, have a passion for the art-form they’re commenting on, and aren’t Sam Wollaston – can place art in a wider context for the reader.

Sadly, some comedians can’t take criticism on the chin, and while it’s obviously disheartening to see a negative reaction to something you’ve poured your heart and soul into, not everyone is going to like it. Nor should they – the best art is divisive, and seeks to challenge an audience.

It’s still surprising, however, to note just how thin-skinned some comedians actually are. I’d argue that this is perhaps true of most artists – I like to believe it’s their sensitivity that affords them insights the rest of us couldn’t possibly hope to make.

The internet, and the prominence of social networking in recent years, has awakened the critic in us all. Twitter seems to be perpetually fuelled by “live-tweeting”, where people forego the act of actually fully immersing themselves in whatever they’re experiencing, so they can make snarky real-time comments about Charlie Brooker’s hairstyle. It’s an addictive process, and one which I try to refrain from, as it seems akin to going to a live event, then missing most of it because you’re focussed on trying to record it for later. “I have become simply a stand for my phone” to quote Limmy or, as Fran Lebowitz put it, “If you’re on your phone, you are not where you are.”

A more unpleasant side-effect of the instantaneous nature of internet communication is that many people feel they can take their disgruntlement directly to the source. Being a public figure on the internet means having to deal with a barrage of abuse, which has been covered on this blog before, in my podcast interviews with Jonnie Marbles and Charlie Brooker. It’s unpleasant and unnecessary, but people quickly become emboldened by the deindividuation that occurs when their identities are withheld, given that there’s no chance of getting a punch in the hooter. Stewart Lee’s current show, Carpet Remnant World, involves a whittled down list of the most frothingly insane online critiques he could find on internet messageboards and social networking sites. The “40,000 words of hate” can be viewed on his website. They frequently seem unhinged, over-the-top and staggering in their lack of compassion and humanity – but such is the way with internet communication. People vying for attention on a crowded medium quickly escalate the ferocity of their vitriol so their opinions stand out.

These comments, though, weren’t addressed directly to Stewart Lee – nor could they be, as the mumbling Midlands luddite famously eschews social networking. He had to go and seek out each criticism, ultimately laughing them off, and using the concentrated outpouring of bile in a creative way.

Noel Fielding has a history of dealing with internet criticism in a far less gracious manner. Back in April, Waldemar Januszczak, art critic for The Sunday Times, took exception to Fielding being chosen to interview Damien Hirst for a Channel 4 programme. His tweets make a case for this being emblematic of a dumbing down of arts programming, and there seems to be a certain amount of snobbery towards the art-form of comedy – “Aren’t there enough comedy shows on TV already without Channel 4 sending Noel Fielding to review Damien Hirst?”

Januszczak made a handful of these comments, but at no point contacted Fielding directly – he was doing the polite thing of effectively talking about someone behind their back. Fielding, however, heard about the comments – or more likely found them for himself by doing a vanity search on his name, given that he is Noel Fielding – and decided, like Januszczak, not to make direct contact. Instead he engaged in a form of safety-in-numbers bullying that cast fans and followers in the guise of a personal army, mobilised to defend the fragile ego of a lazy, uninspired narcissist.

“Almost feel sorry for him. Almost.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, and I’ve previously written about Ricky Gervais’ penchant for the same sort of coordinated bullying. Similarly thin-skinned, Gervais, while still new to the social networking site, quickly found that he could point his fans to negative reviews, and then pat these obedient, bile-spitting dogs on the head afterwards for fighting his battles. Some of you, I know, will say ‘but he never actually asked them to do anything’, and you’ll say the same thing when we get back to what Noel Fielding has been up to lately, towards the end of this blog. You have to decide what the reasons are for Gervais and Fielding posting these things – whether they know what the result will be – and then think about the approval explicitly given out afterwards.

Anyway, it’s all utterly repellent. Twitter has closed the gap between fans and the object of their fandom, changing the dynamic completely. Artists now make themselves available to their fan-base, and there’s no doubt that many of them simply enjoy the interaction for what it is, and are addicted to the site itself, but the bottom line is the bottom line. Artists can now more effectively market themselves, turning fans into compliant street-teamers. Plus, if they have a huge userbase, like [redacted], they can make a lot of money by “enthusiastically” endorsing products.

Certain types of fans will go out of their way to garner the attention of their idols on Twitter. It’s always been one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the site, for me, as I prefer there to be an air of mystery surrounding artists and celebrities. Thinking you’re on friendly terms with an artist is also frequently harmful to a direct and unfettered analysis of their art, which is of great concern to me. Try typing “can I have an RT” into Twitter’s search engine, to observe the never-ending desperation for celebrity affirmation.

Comedians like Noel Fielding, Ricky Gervais and Doug Stanhope prey on this shallow neediness in calculating, unpleasant and cynical ways. Fielding has 340,000 followers, currently, and as mentioned, he took great delight in sending them to attack Januszczak. Let’s have a look at that – read from the bottom up:

Fielding letting loose his pretties

What’s particularly sinister about the way in which he went about it, is that he made it all seem like a jolly rum old cuddly bit of fun, rather than what it was – a co-ordinated bullying campaign. It’s absolutely unacceptable for comedians to hide behind their followers in this manner – Fielding is endorsing and legitimising saftey-in-numbers bullying and, frankly, there’s more than enough of that on the net as it is. Around the time this happened, a BBC3 programme, hosted by Richard Bacon, did an excellent job in exploring the abusive world of internet bullying, but it’s important to stress that celebrities aren’t always the targets – sometimes they’re the ringmasters.

You’d be forgiven for not realising that fact, because very few people bother to comment on it. Yes, we’ve read endless tweets, tumblrs and blogs by Twitter policeman Graham Linehan, banging on and on and on about how much abuse celebrities have to take as a by-product of using the site. I sympathise with them – producing art for public consumption shouldn’t necessitate having people lining up to tell you, with often quite abusive and salty language, just how irredeemably awful it and you are. We’re still negotiating new ways of communicating, on this emergent platform, and many, many people simply and thoughtlessly figure it follows that if you can give your opinion directly to someone involved, then you should. For goodness sake, though, try and be polite and constructive about it. Always.

There is a side-issue here, it should be pointed out, where it now seems that many celebrities – like afore-mentioned Twitter policeman Graham Linehan – simply place themselves above any kind of criticism. This accounts for the devaluing of the term “troll” in the wider media – the phrase was originally coined to refer to people who post inflammatory messages in order to sidetrack discussion, and generate negative attention. Now, it frequently seems to mean “anyone with the chutzpah to publicly disagree with a celebrity or media figure.” Yes, that’s a video where Guy Walters bemoans the lack of quality debate online, yet can clearly be seen engaging in the same level of discourse in his Torygraph blog. He finds it annoying that his blog got him called “an aggrandising pillock”, yet we can see that it is in response to him calling Assange a “big, self-aggrandising pillock.” Then he says that he gets called a moron, before calling “trolls” a “tide of morons.” Finally, he says that people are nasty on the internet primarily because they’re anonymous, and then he details how – thanks to social networking itself – we’re less anonymous than ever before. To the extent that he’s able to get one of his critics on the phone. Above the line, you’re a journalist – below the line, you’re a troll or hater. That’s largely how it is now, unfairly so.

“So who are these people… it seems to me their only role in life is to annoy people, and lower the tone of debate” cut to: James Dellingpole…

“Can y’all flame this dick-twitch.”

Let’s recap. We have identified what we all know, and take for granted on the internet – that people can be hateful. We’re more concerned in this blog, though, about that hatred being orchestrated and focused by celebrities. Let’s continue to look at that with a few more examples – one of which, I warn you again now, gets pretty fucking dark.

My opinion is that any comedian worth their salt should be able to defend themselves, using wit and words. It’s surely a base requirement for a professional comedian. Some, though, can’t be bothered, given that there are many fans desperate for affirmation and attention who can be easily directed. Simon Pegg – good old cuddly Simon “Faith In the Future” Pegg – has a bit of history with this. A while back, a user tweeted the following:

“For some reason @simonpegg really really annoys me, hot fuzz is good though! He’s on my list, and it ain’t a good list! #annoying.”

Rude, unpleasant, and unnecessary, I think we’d all agree on that. Imagine getting masses of messages of that ilk every day. The question is, though, if the response is proportionate:

Pegg bullying

Boom. This silly, rude bastard (with 300 followers, and no influence) has now been brought to the attention of over 2 million Simon Pegg fans, who have been explicitly instructed to “flame” him. Can anyone explain to me why this isn’t seen as being against the terms of service of Twitter, and why people like Pegg aren’t suspended for aggressive, co-ordinated bullying? One possible reason is that celebrities – and people’s willingness to follow them – made Twitter what it is today. Remember when it was just that thing Stephen Fry talked about all the time? Remember when everyone wanted to get on there to see what sort of bagels Jonathan Ross was having for lunch? The endorsement of those two celebrities in particular was hugely important in breaking Twitter in this country. Why would Twitter risk alienating high-profile members of the media, when they’re part of the life-blood coursing through its veins?

