Saturday 28 April 2012

Podcast about Comedy and Writing

I listen to loads of podcasts. In fact, I hardly listen to any live radio. If Radio 4 don't podcast it, I'm unlikely to listen it. I've got to be really determined to catch it on iPlayer. But I thought it might be worth sharing a few links of stuff I find genuinely useful and interesting. Just listening to people talk about comedy, writing or comedy writing is fascinating to me, obviously, but it also of interest to you, I suspect, since you're looking at this blog. So, here's my list:

Rob Long's Martini Shot - short, weekly anecdotes from the front lines of showbiz by mega-experienced Rob Long (author of the wonderful Conversations with My Agent & Set-up, Joke, Set-up, Joke.) Although his experiences and mine rarely overlap, just listening to him makes me feel excited to be a writer, and therefore cynical about the business. That's here.

UK Scriptwriters Podcast - hosted by Danny Stack & Tim Clague. A warm and up-beat monthly show about writing in Britain in UK, ranging from comedy to computer games. These guys have infectious enthusiasm as well as industry experience. Savvy without being cynical. Always a pleasure. That's here.

The Comedian's Comedian - a new podcast by Stuart Goldsmith that's mostly about stand-up comedy, but also joke mechanics and the business in general. So far, his guests have been Rob Deering, Dan Evans and Dan Antopolski. In-depth and meaty. Great stuff. Well worth having on in the car on a long journey to a gig. An hour will fly by. That's here.

What Are You Laughing At? - which features yours truly from time to time. Hosted by Dave Cohen with either me or Tony Cowards. There is chat about British comedy - mostly TV and Radio - along with a guests, including Al Murray, Jim Tavare, Watson & Oliver. The one from Edinburgh is really good too. They're all here.

I also like KCRW's The Business which is here. And there are some good ones on The Writers Guild here. And I just found Nerdist Writers Panel, but not heard any yet. That's here. Right. I've shown you mine. Now you show me yours...

Thursday 12 April 2012


Everyone's talking about Derek so let's talk about Derek. But let me begin with a proviso straight off. This sort of show isn't my sort of thing at all. No great surprise to you I'm sure, given I had a hand in writing two series of Miranda. At the moment, there does seem to be quite a lot of comedy that's high on atmos and pathos, aiming to tug the heart strings rather than tickle the ribs. I'm thinking about programmes like Him and Her, The Cafe and Roger and Val Have Just Got In. These shows have found a devoted audience and critics seem to like them, but they're not for me. My saying they're rubbish or inferior would be like disliking raw fish and criticising a chef for serving sushi. You get the idea. (I do dislike raw fish, by and large)

So, to Derek. And I'm sure you can smell the elephant in the room. Is it right or moral? Is Ricky Gervais mocking people who clearly have severe learning difficulties? Despite previous comments and tweets by Gervais which were either thoughtless or intentionally provocative, I don't believe Derek is mean-spirited. Quite the opposite in fact. Derek is portrayed as being so kind and good that he's almost being held up as an example to the rest of us.

If anything the show is rather thoughtless with regard to the elderly who are treated as props. It seems odd that a show can take place in a nursing home and for no single elderly character to have a more than one or two meaningful lines. But the show's about Derek, not them. I understand that.

Flaws and Quests
Overall, though, we have a comic problem. In a comedy, lead characters need to have flaws on their character and clear quests. Moreover, these character flaws need to interfere with and frustrate their clear quests. The characters need to deserve their sufferings and trials because they don't listen to advice or they're proud or a snob. If Captain Mainwairing would only listen to Sergeant Wilson, he wouldn't make such a fool of himself. If Basil Fawlty weren't such a ludicrous snob, he might find he is much more calm and relaxed. If David Brent wasn't so sure he was a very good boss and a natural comedian, people might actually start to like him.

Derek has flaws, and they're not his fault, and so comedically it's hard to generate comedy stories, scenes and moments. It's okay for bad things to happen to Derek's friend, Dougie the Caretaker, played by Karl Pilkington, because he's mean about the old people and doesn't respect human life. In fact, he's saying the elderly have no quality of life - when his own is clearly lived in a small, dull bubble. It would have been nice to see this character called on this - and we do see that he fixed that picture he wanted to throw away. But it cost him nothing.

Now clearly, I'm banging on about formulaic comedy and lots of people would like to see something different or new or experimental. And that's fine. But most comedy is formulaic underneath, although it's often well disguised. In fact, it's unclear whether this is a comedy drama, or just a drama. Either way, characters needs quests, drives, flaws and set-backs.

The other problem for me was the casting. Ricky Gervais is obviously brilliant in The Office - and Extras. He also does a great job in Ghost Town, which is a lovely movie that works well for him. I didn't feel he carried this one off so well - partly because he's already bringing baggage to the part. And if the audience are watching baggage, they're missing the jokes. Others may feel differently, but I would have cast someone else in that part. Gervais clearly has an eye for casting because he's found another fantastic female lead in Kerry Godliman. But Gervais' performance made me feel uncomfortable, and that's not a good start. It also reminded me of the character with the wig and glasses Andy Milman plays in When the Whistle Blows - the sitcom within Extras. This is not a good thing.

Some have criticised the mock-doc format. It's true that the format didn't really add anything, but it's a ubiquitous shooting style now, so this didn't bother me one way or the other.

My other criticism would be that nothing really happened in the first ten minutes. I get that it was slow and going at its own pace, but it felt like the show was treading water. There was probably time to set up the old lady dying and Derek's relationship with her. There was probably time for Dougie the caretaker to get his comeuppance. But as with all of these things it is worth noting that Ricky Gervais makes more money in a day that I do in a year. He clearly knows what he's doing. But that's my boringly technical analysis of his show.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Why It's Usually Okay to Make Jokes About the French

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman go into a pub. The Englishman says something conventional and unremarkable - or slightly stuck-up. The Scotsman in some way demonstrates he is thrifty. The Irishman demonstrates he has misunderstood the entire situation and everyone laughs at him.

