Sunday, 16 March 2014

Comedians on TV, idle thoughts

When was the last time you saw a great new comedian on telly?

This isn't meant to be a loaded or snide question, I'm genuinely asking because I'm actually trying to remember when I last saw a comedian on TV for the first time and was able to say "I've never seen anyone like this before."

Because of my vintage, I'm able to cast my mind back to seeing my first ever comedians in the 1970s. I missed Billy Connolly's TV debut on Parkinson cos I wasn't old enough to stay up for it, and there were plenty who seemed to always been around like Morecambe and Wise, The Goodies, Monty Python, The Two Ronnies and Dave Allen. So the first comedian I remember making an impact on his TV debut was Paul Daniels. Shut up.

Trite and old hat as he might seem now, when he made his debut on the Wheeltappers and Shunter Club (you had to be there) I had simply never seen a comedy magician before and this was probably the first time I'd seen someone doing adult-oriented jokes on TV (a memorable gag was "See my initials on my bag, PD? Val Doonican can't do that". There is probably no part of that joke that makes sense 40 years on).

NB I had seen Tommy Cooper, but by the late 70s he wasn't funny. Neither were Max Wall, Billy Dainty, Charlie Drake or any of the 50s and 60s comics ITV was still showcasing. Les Dawson, Spike Milligan and Benny Hill were about to suffer the same fate, being dismissed by a new generation who found them outdated.

Then came Jasper Carrott, Mike Harding and Max Boyce, who were to all intents and purpose the first stand up comedians I'd seen on the telly. There had been Granada TV's The Comedians where men in bowties smoked fags and told gags, but with the exception of Tom O'Connor and Charlie Williams, they mostly told the same jokes as each other, and even to my young eyes seemed neither big nor clever. When I realised later just how racist some of them were, I shudder to think how many of those gags the 11 year old me must have repeated in the playground.

Victoria Wood and Pam Ayres - again, shut up - were two of the most impressive debuts of their time. No-one was doing what they did, they were laugh out loud funny every time. And guess what, they're still doing it 40 years on while most of their contemporaries have chickened out to become mere actors, authors or dead people, which says a lot.

Not The 9 O'Clock News and Alternative Comedy revolutionised TV comedy, bringing about a paradigm shift in the comedy consciousness whereby we suddenly realised that sexism and racism not only existed but were bad things and that people would suddenly not laugh at them any more. Thus dozens of old school talents disappeared to be replaced by a new wave who, I only subsequently realised, were largely from public school and Oxbridge. (Did you know that, in The Young Ones University Challenge spoof, that more of the Oiks team came from public schools than the Poshos team?)

Class prejudice notwithstanding, I can remember the devastating impact of the first TV appearances of Rik Mayall (Stomping On The Cat), Ben Elton (Oxford Road Show) and The Comic Strip (Channel 4's first night). I also remember seeing comics for the first time who I didn't think were that funny (French & Saunders, Alexei Sayle, Keith Allen) but they got better as time went by (except Keith Allen).

The comedy boom that started in the 80s brought some of the greatest of the greats. Do you remember when you first saw Steven Wright or Emo Phillips? Now that, quite literally, is what I'm talking about.

So the 80s saw a steady flow of talent that was exciting and original, and not all posh. Fry & Laurie, Hunter & Docherty, Norman Lovett, Jeremy Hardy, Whose Line Is It Anyway's Paul Merton, Clive Anderson and Tony Slattery, The Joan Collins Fan Club aka Julian Clary, and then the world of comedy changed for me because I started going to live comedy clubs and seeing them on stage first.

Thus many comics made their first impression on me in the live environment before making it onto TV and some, quite a few indeed, turned out to be way less funny on the box. Jo Brand being the best example of that. She was the funniest comedian by far that we'd had on in The Monkhouse club in Leicester that year (was it 1988), with Patrick Marber and Mark Lamarr being voted the runners up. But Jo's TV showcases were usually much less successful affairs, especially when it was decided to put her into sketches. She may now be a national treasure, but it took the power of actual live work to do that, to which her TV work has never matched up.

The greatest 90s TV debut that comes to mind, of someone I'd never seen live, is Vic Reeves, back in 1990, when the NME had him on the cover and declared "this is Britain's funniest man" and for a short time he was. Other impressive debuts were the Mary Whitehouse Experience and Lee & Herring, though I suppose by now my jaded mind was starting to compare them more to their predecessors than given them enough credit for their originality. (Though I will admit, comparisons to David Frost, the Pythons & Mike Yarwood aside, Mary Whitehouse was brilliant).

The 90s brings us to the start of our current era where comedians gained a ubiquity on TV, and even taking control of it through companies like Hat Trick and Talkback, and we started getting a slew of comedians who, while all original and different from each other, struggled to be that different purely because there were so many of them. Most of the 90s/00s wave of comics I saw live long before they hit TV, and most were at their best in the small room. It was obvious, for example, that Peter Kay was a star from the off, and it's one of the biggest privileges to have compered for him then see him entertain a room of 150 people. Comedy's equivalent of seeing the Sex Pistols debut I'd say.

Likewise I've seen truly legendary comics like Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard play small rooms, ahead of them becoming stadium fillers. I worked with Miranda Hart in the Sitcom Trials from 2000-02 and it was obvious she was destined for greatness, something that was also clear when I first saw Sarah Millican play in a tiny downstairs room at the Leicester Comedy Festival. TV seems determined to make you sick of both of them through over exposure, but I think they're managing.

Comedy writers are probably the subject of different train of thought. The 90s & 00s suddenly saw Armando Iannucci, Graham Linehan, Bain & Armstrong rise to greatness, but behind the scenes. Indeed sitcom, or the not-stand-up arena, may be the place where the biggest debuts have happened in the last two decades, from Steve Coogan and the League of Gentlemen, via Little Britain & The Mighty Boosh, to Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Since the start of this century, when you can't move for comedy panel games, and where an entire generation think the Edinburgh Fringe is just a comedy festival, there has often been the feeling of comedy having a conveyor belt delivering the next homogenised soundalike comedian that fits the slot TV is looking for. I know there's a big difference between the men-only racist bowtie wearers of Granada's The Comedians and the men-only it's-not-racist-it's-ironic sharp-elbowed dicks-on-the-table competitors of Mock The Week, but sometimes it's hard not to feel that some comedians are less original than others. Did I mention I was the first person to say "ladies and gentlemen Russell Howard", at the Comedy Box in Bristol back in 1998? See also Stephen Merchant, Marcus Brigstocke, Alun Cochrane and the first comedy club headline slot by Graham Norton. I hear they've done alright.

Originality abounds on stage, of course, and the Edinburgh Fringe and the comedy clubs of the country is still a good place to find them, though I have seen precious few truly eclectic comedians in the regional comedy clubs I've played in recent years. There was even a story of a venue recently asking a promoter to change the bill because there were too many women on it, suggesting that conservatism in comedy may be just as bad as it was forty years ago.

So, who was the last great new comedian who I saw on telly? Well, I was impressed by discovering Andy Samberg's SNL skits online a couple of years ago, does he count? And sitcom is seeing some very good writer performers like Tim Key and Tom Basden. And I'm looking forward to the proper TV debut of Jon Finniemore. And there I go, listing three public school Cambridge Footlighters in a row, does nothing ever change?

I began this blog with a genuine question and I'm no closer to an answer. I'd be interested in hearing other peoples thoughts. The last time you saw a great new comedian on TV anyone?

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