The interesting thing is that – when you point out instances of bullying such as this – there’s no shortage of fans who will excuse the celebrity of any wrongdoing whatsoever. “They started it by being rude to the celebrity!” – well, I’m sorry, but this isn’t the playground, and I expect people in the public eye to have the dignity and decorum to be able to, ultimately, ignore such things. They can block the user, or they can remonstrate with them on a personal level – although even this is fraught with frequent repercussions, as we will see…

“How you liking all this attention?”

I’ve already touched on Ricky Gervais in this blog, and his past penchant for directing his followers to negative articles, ensuring the comments get flooded with positive praise. Let’s bring things screaming up-to-date, and see how his usage of the medium has changed in the interim.

On Sunday just past, Gervais was – as you may have come to expect from even a casual glance at his oeuvre – engaging in some good old bullying, and in humour that mocks those of a lower social status than his own. He started out with a volley of t-shirt slogans that “chav parents” could wear:

“their tattoos hide the bruises” “I love the pit bull more than these scruffy little divs” “Yes. All different fathers” “I had these kids to get a council house” “I let them do what they want as they’ll all be in jail soon”

Etc. Then, when a follower points out that it’s perhaps uncharitable to mock people living in poverty, particularly in the midst of a double-dip recession, Gervais gets slowly and increasingly indignant. He has a pop at a few people, then briefly checks that his followers enjoy watching him shame others. Yeehah, we’re gonna watch us some bullying, kids! Incidentally, that tweet shows a common excuse used by Gervais and others – people who criticise tweets are told simply to unfollow, meaning that they have no right to subscribe to something and then moan about the contents. Personally, I think that’s nonsense, but I’m always strongly in favour in debate. It’s worth pointing out, though, that this argument completely ignores the whole viral nature of the way tweets are actually spread. You don’t have to be following Ricky Gervais to see this kind of thing being retweeted into your timeline.

Anyway, Gervais – clearly furious at being challenged over his right-wing, punching-down, Richard-Littlejohn-meets-Jim-Davidson style of humour – then embarks on a “div hunt”, also known as “#gorpcull2012.” Again, read this screen-shot from the bottom up:

You feel the pain

Here’s another thing that has to be pointed out about Twitter – when you’re a celebrity, you can cause an awful lot of abuse for people simply by tweeting them into your timeline. You don’t even have to explicitly ask your followers to attack them, like Simon Pegg did, all you have to do is communicate your displeasure, and slyly sit back and watch the hatred. Gervais did this multiple times with @guyjp, ensuring that his 3 million followers would tear him to shreds. Each time he did so, he also selectively quoted what @guyjp was saying, in order to paint him in a more negative light. Eventually, the guy was so besieged by idiotic, abusive fans that he ended up deleting his account. Which Ricky Gervais – who constantly swans about like he’s bloody Gandhi, repeatedly telling us that “You must never concern yourself with your critics… the best revenge is living well” – gloats about:

What a turd

Note that, like a true coward, Ricky Gervais deletes most of his incriminating tweets – some, like this one above, stay online for little over a minute. This doesn’t stop them being archived on sites like Cook’d and Bomb’d or Celeb Tweets, though.

Again, you have to wonder why someone like Gervais is allowed to get away with this behaviour on Twitter. I’m not, incidentally, interested in excusing the comments of @guyjp – for starters, we now can’t see the original tweets or context as his account has been deleted – I’m just pointing out the tsunami of abuse that is being wilfully and purposefully summoned by people like Ricky Gervais. Repeatedly so.

“It’s about time we re named Twitter Cunt Platform ! whose with me ?”

Let’s segue into the final chapter of this blog. The day after Gervais succeeded in using his followers to bully someone right off Twitter, he replied to a tweet by Noel Fielding which read “Wow people are mean to me. Then my followers are mean to them. Then everyone starts shouting bully x” with “Welcome to my world.” We can see, again, how the likes of Fielding and Gervais deliberately engage in orchestrated bullying, and then completely wash their hands of all responsibility. So let’s look at what Fielding was talking about.

Someone who Noel Fielding was evidently following, or who got retweeted into his timeline, made a comment about “America being the greatest country on earth.” Fielding laughs at this, and takes the piss – he does so directly to the woman, meaning his response would only be seen by people who follow both of them. Despite this, his reply gets 14 retweets and 32 favorites – this proves what we already know: that many of his fans scroll through his timeline reading every tweet, rather than just the ones he sends out for mass consumption. This is common on Twitter, particularly with high-profile accounts. So far, Fielding hasn’t done anything wrong. However, then he does begin to draw public attention to his argument by ridiculing the woman a couple of times, making it clear to people who aren’t already scouring his complete timeline, that there’s a bit of drama to be had if they go and do so. The woman in question is then subjected to a barrage of “angry brits”, and ends up deleting the tweet in question.

What happens next is predictable – Fielding is challenged on his use of the word “retarded”, by someone with a personal interest in making people aware of how their language can hurt others. It’s impossible to see the original message “MissSpidey” sent in full, now, but having seen it at the time, I don’t remember it being particularly abusive. In fact, she sent two tweets in total to Fielding, the first one calling him “a moron” for using the word “retarded”, and the second one hashtagging him with “#TheMightyDouche” after he responded to her challenge by calling her “a dumb fuck.” Fielding goes nuts over the whole thing, tweeting her with abuse about her “big nose”, and then explicitly draws his followers attention to the saga by retweeting people who’d already caught on to the drama. You can see, also, Fielding referring to “Spidey” and himself not getting on, all of which is repeatedly drawing the attention of his followers to the argument. Once again, bottom to top:

Letting the FieldMice know.

Let me just say, at this point, that one of the people who deals with this kind of thing with the most class is Charlie Brooker. If someone is trying to bait him into an argument – and let’s take it as granted that some people are dying to get retweeted by a celebrity, so they can get tons of negative attention from their followers – Brooker will sometimes retweet their comment while simultaneously redacting their username! This allows him to use the vitriol for comedy purposes, yet simultaneously spares the person from getting a savaging at the hands of territorial fans.

Back to Fielding, and he’s now in a narcissistic rage over the whole affair, continuing to repeatedly tweet about MissSpidey, advocating a namechange from “Twitter” to “Cunt Platform”, and talking about how he’s a “horrible boy who likes to pull the legs off spiders.” A fairly lame attempt at contrition is made, before he RT’s a supportive fan, then immediately goes back into “fuck em” mode. Then we get a spot of victim blaming for good measure before, finally, Fielding thanks his followers for the support.

The support was, as you can see from what he chose to retweet, abusive and insulting towards MissSpidey. She was repeatedly opened up to the hostility of 340,000 followers, many of whom are young girls who worship Fielding and his contrived, try-hard, drippy fucking surrealism. Fielding personally set the tone early on to one of personal abuse, using MissSpidey’s avatar picture to make unflattering remarks about her appearance. This thread was picked up by his followers, but they went further. Much further.

MissSpidey was swamped by hundreds of mentions, from hundreds of users. These tweets, as I’ve said, mocked her physical appearance as being “old” and “ugly” – in reality, she is neither. Then it took a more sinister turn, and MissSpidey found that her address had been tracked down and was being published by the “FieldMice”, who were also threatening violence. Then she started to receive death threats – Noel Fielding was, as you’d expect, copied in on much of this by the fans seeking his approval, so presumably knew what was going on. MissSpidey tried to counter the avalanche of hostility by using the official mechanisms in place for doing so: she started to block and report the users, eventually ending up suspended from Twitter for “aggressive blocking.” I know, isn’t it?

MissSpidey suffers from Cyclothymic disorder. Twitter was a vital support network for her. With that suddenly taken away – through no fault of her own – and with a continuing barrage of hateful, hurtful messages being continually delivered to her, MissSpidey lost hope. She tried to end her own life.

Let me reassure you that MissSpidey was unsuccessful in her attempt, thankfully. She is recovering, and I’ve spoken to her at length to get the facts about this story, and in order to ascertain what should and shouldn’t be included.

The Sun picked up on the whole affair, running it in the showbiz section of its website. Fielding’s fans were livid, and staged a campaign to try and get it removed, so incensed where they, in particular, by the naming of a 14 year-old fan. The article was eventually removed, but presumably only because MissSpidey’s friend explained to the newspaper that she had tried to commit suicide, and seeing this just as she was getting out of hospital would risk making matters worse. The Sun, in an uncharacteristic display of concern for the welfare of others, pulled the article. Fielding continued to be fairly unrepentant about the whole thing denying that he’d asked his followers to bully anyone, yet missing that he’d clearly endorsed and tacitly encouraged it, before finally thanking his fans for the support. And, in a cloud of shit, cuddly, childish giggling and twee whimsy, the 39 year-old prick flounced off, doubtless never to be seen again… until something next needs a concentrated marketing push.

