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No Laughing Matters

February 2, 2011

I watched two contrasting comedy programmes last weekend. The first was a 9pm Friday night series featuring a number of young comedians. The second was a DVD of a comedy show from 1979 – featuring a single comedian and several ‘feeds,’ plus some song and dance numbers.

I noticed two things. First, the way in which the ‘humour’ was delivered. None of the 2011 comics stopped to ‘share’ the laughter with their audience. In fact, there was a noticeable emphasis on “see how clever I am, noticing something everyday and making you laugh at it” comedy. Nobody took off on a flight of imagination that might make the audience forget its troubles for a while. One ‘comedy magician’ simply did a routine Paul Daniels has done a million times before – though admittedly Daniels ends on a Lemon and Nut rather than Shoe and Cake. Otherwise it was the same routine… except that you never saw Daniels palm the note during a close-up.

Either way, the youngsters came on, did ten minutes or so of shouting, got some laughs, and went off again. It was pretty much like ‘fast food’ – bland but satisfying in the moment; but left you wondering why you even bothered entering the joint in the first place.

24 hours later, I watched the old comedian. Boy, did they splash cash back in the pre-Thatcher era. Stunning showgirls opened each episode, a huge cast of adults and kids filled out each song and dance number, and there was fresh scenery in practically every shot. Contrast that to the simple ‘black box’ and ‘house band with a disc to plug so is working probably for nothing’ set up of today.

Was that the main difference, though? No, the differences were in the jokes and the audience responses. The comedian clearly enjoyed his work, and there was a great sense of ‘Let Us Entertain You’ about the whole enterprise. It’s the “X Factor” I talked about a while back. Yes, the whole felt dated in some ways… but the production values are something I’d love to see more of.

It was the script that provided most interest, of course. Politics, and plenty of it, for a start. This man wasn’t an ‘alternative’ comedian – that was still in nappies (diapers to America – particularly B O’B) at the time. No, just simple cracks about the leaders of the day and the immediate past. Nothing nasty either – observations about jockeying for position at the most, rather than attacks on reputation and family.

The eyebrow-raiser was the out-and-out (to the modern ear) racism. Two jokes – one about ‘Liquorice Allsorts,’ the other about a recent immigrant’s confusion over sanitation were utterly unacceptable now – yet got big laughs just 30 years ago. I’m not a believer that it should have been cut out of the show for DVD release – that’s censorship going too far for me – but it was noted.

I guess my point is that humour evolves, and we need to be careful that in removing anything controversial, we don’t also lose the humanity that is needed to make it work. The modern acts lack the vital element of being able to ‘share’ their laughter with the audience. Older acts may have had divisive material, but they could do it. Is there a way back? Can we mix good old ‘let’s laugh with and at each other’ with ‘but without causing genuine offence’? I hope so, and will keep watching the Friday night series in the hope that somebody will appear who can do just that.

Final note: Super Bowl XLV this Sunday Night: LET’S GO PACKERS!!!!!

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