Okay, so it’s not a joke, but it’s the format of a joke. Is it anti-Irish? Not really. It's a format. The Irish are not an oppressed and exploited minority - any more. There would have been a time when the joke would have been inappropriate. But we're okay with it now. Why is that?

Jokes and comedy often rely on stereotypes because they are short-cuts. Sometimes they're cliched, sometimes very current. Sometimes they are sweepingly generalised, and other times they are specific. But the format is clear. When someone starts to tell a David Beckham joke, you know that it's a joke about a stupid person. It has been assumed David Beckham was stupid. I’m not sure he is. He is softly spoken and has a fairly high pitched voice, but stupid that makes him not. I note that he’s considerably richer than everyone who reads this blog combined so he’s not that stupid. But because he's a multi-millionaire with a popstar wife, no-one feels that sorry for him, so it's probably okay. But we'll come back to this.

Here’s a standard European joke:
In Heaven, the mechanics are German, the chefs are French, the police are British, the lovers are Italian and everything is organized by the Swiss. In Hell, the mechanics are French, the police are German, the chefs are British, the lovers are Swiss and everything is organized by the Italians.
(EU Joke Book Vol III Page 321 Paragraph 2b)

It seems harmless enough. What’s the joke? That the Germans are efficious, the British are poor cooks, the Swiss are unromantic and the Italians are a shambles. There are all stereotypes, that are broadly accepted as being true - true enough for the joke to be funny - even though there a notable exceptions. But no-one minds too much because we're all of similar status.

There are those who say that it's not okay to joke about nationalities and stereotype in this way - and apply some sort of EU/UN standard to joke-telling. They say "Why is okay to joke about Americans when it's not okay to joke about Nigerians?" We all know that this issue is complicated, but there is a way through. It's okay to make jokes about Americans and the French. And there's a good reason not to make jokes about Nigerians, as we shall see.

No-one really knows how comedy works. There's not a 'Grand Unified Theory' of comedy that I've found convincing, or a 'Standard Model', but in this area of joking about 'people groups' and all that, I think there three categories of joke.

1. A Joke told between Equals.
This is essentially banter between colleagues, brothers and friends - about each other and not designed to cause offence. If anything, it comes from a place of respect and affection and based on the fact that there is general parity.

eg. Jokes about the French by the English - and vice versa. Let’s be honest. The French and the English are not all that different. We’ve had a bumpy relationship over the last thousand years, but for the last hundred years, we’ve been on the same side. We’re large, industrious, wealthy countries and we’re not afraid of each other. Not really. So a joke about the French obsession with food or lack of personal hygience is probably fine. It’s worth watching Flushed Away. There is a French character – a Frog! Who’d have thought it? – voiced by Jean Reno. There are some very funny jokes at the expense of the French, but they’re clearly not meant to wound.

But there would be circumstance in which anti-French jokes would be unacceptable. Imagine you're in a class of English teenagers and there is a French exchange student. The English teenagers tell a series of jokes again and again at the expense of the French student. Is that appropriate? Probably not.

2. A joke told by the Righteous Weak against the Unrighteous Powerful.
We're veering towards satire here. These are, for example, jokes by left-wing broke students against a right-wing privileged government. Some of these jokes will be justified - others less so. Cameron, as Prime Minister and an old Etonian, is fair game. No-one's going to feel too sorry for him on this front because he's had things his own way for most of life. That said, he's suffered tragedy recently with the loss of his six-year old son who suffered from cerebral palsy and a form of epilepsy. It's hard to see how a joke about that could ever be justified comedically or even satirically. You are certainly unlikely to carry an audience with you on that one.

We encounter problems here because this sort of comedy, against the powerful, will delight the less powerful and offend the friends of the powerful. Moreover, comedy of this nature, satire in particular, is intended to offend. It's exposing hypocrisy or cold-heartedness or other vices. Those affected or mocked will be offended by the accusations. This is why, ultimately, offence is very poor indicator of whether a joke should have been told or not.

3. A joke told by the Oppressor against the Oppressed.
This is comedy used to humiliate, oppress and marginalise. This is why it’s inappropriate for an Englishman to tell Pakistani jokes – even though there are 160 million Pakistanis in Pakistan and they have nuclear weapons. They are powerful, but in Britain they are a minority and frequently get a rough deal from those who are simply prejudiced. It would be irresponsible to make jokes about Pakistanis, perhaps even valid satirical ones, if we were increasing injustice and their overall suffering of a group of people.

Jokes can be told about a minority by members of that minority. Is it okay to tell a string of Jewish jokes? If you’re Jackie Mason on a West End stage, yes. The jokes are told from within a community with affection. If you’re a skinhead and leading a fascist rally, no. The jokes are being told to humiliate, oppress and encourage hatred.

The Teller
The added complication comes when the person telling the joke is a fictional character, especially one who is either confused or unsympathetic. We are not being invited to agree with his views (eg Alf Garnett or David Brent). The tricky bit is when stand-up comedians do this kind of material and are assuming that we are assuming that they can't possibly mean what they're saying. This is more dubious in my opinion.

The fact is every joke takes place within a context - socially and dramatically, and it can make the world of difference what the context is. Some of stuff is really hard to figure out. eg. Animated characters get to be much more visceral and offensive than live action characters (see South Park & Family Guy) But whether we should prevent people from saying things we think are beyond the pail and simply too offensive is a separate question.