Clearly, we had quite extreme circumstances here – a perfect storm that resulted in matters escalating into a very unfortunate incident, one that could have easily been so much worse. It would be unfair and unreasonable to put the entire blame on the eye-shadowed and empty head of Noel Fielding, but I also don’t think he’s entirely blameless. If, as we’re constantly told by Twitter policeman Graham Linehan, we should all aspire to being nice to others on social networking, isn’t it time that some of the high-profile celebrities were asked to behave in the same way? Isn’t it time they realised how ridiculous some of the behaviour of their fans can be, and stopped supporting and utilising it for their own fragile egos? Let me say it again: How many times have you heard about the sort of occurrences I’ve detailed in this blog? I’m willing to bet it’s considerably less than you’ve heard the media commenting on “haters” and “trolls”, and it’s time people with large, rabid fan-bases started to take responsibility for their words, and for their actions – as well as realising the effect their influence can easily have on those who hang on their every tweet.

What can you do to stop this kind of thing happening again? Perhaps it might be worth reporting the next celebrity you see acting in this manner.

UPDATE: Thank you for the overwhelming response to this blog. It has been pointed out to me, many times now, that Simon Pegg actually apologised for his outburst, and was very contrite about the whole matter. You can verify this for yourself by reading this tweet, and this one. I’ve also been informed that he has been a lot more careful about his social media presence since, and has specifically asked his followers not to attack people who disagree with him. Everyone can make a mistake, and his contrition and subsequent behaviour speaks well of him.

If you enjoy Comedy Chat, you can follow me on Twitter, leave an iTunes review for the podcast, and you can also Like this place on Facebook. I would be grateful for any or all of the above. Visit the CaB forums for regular high-quality comedy discussion and analysis. You can also leave feedback via voicemail on 02 895 811976

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Dissecting A Frog: The Mexican Lightbulb Joke

The Mexican Lightbulb Joke


In the last blog I argued that jokes are delicate, fragile, precious little things, and that this can be true – especially so – when dealing with themes of a more sensitive nature.

In this blog, I’d like to try and prove that to you, or at least show how phrasing jokes differently can have more impact than you may anticipate. I’m going to talk about the Mexican (or Spanish) lightbulb joke – one of my favourite ever bits of comedy to analyse! This is the sort of thing that can be extremely off-putting to people – many folks believe (as E.B. White did) that you should never analyse humour, and this probably stems from a reluctance to take the art-form as seriously as it merits. Why, though? I think it’s because the fundamental purpose of comedy is to make you laugh, and therefore it seems oddly contradictory to take it seriously. If you’re reading this blog, hopefully you recognise this assertion is as ludicrous as expecting people to only sing and dance about their appreciation of music.

So, here’s the set-up for the joke:

How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?

Note that it’s common for the set-up to substitute “Mexicans” with “Spaniards.” There are two common punchlines for this joke, “Juan” and “just Juan.” One of them is better than the other, have a think about why this might be before you read on, and see if you can guess which one I believe to be superior. You may not agree with my argument, but give it a go anyway.

When I put the question out on Twitter today, most folks plumped for “just Juan” as being the superior answer – a few suggested a fairly common alternative of “only Juan.” The correct answer is indeed “just Juan”, and on closer inspection the punchline of “Juan” doesn’t work quite as well as it actually should. Both responses will get a laugh, so they’re both evidently doing their job, and people will respond to and justify one over the other in different ways, meaning we can certainly get a clear idea of how complex humour is from this one-word difference. Still with me? Exciting, isn’t it?

“Juan” seems to answer the question adequately with some word-play. On closer inspection, though, we can see that it actually fails to do so in a way that makes sense. “How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Juan.” One Mexican. The issue, though, is that there are two possible answers that could be given at the same time – the number, and the identity of the intrepid light-bulb repairer – to really make this some proper word-play. Yet when the answer is “Juan”, only the number is really given. Let’s make this clearer by substituting another name – “How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Roberto.” This clearly isn’t an elegant answer to the question, and doesn’t properly address the question of “how many?” Therefore, with the response of “Juan” the joke is only working as a pun on common Mexican/Spanish names and, in this instance, the fact that it sounds similar to the pronunciation of the word “one” – close analysis reveals it to be something of a non sequitur.

So let’s look at what I believe to be the optimal punchline to this joke – “How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Just Juan.” Now, with the addition of one word, the joke suddenly works on an extra level! It’s just become a lot more clever, and bears up to actual scrutiny. It answers the question posed in the set-up in two different ways – “just one / just Juan” – and both make sense.

I hope that’s clear. In addition to the logic and impact of the joke being improved by the addition of one word, there are a number of other factors that should be outlined – these are what caused my Twitter followers to instinctively plump for “just Juan”, even though the majority of them weren’t focused on the semantics I’ve outlined so far in this blog. Written down, people are drawn to the apparent alliteration – that technique so beloved of tabloid headline writers the world over, and they certainly know how to grab people’s attention. There’s also a pleasing rhythm to the punchline, two single-syllable stabs… BOOM BOOM. Then again, some people prefer the curtness of “Juan” on its own. Finally, the addition of the word “just” modifies the image of Juan in such a way that it causes many people to imagine that there’s one single, lonely Mexican, travelling around, fixing every single defective lightbulb in all of Mexico, and this again is a very pleasing conceit to many.

Up next on Comedy Chat’s “Dissecting A Frog” series… The Aristocrats!

If you enjoy Comedy Chat, you can follow me on Twitter, leave an iTunes review for the podcast, and you can also Like this place on Facebook. I would be grateful for any or all of the above. Visit the CaB forums for regular high-quality comedy discussion and analysis.

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Please meticulously document the jokes that offend you, bloggers

Lenny Bruce

Another day, another blog by an outraged fan of comedy, who thinks certain topics are off limits when it comes to humour.

Due to a combination of a heckler at a Daniel Tosh gig back in July, and insensitive, moronic comments by politically opportunistic idiots like Todd Akin and George Galloway, my Twitter timeline (and the wider media) has been absolutely jam-packed with discussion about rape jokes, and “rape culture,” for a good six weeks now. Which is fine, obviously – it’s always beneficial to discuss things, although Twitter is seldom the most appropriate place to do so. And that, too, kind of works out – people will try to mash complex thoughts and arguments into 140 characters, fail, offend someone, and then have to go away and write a blog or tumblr to clarify what they originally meant.

I personally found all the discussion highly valuable and thought-provoking. I was originally in the ‘no topic is off limits for comedy, it’s all in how you approach it’ camp, and I’d say I still reside there now. With caveats. What I came to realise, eventually, was that rape jokes are generally written by men, for men, told by men, and subsequently apologised for by men. Generally. I’m aware of women who tell them, and women who laugh at them, but when it comes to contextualising and defending them, you’ll tend to find it’s mostly men, I think. What was brought home to me was the difficulty I had in really, completely empathising with the effect of these jokes on a visceral level – and that was a powerful thing to learn. I resolved to spend less time vocally defending rape jokes, particularly to women, given that there’s a 1 in 4 chance they might have been the victim of such an assault. 1 in 4! You know how you sometimes feel all hard done by, fella’s, when a woman speeds up and keeps looking over her shoulder, just because you’re walking on the same side of the road? 1 in 4!

Frankly, I’ve always found rape jokes to be a fairly boring way to be shocking and provocative, anyway. Just too predictable. They’re not really the focus of this blog, though, no – this is a guide. A guide on how to be properly and conscientiously offended!

Here’s what I’ve noticed about a lot of people who get outraged at comedy shows: they give highly emotive, biased accounts of the gig they’re at. They care nothing of context. They can’t quote any of the jokes – some of them will absolutely refuse to do so in case it risks “triggering” victims, but this is why we have “trigger warnings” and spoiler tags. They will usually appear highly sympathetic because they’ve perhaps heckled the comedian – the big man on stage with the mic – came off worse, naturally, and then meekly shuffled out of the venue to sad Snoopy music, while the rest of the audience merrily laughs at this unelected spokesperson who just tried to ruin their evening’s entertainment. It’s hard not to side with them, especially when we’re told of all these awful, transgressive subjects being joked about (incidentally, when did we stop using laughter as a way of coping with the worst parts of life, and instead see it as something that apparently cannot co-exist with empathy? Is it fine to use something like rape for dramatic purposes, or is that off limits too? I’m unclear as to how it seems that laughing at a topic can now so easily be considered one of the worst emotional responses possible, particularly when we tolerate exploitation of societal problems under the guise of giving a shit, e.g. The Jeremy Kyle Show.)

