I’m bored of comedians.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t love comedy, any more than being of tired of chefs would mean one dislikes food. What I’m bored of are the practitioners of humour.
Comedians are everywhere these days. Stand-up DVDs keep HMV in business. Sitcoms emerge to provide bandwagons for different comics. Panel shows laden with them exist to pass humorous judgement on everything from sport to politics, from the arts to the sciences. Little happens in this nation that isn’t parodied, satirised or whimsically recounted. If a tree falls in a forest, the philosophers have asked, will some bright-eyed Merry Andrew reference it on Channel 4? Yes. Yes, they will.
Comedy should frame ideas, events and aspects of things in a manner that helps us to perceive them in unexpected and enlightening ways. Comedians are so ubiquitous, and their position in the media is so comfortable, that their jokes tend to be as surprising as a bruised banana and illuminating as a Hallmark card. Satirists reshape ephemeral phenomena to suit the idle prejudices of their audiences while fantasists create elaborate streams of gibberish about cigars that, once they’ve finished, were clearly just cigars. They’re less inspired by telling people things they didn’t know than flattering them for their preconceptions; less concerned with discovering significance than embellishing the trivial.
I’ve no wish to ape the people who respond to every tune that isn’t drowned in riffs by appealing for “real music”. Good comedy still exists; there’s just more of the bad stuff. It’s so cheap to produce and so accessible a form that it’s become the potatoes on the plate of entertainment: filler rather than nutrition or haute cuisine. The comedians that haunt our teles aren’t artists but journeymen; hired not to craft but mass-produce. Try, without referencing their physical characteristics, to describe the work of Jack Whitehall, Chris Addison, Rufus Hound, Russell Kane or Mark Watson. If you’ve come up with more than limp adjectives I salute you. These might be talented men but I’m sick of their appearing around one table or another to tell jokes that we forget within the time it takes to poach an egg in the microwave.
Am I just being a curmudgeon? After all, people must like these guys or they’d never be hired. Aren’t there better things to be complained about than jokes that I don’t happen to enjoy? Well, yeah. I know that if I dislike A League of Their Own I can touch a button on the remote and all my troubles will disappear. The problem, though, is that while comedy is being neglected as an art form it’s treated with reverence as a social institution. Comedians are viewed with a peculiar regard and deserve the analysis that they might subject others to.
Satirists are held up as our foremost dissidents. As Conrad Black visits Britain, for example, the press eagerly speculate about his appearance on Have I Got News For You. This is a show, remember, that has elevated rather more careers than it it has damaged. The thing one should bear in mind is that satire isn’t an effective political tool. One thinks of the Berlin cabarets, as Peter Cook observed, that did so much to prevent the outbreak of World War 2. Jokes can give us ammunition in political struggles but they can’t win them for us. Sometimes, indeed, laughter can be a relaxant when inspiration is required. Cracking wise about outrageous people or events can substitute amusement for emotion. If you can’t grasp how horrible it was to see Alastair Campbell face “WMD” jokes on Have I Got News You imagine a serial killer being spared a jail sentence and forced instead to endure a comedy roast.
This is incidental, to some extent, because few of our most notorious comedians strive to be profound. Outrageous comics of our time aren’t known for being incisive but for puerile and obscene. Ricky Gervais railed against “safe, adonyne humour”. What was his alternative? A programme in which a man with dwarfism was derided for being short. Frankie Boyle is a hugely talented bloke. One can’t help observing, though, that his reputation for edginess is built on wisecracks about the Queen’s vagina, Rebecca Adlington’s facial proportions and the disability of a supermodel’s child. What was gained from that? The smug, self-congratulatory pleasures of collective irreverence that will keep millions of loveless teens uploading jokes about the pain of strangers onto Sickipedia ‘til kingdom come.
There’s something peculiar about comedians themselves: they don’t offer a product; they are the product. They’re hired to appear in person and to be entertaining. There’s something inherently comedic about this, because while the guys who sit around their different tables joke and laugh about the issues of the day you can bet that at least some of them will be feeling grim. We spend very little of our lives feeling amused yet it’s these men and women’s job to act as if they are permanently. Once you’ve understood this it’s absurd and eerie to watch their strained grins and strange guffaws. It’s no surprise that some, once the cameras have been turned off, take to abusing their critics; bullying people on Twitter and – okay, I’ll admit that this happened in one case – screaming obscene abuse at their partners. Their whole shtick is completely unnatural.
Comedy, when it emerges from passion and craftsmanship, can be a form that inspires, consoles and educates. Comedians now keep us mired in cynicism and complacence. I never watched Black Mirror or Dead Set but I’ll give to credit to Brooker, a man who was famous only for being himself, for going away and trying to create something of lasting value. Would that more comedians would stop trying to amuse us every hour of every day and retreat to think of jokes that will make us laugh longer and, perhaps, even think a bit.
Thanks to Brit for the inspiration.