I really don’t blame people for being offended by things, truly I don’t, and as I said, the resultant debate is always valuable, even if it’s still depressing that comedy doesn’t really get taken seriously by the media unless they can crowbar in their tiresome old “but should we laugh at these things?” questions. I just wish that people would be a little bit more… meticulous when it comes to documenting the nature of their offence.

That sounds ridiculous, right? How is someone going to take notes when they’re outraged, shocked, horrified…? Well, having read a lot of these blogs, and seen a lot of the associated Twitter accounts, I can tell you that people don’t tend to just get up and walk out. A lot of the time they’ll reach for their phone, and start tweeting about how offended they are by the whole scene. All I’m asking is that people go a little further than that, and document the actual jokes! You can easily flip to the in-built Voice Recorder app, and record the rest of the set – for your own use later – to make sure your blog is accurate and fair. Which is what you want it to be, right? You could tweet some of the actual jokes, or save them as drafts if you’re worried about “triggering”, as mentioned before. People pause over hot food to take and share pictures of the next thing to enter their open mouths, so please, try to also accurately capture some of what has outraged you so much. Just be discrete about it.

Why is it important? When Lenny Bruce started getting arrested in the early 60′s, the harassment he suffered was provoked by his mocking of religion, rather than because his material was “obscene” – obscenity was simply the way in which he could be demonised, silenced, and eventually hounded out of making a living. The pursuit of Bruce was, as he put it himself, a comedy of errors. Policemen (peace officers, as Bruce always sarcastically and dismissively referred to them) would be sent into his shows, where they would either take notes, or record audio on fairly primitive mini-reel wire recorders. These recordings were of terrible acoustic quality, and when they were rerecorded to tape and then transcribed, there was, inevitably, an abundance of errors made, leading to something more akin to a faulty translation, rather than an accurate document of the set. This led to a situation where people who weren’t exactly rooting for Bruce to begin with, ended up picking out the most offensive phrases, inventing some new ones where the recording was unclear, and then sending someone not trained in comedy to perform this utterly bastardised routine to the Grand Jury. “…and the irony is I have to go to court and defend his act!”

Something akin to that is happening again now, on the internet, but without even giving this new breed of ‘sick comics’ the courtesy of trying to replicate the problematic material, so they can be judged by their own words. I think we can do better than that, particularly as each of us now carry around high-quality recording devices in our pockets. Please, please don’t get me wrong – don’t think I’m unsympathetic to people being offended, I’m not. I just hope for some accuracy. If you want to present your offence, try to document it – try to do it fairly, try to give us some context. Far too many of these blogs I’ve mentioned are full of (righteous) fury and anger, which then spreads to the commenters, but, as I say, the bloggers rarely ever get round to detailing any of the actual jokes. And jokes are precious, fragile little things anyway – so much can rest upon a single word, a phrasing of a word, a pause. They’re meticulously constructed to confound expectations and, respectfully, an outraged gig patron whose attention may be simultaneously occupied with documenting their anger for their followers on Twitter just isn’t the best source of evidence.

If we have the facts, we can then have a more constructive and fair debate – one that focuses on the intricacies of the way each subject is dealt with, rather than just whether or not it should be at all. And that’s all I’m arguing for: a healthier, more informed debate.

If you enjoy Comedy Chat, you can follow me on Twitter, leave an iTunes review for the podcast, and you can also Like this place on Facebook. Visit the CaB forums for regular high-quality comedy discussion and analysis.

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A Chat With Holly Walsh About Dead Boss

Holly Walsh


Tonight sees the series finale of Dead Boss, the new BBC3 sitcom written by Sharon Horgan and Holly Walsh. Although BBC3 tends to be the subject of some rather lazy, indiscriminate slaggings from people who aren’t really in its target audience anyway, Dead Boss is one of those absolutely superb shows it throws up every now and then.

I got into the show really quickly, loving the manic pace of the first episode, and finding it to be refreshingly laugh out loud funny. Dead Boss is really, really funny. My affection for it grew with each passing week, and by the time it got to episode 5, I really wanted to support it, draw attention to one of the best new sitcoms in years, and learn more about it. Spreading your enthusiasm is, actually, what Cook’d and Bomb’d is all about.

Holly Walsh kindly agreed to an interview yesterday, and we talk a lot about Dead Boss, but also go over what it’s like to be a stand-up, and look at how people can go about getting into the comedy industry.

At the time of writing, all of Dead Boss is still available on iPlayer, and will remain so for the next seven days. If you’ve yet to see it, please do give it a watch. I really love this show – Dead Boss has brought back a level of attention-to-detail to British comedy that’s largely been missing from our screens. It’s lovingly stuffed with references and background gags.

Many thanks to Holly Walsh for her time.

If you enjoy Comedy Chat, please Like it on Facebook, leave an iTunes review, and you can also follow me on Twitter. Visit the CaB forums for comedy discussion and analysis.

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The Day Simon Decided To Beat Noel At His Own Game

We’re long past due for a new podcast, so I’ve edited a chat between myself and Kelvin about the wonderful Simon Amstell sitcom, “Grandma’s House.” The second series finished airing on BBC2 a few weeks ago, and managed to be even better than the first series. Sadly, the ratings didn’t reflect this, and at one point fell to a low of 589,000. Dan Swimer, co-creator and co-writer of the show, was stating that a third series looked unlikely even before the second one went to air… it’d be a tragedy if we didn’t get a third series, given the heights of the first and second.

So, while we wait for news one way or the other, have a listen to the podcast, and perhaps pick up the series 1 and series 2 DVDs while you’re at it.

Incidentally, today is the second birthday of the Comedy Chat podcast and blog. As I’m going to be working at this a lot more regularly again, and bearing in mind how time-consuming it all is, I’d really appreciate your help with promoting it. Leaving a review on iTunes is easy to do, and really helps, ditto ‘liking’ the Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter, and/or follow this account for automated comedy news and podcast/blog announcements. Thank you, I’d really appreciate it, and thanks for listening.

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‘The BBC initially didn’t want to, then Sky did, and then the BBC did’

Stewart Lee makes a frankly shocking admission to Richard Herring in their reunion podcast (which has also been filmed as an extra for the forthcoming DVD release of Fist of Fun series 2.)

“[The BBC] initially didn’t want to, then Sky did, and then the BBC did.”

In other words the BBC, having already dragged their heels over the recommissioning of his show after the first series – so much so that a fan petition was set up – didn’t initially have any interest in doing a third or fourth series, either.

The BBC were evidently more than happy to get rid of Stewart Lee – despite the second series being extraordinary, and easily one of the best British comedies in recent years – until Sky wanted a go, at which point they became a spoilt, possessive child.

Something else to consider about the second series is that it was put in a lousy, post-Newsnight timeslot and had its budget slashed, which all sounds like they were setting Stewart Lee up to fail. Because that’s what the BBC Comedy department does, now. It commissions great shows, then doesn’t bother promoting them, and then gets rid of them after a series or two, so they can wheel the next lot in at a reduced rate. Bellamy’s People is the most obvious example in recent years – a stunning, character-driven comedy that was doing remarkably original things with red button content, and a successful adaption from the popular radio show (Down The Line) that spawned it. There was enough material left over to construct whole episodes for a second series of Bellamy’s People – these have since been made and screened privately – and yet the BBC, or more specifically Cheryl Taylor, Controller Comedy Commissioning, binned it. Here you’re talking about a show from a team with a proven and accomplished track record, and episodes of a second series, funded of course by licence fee payers’ money, already created. Yet none of this took precedence over the admittedly low ratings. Bear in mind also that Bellamy’s People still hasn’t been given a repeat run, and yet it was so strongly character-driven that it needed time to grow in people’s affections. Y’know, like The Fast Show.

What about the greatest BBC sitcom of recent years, Simon Amstell’s “Grandma’s House”? Again, Cheryl Taylor dragged her heels with regards recommissioning the show for a second series, eventually it seemed that she only bothered to do so because it picked up some plastic at the British Comedy Awards. Will it get a third series, though? Series two managed to improve considerably on an already superb first run, but the ratings have been dreadful, and the promotion, again, non-existent. In fact, if you saw Simon Amstell on the BBC’s own flagship chatfest, The Graham Norton Show, you’ll probably have noticed that most of the discussion centered around his national stand-up tour. A clip of Grandma’s House was played, to a pleasingly raucous response from the audience, and there was a little bit of accompanying chat about it, but mostly it seemed like an afterthought. A third series relies on the BBC realising the artistic value of what they have, rather than having a tiresome, ratings-driven, art-hating approach to comedy that’s more suitable to a commercial broadcaster – so needless to say, I’m not hopeful about series 3.

It’s fairly clear that the BBC don’t really have a clue when they have good comedy on their hands, now. They’ll happily ditch things like The Peter Serafinowicz Show or Bellamy’s People after one series, and look to get rid of the likes of Stewart Lee as soon as possible. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle also had a tortuously long development period, and it took years for the first series to get to the screen in the manner that Stewart Lee wanted it to. Sky are busily hoovering up all of the ‘alternative’ comedy acts it can get its hands on, and the only real chance of continuing to see good comedy on the BBC seems now to rest upon the BBC’s abject, paranoid terror that anyone they let go will find greater success elsewhere.

Cheryl Taylor is, essentially, a spoilt, idiotic child who – out of a sheer lack of bloody imagination – quickly tires of playing with her marbles, right up until someone else wants a go… at which point she stamps her feet and pretends they’re the most important thing in the world.

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An Old Chat With Julian Dutton

Julian Dutton popped up on Twitter recently, and has been tweeting brilliantly surreal streams of whimsy – a blessed relief from the contrived puns that are so popular on the social networking site. Follow him at @JulianDutton1 and see for yourself.

Julian Dutton was the first person I interviewed – exactly ten years ago now – and I’m reposting it here for your perusal. This interview was conducted with TJ Worthington and ApexJazz, and they came up with all the good questions.

The majority of the interview is about the classic radio show “The Harpoon”, co-created and written by Julian Dutton and Peter Baynham, but Julian also talks candidly about the early 90′s comedy scene, and about the shows that followed in the wake of The Harpoon, making this a fascinating snap-shot of the times. The Harpoon lost out to On The Hour in the 1993 British Comedy Awards, and was sadly denied a commercial release due to clearance issues, but it’s recently found a new home on BBC Radio 4 Extra. If you’ve missed the repeats, then keep an eye on YouTube, where the first episode is already available


How did you get into comedy writing?

Ah. Well, I’d been an actor and aspiring writer for a few years after university – the usual stuff, playing Hamlet in Rotterdam, staging my own strange shows in small theatres up and down the country, appearing in such TV classics as “Tucker’s Luck” and “The Bill,” – performing bad comedy in small clubs and old folk’s homes, writing unpublishable novels and generally leading a very “Withnail & I” kind of life in the hovels and attic rooms of Camden Town. Then in 1990 I walked into the offices of BBC Radio Comedy at 16 Langham Street carrying a pile of comedy sketches, Bill Dare (“Mary Whitehouse Experience,” “Dead Ringers”) read them, liked them, and put them in Weekending that week. He told me at the time that this was a record, which I didn’t understand. I only found out later that you were supposed to write for Weekending for about three months before getting anything on. Peter Baynham was already writing for the show, which is where I met him. I think at the time Peter was the BBC contract writer, which was a great system where they paid you £500.00 a month retainer. After I joined the commissioned team on Weekending and was writing for Roy Hudd’s show also, I was awarded the BBC contract, along with Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, who were blazing a trail in the department. Over the next five years, I wrote and performed in more than 80 half hour radio comedy shows, including the Harpoon and my own sketch series “Truly, Madly, Bletchley.” BBC Light Entertainment then seemed very receptive and very vibrant: at one point the Weekending writing team consisted of me, Peter Baynham, Herring and Lee, Harry Hill, Al Murray, Ben Moor and Danny O’Brien. Everyone was getting pilots going, and we could hear Armando Iannucci in his office playing some very loud tapes of a very strident-voiced guy shouting some very funny things. Intrigued, some of us would amble in and have a closer listen. Then we found out it was some bloke called Chris Morris, who Armando wanted to work with, and who he was “trying to develop some idea about a parody news programme with.” But this was some time off – Armando seemed to be developing the idea for a long time before it piloted.

Did you, Peter and Sarah Smith have any problems getting the Harpoon going?

As far as I can remember as soon as we pitched the idea it was commissioned. At the time I remember people saying it was a very quick turnaround: we pitched the idea I think in early 1991, a pilot was commissioned a few weeks later, we made it, the department liked it and commissioned the first series in the summer. Series one I think was broadcast in September 1991. I met Sarah when she was producing Weekending. I’d written a pilot script called “Strange But True,” a comedy show on the paranormal, which she didn’t like; but we then came up with the idea for the Harpoon, based on sections of my original script, which was inspired by old magazines etc. Sarah then asked Peter if he wanted to join the project and he said yes. We all cheered. Peter was a very funny guy; along with Herring and Lee, who went on to make Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World, Harry Hill, Iannucci and Alistair McGowan, he has the most fertile comic mind I have ever met. I clicked with Peter and we had a great time writing it. Sarah Smith also had equal input to the whole show; the script meetings were very collaborative.

Was a pilot episode of the Harpoon made?

Yes – it became the first episode of series one. Crazy idea, I know, but we were breaking a mould.

Was Ripping Yarns an influence on the show at all?

Quite honestly, no, although obviously I, and I think Peter, had seen Ripping Yarns years before. Consciously we made no reference to, nor did we even mention, Ripping Yarns in the whole creative period of working on the Harpoon. It had nothing to do with the source of it at all. In fact, if we had first thought of Ripping Yarns as a possible inspiration for a radio series, we wouldn’t have carried that thought on for more than a minute. It would have been stupid, and what’s more it would have been turned down. At first glance, it seems as though we were mining similar territory, but on deeper examination there are massive differences, both in style and content – Palin is simply parodying the adventure serials of these magazines in a very pythonesque manner – inevitably – whereas Peter and I went much further, and spread our nets far wider – there was so much more in these old books and journals than the boy’s and girl’s fiction, which Ripping Yarns didn’t touch at all. And the style is totally different. The Harpoon parodies the whole of pre-war culture. Yes, it’s that iconic.

Interesting to learn that Lee and Herring influenced you; a lot of Morris fans tend to play down their role in On the Hour. Don’t suppose you’ve got a copy of Wiggin’s Yard knocking about by any chance? We’d be thrilled to hear it.

Believe me, you wouldn’t. Wiggin’s Yard was a bizarre topical sitcom which me, Peter, Richard and Stewart, and Henry Naylor and Andy Parsons wrote during one insane week in 1992. For my part, it was good working with Peter, Richard and Stewart, and Sarah Smith, which was always a joy, but apart from that I don’t think it advanced 90’s comedy one iota. I recently visited Richard Herring’s website, and had the strangest experience of my life when I found myself able to download the front page of That’s Wiggin’s Yard, where I recognised a page of script I had written – with Richard’s rewrites added in longhand. What is even more bizarrely hilarious is that on this page, one of Richard’s major rewrites of my stuff appears to be altering “Wiggin’s yard? – it’s up there on the left, mate,” to “Wiggin’s Yard? It’s up there on the right, mate.” Evidence, indeed, of Richard’s nascent comic genius – for as we all know, buildings on the right hand sides of roads are immeasurably funnier than those on the left. So no, I’m afraid I do not have a copy of it, although I am sure it probably sounds better than I remember it, simply because Richard, Stewart, and Peter have rarely written anything that isn’t funny. Who knows, it could be a lost gem. Yes, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee were a great influence, although we all had our own distinctive style. There’s no point copying anyone. But let’s be honest, they are probably the best comedy writers of the last ten years, and will continue to be so, along with Peter Baynham. I count them among the comedy greats of the last ten years or so, along with Harry Hill, Steve Coogan, and John Shuttleworth. Their influence on On the Hour was massive; I remember when it started being broadcast, it was always Herring and Lee’s sketches that were spoken about the next day, quoted a la the school playground. I still fondly remember the Urine Man. And of course they invented Alan Partridge. A lot of their sketches were nothing to do with the News per se, which made them good. I think the Day Today may have suffered from their exclusion, I don’t know – it was still a great show. My own taste is for whimsy rather than sombre language-driven satire. Sorry! – I know you are a largely a Chris Morris site. Mind you, I think Peter’s stuff in the Day Today made up for it to an extent.

Other than Lee and Herring, who were your influences at the time? What sort of humour were you and Peter Baynham listening to back then? Do you think the Harpoon itself has influenced any shows, (eg. The Sunday Format?)

I always had a pile of odd influences in my head, from Do not Adjust Your Set to the Burkiss Way to Milligan to Galton and Simpson. At the time, though, ie. the early 90’s, I think we were all blown away by Reeves and Mortimer. Big Night Out created ripples that lasted. 80’s satire was now dead. But I’m one of those annoying people who know too much about the history of comedy to think that this was in any way a new movement: it was rather a return – to the good old-fashioned values of British comedy; a return to the Crazy Gang, Jimmy James, Al Read – and others who nobody remembers today. If the Harpoon has a place in the story of radio comedy at all, it is as a small part of this return to surreal, bizarre stuff in the early 1990’s – comedy of enjoyment, of weirdness rather than cleverness. We wanted above all to get away from the bog-standard sketch show where an anonymous “team” just stands in front of a microphone linking sketches. We wanted the Harpoon to be a bit different. Herring and Lee’s series “Lionel Nimrod,” caught this spirit too, and later, Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner. Some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life were at the recordings of those early Lionel Nimrods – it was pure gold. Sarah Smith produced that, as well. Peter I know was driven by a hatred of clever, pious comics like Ben Elton and Jeremy Hardy; he and I shared a love for the comedy we’d grown up with, obviously; I remember him loving Reggie Perrin – he could quote whole scenes of it. He never liked Hancock much, which always puzzled me – but he did love Steptoe and Son. He was always conscious also of avoiding anything too Pythonesque. He was astute, always wanting to be original. And he was original. This is beginning to sound like an obituary – please tell me he isn’t dead. Anyway, influence is hard to pin down; I really think Peter Baynham is one of the creators rather than one of the influenced. Same with Herring and Lee. Richard had – and still has – a brightness about him, a playfulness, which was perfectly complemented by Stewart Lee’s quietly daemonic drive. I will say that Peter and I were both conscious of the time of not being Oxbridge: Peter was very proud that the Harpoon – and I think I am right in saying this – is the only sketch show in the last twenty years not to have been written by someone who went to Oxford (apart from Harry Hill’s shows). Actually, that statement’s probably crap, but it sounds good. Anyway, Peter was very fond of that notion, which drove him a lot. And it might be true – someone research it.
Has the Harpoon influenced other shows? Because we covered so much in the Harpoon, elements of it can be seen in other shows, certainly: for example, we did tons of “Visions of the Future” stuff, and Cholmondley-Warner education-type material a year or so before Harry Enfield. Whether it influenced him or not I’ve no idea. The Glam-Metal Detectives (bet you don’t remember that series) started doing a black and white girl’s school series, six months after we did; and in the ensuing years many things we did on the Harpoon have turned up, right down to Peter Serafinowicz’s recent parodies of educational films, Brigstocke’s History Today etc. Ronni Ancona told me the Sunday Format was a rip-off of the Harpoon. I listened to one minute of it and agreed. Also Parson’s and Naylor’s Pull-Out Sections. Mind you, I think it’s only the title with that one: the content is their usual unique and orginal brand of – and I’m amazed no one else has ever thought of this – looking in the week’s newspaper and finding a very very funny twist…

We’d love to know about anything that got censored from the show or itmes that were complained about, what your favourite Harpoon moments are, and go on, tell us some amusing incidents that happened during the writing and recording of the shows…

We seemed, I remember, to get a lot of complaints from listeners – which was quite odd if you think that the most vicious thing we did was to send up 1920’s scoutmasters. I do remember I wrote a series of sketches parodying St. Paul’s Letters to the Colossians – St. Paul’s Letters to Dolphin Bathrooms – which attracted a deluge of complaints, not from the Church of England but from the real Dolphin Bathrooms. I would have thought that they would have been very happy with BBC Radio describing how one of their bathroom suites was ordered by the founding father of Christianity. Still, there’s no pleasing some people. Favourite bits? Most of it, really. It had high production values, experimental, surreal effects, and I personally don’t think there’s ever been a sketch show like it. Whether all of it’s funny or not I don’t know, but it’s never boring. It got great reviews. Amusing incidents? Looking back, the whole goddamn years I worked with Peter Baynham was an amusing incident. He, Sarah and I laughed constantly for about four years. I remember Peter and I were both very desperate to get famous through the Harpoon – which of course wasn’t going to happen; it did get nominated for a British Comedy Award, but naturally was beaten by On the Hour; ran for three series and two Christmas Specials. I sensed a great need in Peter then to get more known than he was; as a writer on the Day Today I know he felt a bit in the shadows. By then we were both signed up by Avalon, I was doing the clubs as an impressionist; on one of our numerous publicity campaigns for the Harpoon in a desperate attempt to get it on TV we spent a whole weekend hiring dozens of stuffed animals from some insane taxidermist in Portobello Road, for a photo-shoot. We hired a top photographer, and assembled the cast in a warehouse in Islington. For the next day or so we stood surrounded by dead flamingoes, foxes, pigs and quite possibly a goat: shot about a thousand photographs – and ended up with one postage-stamp sized photo in the Independent. And this is when Newman and Baddiel were playing Wembley. We didn’t have a chance.

What was it like working on Weekending, particularly when Armando Iannucci was producing? There were a lot of people working on the show then who went on to much greater things – did any of them seem to stand out at the time?

All of them. I think I’ve said that for a time the Weekending writing team consisted of me, Peter Baynham, Herring and Lee, Harry Hill, Al Murray, Ben Moor & Danny O’Brien. Produced by Armando or Sarah Smith and starring Alistair McGowan. No wonder when we all left they axed the bloody thing. We’d all just sit in a room for two days and write. It was heaven. Or was it? Everything’s heaven when it’s far away. Armando was always a very driven, ambitious, fixed, clever man: but friendly, too. He’d invite us in to his office to hear the first tapes of Chris Morris, which he’d be editing. We were blown away. We knew it would be a classic radio show. I used to perform in Weekending as well, and I did one or two for Armando. He was industrious, and deeply inventive; I think in his Armando Iannucci Shows for Channel 4 are some of the best sketches written in recent years – the “Conversation Pie” is a classic. I think he found his voice then as a performer. Funnily enough, I have recently moved house, and now live next door to Armando Iannucci’s gardener – which says something possibly about our comparative social status. Sarah Smith was a very impressive, deeply ambitious, workaholic. She loved black comedy, encouraging a lot of it in the Harpoon. Later, it’s very discernible in the first, brilliant series of League of Gentlemen. Harry Hill obviously stood out – meeting him was like meeting a whole bunch of great comedians of the twentieth century rolled into one – Harry Worth, Eric Morecambe, Ronnie Corbett, Woody Allen, Al Read etc. He was also an original who on first sight you knew was going to be great. He wrote some great stuff on Weekending, then did a series with Alistair McGowan, When Harry met Ally. I performed with him for a bit in his second radio series Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner. He and I shared a love for the old comedy – Laurel and Hardy, etc. Al Murray – an intellectual struggling to get out of a Lad. Great guy. I once did a gig with him in Leeds and spent four hours in a car talking about the history of road development in Britain from Roman times to the nineteenth century. Happy days.

Are you working on anything at the minute Julian?

Aha. The Plug. We’ve just finished filming series 4 of Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression for BBC1, which is going out now (May 2003). I write the series with Alistair, who I’ve been friends with since the Harpoon, and a few others, and perform in it as well. We spend about six months every year writing each series; the show’s won a British Comedy Award and a BAFTA, so they’ll probably ask for eight more series, but I’m not sure how many more Alistair wants to do. I did the clubs as an impressionist for years, but put it on the back burner when bookers started ‘phoning me and saying “I tried to get Alistair McGowan but can’t afford him – are you free?” I’ve just finished writing a TV comedy drama, The Dream Men, for the BBC – hour-long episodes, which is a relief from sketches. Also, I’ve finished writing a series of short comedy films for TV. And I’ve nearly finished writing a novel, “Nothing To Lose,” (like every other comedy writer/comedian!) Apart from that, I write articles for obscure historical & literary journals, because I’m strange like that, and occasional articles for the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times. I also write radio adverts, which oddly pays fifty times more than all the stuff mentioned above put together.

Do you have any idea what Baynham’s doing at the moment? The work of both Morris and Iannucci are clearly suffering from his lack of input. [Context: Gash - one of Iannucci's rare failures - was showing on Channel 4 at the time of the interview, and we were still miserable about the screening of the Brass Eye Special in 2001 which, although containing some staggering stings and being one of the most uncompromising and fearless TV shows ever, still felt like a disappointment, and a retread of material that had made up the series.]

I can’t comment on what Peter’s doing. When I last met Stewart Lee and Richard Herring – when I was appearing in Al Murray’s show Time Gentlemen Please – they told me he was writing a cartoon, which I believe may be called “I am not an Animal.” Whatever it is, it will be hysterically funny. I can’t comment on whether their work is suffering from his lack of input. But I do know that every comedy show is a collective enterprise. There is always a dependence on others in comedy. Coogan needed Baynham and Iannucci for Partridge: but conversely Baynham and Iannucci obviously needed Coogan – and Morris. Comedy’s a community thing. That’s why it is so good working with Alistair McGowan – he’s very aware of this sharing process; very generous with writers.

Do you still work with Peter incidentally? If not, then have you any plans to do so in the future?

No. After we did the Harpoon, we both did Edinburgh – Peter in his character show and me at the Comedy Zone doing impressions. I played a supporting role in his show, which showed his great talent for comic character acting. A TV version of the Harpoon was commissioned, but for some reason never got off the ground. Sarah Smith and Peter got involved first in Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun, then the Saturday Night Armistice, then Sarah with the League of Gentlemen. The Harpoon lost out. It would have been a very good TV show. I was commissioned to write and star in my own series, Truly Madly Bletchley, which went down very well. I pitched it to TV, but they thought it too old-fashioned. After that I spent the next two years writing about six TV pilot shows, all of which were paid for but none made. I was about to give up and become a cobbler in Florence – I judged that Daniel Day Lewis needed a spot of competition in the footwear trade – when I met a guy at a BBC party who told me he’d written nine pilots before getting his first series – which made my six look quite pathetic. So when I got a call from Alistair to help him create the Big Impression show, I said yes.

Which of the turned-down pilots you’ve mentioned would you have most liked to see get into production?

All of the bloody things. Actually, there’s one which might still be on the cards – I wrote it with Ronni Ancona and a very funny guy Alan Francis and it’s at Channel 4 at the moment. But I’m not one for badgering away at stuff that’s dead – if it happens it happens – the latest thing I write is always the funniest and best as far as I’m concerned.

Did you or Peter Baynham work on any of Chris Morris’s later GLR shows?

Not me. And not, I think, Peter – but I can’t speak for Peter. My only contact with Chris Morris was seeing him around a lot in the offices of BBC Light Entertainment and hearing him him shout “hello, you!” as he rehearsed with Peter and Armando. We said hello to each other a few times, in the corridors, which is the extent of our collaboration.

– Interview conducted in Summer 2002, by Neil, TJ and ApexJazz. Many thanks to Julian Dutton for his time.

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Thar She Blows!

As a prelude to the next blog – which will be a repost of the first interview I ever did, exactly ten years ago now – here’s an article TJ Worthington wrote about The Harpoon. This was originally published in his fanzine, and accompanied the Julian Dutton interview when it was posted on Cook’d and Bomb’d. You can follow Tim on Twitter at @outonbluesix. TJ (along with ApexJazz) also co-wrote the afore-mentioned interview with Julian Dutton, which I’ll be posting here later this afternoon.


Thar She Blows!

Peter Baynham has been called the “quiet genius” of modern comedy. He has been involved with the majority of ground-breaking, controversial and just plain hilarious radio and television comedies produced in the UK from the early 1990s to the present day, but it’s also fair to say that many of the people who enjoyed said programmes will not have much of an idea of who he is. Despite taking a number of smaller roles in most of

the productions he has been involved with Baynham prefers to stay out of the limelight, concentrating instead on his formidable abilities as a writer while others assume the role of front-man. However, what remains little known about his career is that before he hooked up with his usual collaborators, Baynham had his own low key but stunning radio series.

Although Peter Baynham hardly looks like the militaristic type, he actually began his career in the Merchant Navy, and claims that the “just sort of fell into comedy by accident” when he left the Navy after five years’ service. Quite how he fell into it accidentally is unknown, but by 1990 he had become a regular writer on BBC Radio 4′s long-running topical satire series “Week Ending”, working alongside other up and coming writers including Armando Iannucci, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Also working on “Week Ending” at the time was Julian Dutton, who in tandem with Sarah Smith devised the idea for “The Harpoon”, a series that would take the form of a parody of the frightfully refined and jingoistic “Boy’s Own”-style papers that had been common in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Sarah Smith, who was a keen supporter of Baynham’s work, invited him to join the project.

The basic idea behind “The Harpoon” had been attempted on a number of previous occasions, most notably Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ rightly revered late 1970s BBC2 series “Ripping Yarns”. Yet “The Harpoon” was far from a retread of old ground, and Baynham’s gift for skewed perspectives on humour ensured that it approached the subject from a refreshingly different angle. Rather than just parody the bombastic and patriotically heroic nature of the stories contained in such papers, “The Harpoon” sought to parody the entire printed format from the page numbers upwards, regardless of the fact that it was being presented in a non-visual medium! Significantly, the series avoided the sneering and pointlessly over-referential tone that is usually adopted by people attempting to forge humour from the cultural artefacts of the past. Instead, elements of absurdity were brought into an affectionate, generic and non-specific pastiche, and Baynham and Dutton clearly relished the opportunity to play around with the curious vernacular of the early 1900s.

“The Harpoon” boasted the involvement of a fine cast of performers, including Susie Brann, Mary Elliott-Nelson and Alistair McGowan, and a substantial amount of roles were taken by Baynham and Dutton themselves. The memorable introductions to each episode invariably saw Baynham portray a frightfully well-spoken schoolboy, politely but excitedly purchasing a copy of “The Harpoon” and sitting down for a “smashing read”. The programme then took on the form of an actual flick through of the magazine itself, from the front cover copy (“Illustrated with six colour plates and numerous line drawings, and available throughout the Empire – all rights reserved!”) and the cheerful but patronising introduction from “your old chum The Editor”, to the ‘back pages’ containing the end credits. Within the ‘covers’, the joyously surreal stories of patriotic derring-do were punctuated by adverts for archaic and fictitious consumer products, advice on counteracting the fiendish plans of suspicious foreigners, practical tips on sporting activities and arts and crafts, and features on shipyards and amusement arcades. However, the adventures of ‘Captain Bonnet’, always promised in the list of each issue’s contents, were invariably mysteriously but amusingly absent without explanation. There is no greater example of the wondrously surreal and wickedly funny mindset at work in “The Harpoon” than the epic tale of ‘Jack Of The Titanic’, the inspiring, bravado-laden story of a small dog who happened to have stowed away on that fateful maiden voyage. Needless to say, even though this pre-dated the big-budget Hollywood retelling of the story of the Titanic by several years, it remains funnier than any of the enormous number of parodic sketches that appeared in the wake of the film.

As the series progressed, Baynham and Dutton began to experiment with a series of increasingly bizarre methods for getting around the rather limiting format of “The Harpoon”. One episode took the form of a later issue produced in the 1950s, giving them the opportunity to parody the more sophisticated (by 1950s standards, at least) style and obsession with scientific advances and space travel of comics like “The Eagle”. The 1950s issue also came with a free hula hoop, and I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how that was conveyed on the radio! Another episode saw the paper undergo a thoroughly ill-advised merger with the trade magazine “Lathe Monthly”, and despite the editor’s enthusiastic fan-faring of this fact and insistence that many readers of “The Harpoon” were also lathe enthusiasts, the boring technical articles and banal letters page sat alongside the expected Harpoon fare with hilarious awkwardness.

One of the most enjoyable and distinctive features of “The Harpoon” was the use of authentic music from the era that the programme sought to parody, but while this helped to enhance the absurdist feel of the series, it also brought some unforeseen problems. The BBC were keen to release the first series of “The Harpoon” on cassette, but as some of the music had been taken directly from commercial releases, they found some of it impossible to obtain copyright clearance for (in Baynham’s words, it would have involved “tracking down every single fucking timpani player from 1930s orchestras”). All subsequent episodes deliberately used copyright-free library music as a means of getting around this, but by then changes of personnel and a loss of interest within BBC Enterprises meant that it was no longer considered a priority, and to date nothing of “The Harpoon” has been given a commercial release.

In total three ‘volumes’ of “The Harpoon”, each comprising four ‘issues’, were produced between 1991 and 1994, along with Winter and Christmas specials. While the series was certainly very popular and maintained its high standard throughout, it’s fair to say that the idea had probably run its course by then, and the creators were keen to move on to something new. Baynham and Dutton subsequently worked on “That’s Wiggins Yard”, an untransmitted pilot based on a bizarre parody of soap operas that would have different sections provided by different writing teams (including Stewart Lee and Richard Herring) each week. Over the summer of 1993, Baynham became involved in two other projects that went on to enjoy a far greater level of success. Firstly, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring asked him to join them as a performer on their Radio 1 show “Fist Of Fun”, which brought his work to a wider audience and would later give him his first substantial television appearances. Meanwhile, Armando Iannucci invited him to participate in a series of half-hour shows that he was presenting for Radio 1, and then asked him to join the writing team for “The Day Today”, the television adaptation of the radio comedy “On The Hour” (where, ironically, he was replacing Lee and Herring, who had left the team after the second radio series because of contractual difficulties). Needless to say, both series were startlingly inventive and went on to enjoy huge success. Dutton, meanwhile, wrote and appeared in his own underrated Radio 4 series “Truly, Madly, Bletchley”, and more recently has been the main writer for the hugely popular BBC television comedy “Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression”…

While Peter Baynham’s critical acclaim – if not his public profile – has consistently increased since then, “The Harpoon” has been all but forgotten. Appearing as a guest on Lee and Herring’s “This Morning With Richard Not Judy” in 1998, Baynham wryly joked that he was best known for “Radio 4′s The Harpoon”, and recreated the character of ‘your old chum The Editor’ to amusing but telling silence. The great irony of this is that the success of Baynham’s subsequent projects has created a considerable following who would probably enjoy the series greatly, and even though a commercial release would presumably still be difficult, the fact that it was wholly free from topical references and concerns means that it could easily be repeated without any need for programme planners fretting over how ‘dated’ it may have become.

– TJ Worthington

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Ricky Gervais, Derek and the Disability Campaigner

An interview with Ricky Gervais has been picked up by The New Statesman today. It circulated widely during the run-up to Derek, and I’ve had a few issues with it ever since. As it’s doing the rounds again, I thought I’d finally offer up my own commentary on the piece.

While introducing the interview, the interviewer Nicky Clark says the following:

Add to this the fact that Gervais has been responsible for providing more acting opportunities for disabled people, in positive roles, than any other writer I can think of. Perhaps people may have him confused with Frankie Boyle – who ultimately recognises which side his “hate dressed up as satire” bread is buttered.

To be Frank, or rather to be Ricky, a multi millionaire global star really doesn’t need to reduce himself to shock tactics to sell a show. They sell themselves. Nor does he need to contact me to apologise for any harm that his thoughtless tweeting generated. The fact that he did says much more about the man behind the myth than a perceived desire to be seen as the king of controversy.

I take issue with much of the above. Ricky Gervais may have given a lot of acting opportunities to disabled people, but that generally seems to be so that he can then define those people almost exclusively by that which makes them disabled. This isn’t just true of people with disabilities, either – if a minority turns up in a Gervais show, such as The Office or Extras, you can be fairly sure that, before long, they’ll be the subject of homophobia, racism or some form of disablist taunting. They’ll be there to provide reactions to awkward moments – awkward moments that spring from someone treating them inappropriately – and very little else.

This then opens up a very obvious line of defence for Gervais, and it’s one that is also used frequently by his fans: ‘Well, they wouldn’t be in it if there was anything wrong with it, would they?’ I’ve covered this before at length. What’s provoked me to comment on this dynamic again, is that Nicky Clark doesn’t see that she’s now being used in much the same way.

When Nicky modestly says in her interview that Ricky Gervais doesn’t have to speak to her, and nor did he have to apologise last year, she doesn’t mention that – the day before he did so – Nicky had broke down crying on a Radio 2 debate about his widely controversial usage of disablist language. “What do you think of how the press have portrayed me, out of interest?” Gervais asked the disability activist and mother of two disabled children, during their resultant Twitter interview.

Returning to the interview, and Nicky’s introduction, it’s clear that TV shows created by a “multi millionaire global star” don’t actually sell themselves – the ratings for Life’s Too Short are a perfect example of this, as is the relentless advertising that accompanies any new Gervais project. The truth is that there wasn’t much of a fuss before the transmission of Derek (apart from a few mutterings on Twitter), and the only pre-broadcast “controversy” didn’t kick in until after Nicky Clark published the original version of this interview on her blog. That then led to a flurry of press articles quoting the interview, and a couple of negative blogs responding to those articles on the Telegraph and Guardian.

Let me be clear about this: There was no controversy. Ricky Gervais reacted to an imagined controversy, thereby generating hype (and controversy) for the pilot of a show which hadn’t yet been commissioned for a full series. It’s what he does.

All the while, Gervais gets to sell Derek by invoking the name of “disability campaigner Nicky Clark” – someone who very publicly took issue with his use of disablist language late last year, and who he now shamelessly uses as a PR tool:


This may feed the narrative, but how can we still be told that “above all, he wants his work to speak for itself.”

By now, it’s surely apparent that the Derek pilot became a way for Ricky Gervais to redeem himself in the eyes of politically correct audiences everywhere. As he says in his stand-up show, Fame, “One false move and I’m Jim Davidson.” Was Derek offensive, or cruel? No, but it was schmaltzy and patronising, drenched with sad piano music and over-egged, mawkish sentiment. The accompanying twitter campaign from Gervais, and interviews such as the one this blog is responding to, are in danger of raising people with disabilities up to an unreasonably high status – “He’s better than me. He’s better than most people.”

In essence, Derek is the antithesis of Warwick Davis’ character in Life’s Too Short, and a means to placate those offended by the show, or by “mong-gate”, or by Ricky Gervais’ continuing obsession with disability and minorities in general. “Some people were offended by Life’s Too Short because a character with dwarfism was an asshole” – and so now we have the other extreme, a character with a disability who can do absolutely no wrong, and who goes as far as directly communicating his own positive attributes to the audience. While crying. Against a backing of sappy piano music. Whatever happened to the nuanced writing that made The Office so enjoyable? Why is everything pitched at such extremes, now?

The answer is obvious: Ricky Gervais is compelled to constantly explain everything to the audience, and is, like myself, an absolutely tiresome control freak.

There are two more parts of this interview I want to take issue with, and in the next quote Gervais goes as far as stating that an audience’s interpretation is utterly invalid, if it contradicts his own:

Nicky Clark: Derek Noakes, as a character, first surfaced in 2001. Irrespective of your assertions that he isn’t learning disabled, why do you feel this belief still persists?

Ricky Gervais: Well firstly there is no argument. Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can’t come along and prove me wrong.

This is nonsense, and a particularly baffling line of argument for a philosophy graduate to pursue. Here’s an excerpt of an article from 2001, where Stephen Merchant responds to this “corporate party line…”

This taste for constantly stating the unnecessarily offensive lead to the foundation of Rubbernecker, the live stand up show they brought to the Edinburgh Fringe last year. They appeared with long term writing partners Robin Ince and Jimmy Carr in a show that derived it’s name from the term applied to people who slow down for traffic accidents – you know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t help yourself. Neither of them especially enjoyed the experience, and Steve particularly didn’t relish this return to his stand up roots. “You see Ross Noble and it’s like that’s his world, he has to be on stage, he has to be getting it out of his system, but for me there’s no reason to be up there. I don’t need the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd. I don’t need to thrive on that. That was the one thing that was good about Edinburgh, I discovered I wasn’t one of those wankers who has to go on stage.”

With this, Ricky grins. “Not that he’s saying Ross Noble is a wanker.” Steve rapidly back pedals. “No, he’s not. He’s an amazing man, Ross. He’s not a wanker. He’s not a wanker.” Ricky throws his head back and laughs, while Steve sits forward with his head in his hands. “Now I wish I’d never even brought up the word wanker. Because now they’re going to write Steve Merchant thinks Ross Noble’s a wanker, and he’ll read that and that will be terrible. See, that’s the problem with journalists, they can twist your words. And if you’ve said in the first place, and they don’t need to twist it, that’s the worst part.”

Putting that aside for a moment, the Rubbernecker show did bring one of Ricky’s oldest characters to the attention of the world, in the form of Derek, described in one of the national newspapers simply as ‘poor Derek’. “Derek,” Ricky begins, “is just a nice, simple lad who sees the world differently.” “Yeah,” says Steve. “That’s the corporate party line. Toeing the party line. The man who sees the world differently. Brilliant.” Both Robin Ince and Jimmy Carr confessed that Derek is their favourite comedy character, but, as with a lot of Ricky’s work, is open to interpretation, and not for the particularly faint hearted. The Rubbernecker show featured all four performers in varying degrees of hysteria, battering the audience with increasingly peculiar and inappropriate subjects, with the stage time for each lasting approximately twenty minutes. This, as far as Ricky is concerned, is the correct length of time for a stand up performance. “This sounds really weird but I see a stand up and I go, that was amazing, they made me laugh for half an hour – anything more I’m actually bored, however good they are.”

And finally, when Nicky Clark asks Ricky Gervais about Karl Pilkington’s love of “freaks” at the end of her interview, he plays it down like this:

I can’t speak for Karl obviously, but I can tell you that he hasn’t got a malicious bone in his body. I have never heard him “mock” people with disfigurement, facial or otherwise, but I have heard him talk about them in a fascinated and naive way. He is rather like a 5 year old child in a supermarket who points and says “Mummy why has that man got a weird shaped head” The mother is often mortified but she knows the child wasn’t being nasty. Just inquisitive.

I’ll leave the last word to Vicky Lucas – a past target of Pilkington’s ‘naive and inquisitive fascination’:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/apr/13/disability-joke-frankie-boyle
http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/features/what_were_they_staring_at.shtml

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Hole In The Fire – Remembering Peter Bergman

Peter Bergman RIP

On the 9th of March, 2012, Peter Bergman sadly passed on. Bergman was a founding member of the psychedelic comedy troupe “Firesign Theatre”, whose late 60′s and early 70′s records gained a dedicated cult following. I’m joined by ApexJazz, as we discuss their work, and the legacy of Peter Bergman. Thank you to Apex for the passion and insight he brought to this podcast.

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