Beware the backlash

John Phillips on the stand-ups who jumped the shark

If there’s one thing that tells me someone is going to annoy me, it’s if I mention a singer or a band, and they say: ‘Oh, I like the early stuff, before they became famous.’ Isn’t it possible to have success both artistically and commercially? Some people obviously think not.

Not long ago, a colleague asked me what I thought of Little Britain and I found myself saying I didn’t really like it much, but that Matt Lucas and David Walliams used to be brilliant ‘before they became famous’. Maybe you do always become the thing you hate.

You see, one Friday night, many moons ago, I had been enjoying the novelty of cable television, flitting around the dozens of channels of crap on offer. I stumbled on the Paramount Comedy Channel, and a show called Paramount Presents. Lucas and Walliams effectively ‘starred’, with inserts from the then-unknown Simon Pegg, The Cheese Shop, and Alexei Sayle’s Bobby Chariot. By the end of the show, I was convinced that David Walliams was the greatest comic talent I’d ever seen. His manic parody of a pre-scandal Michael Barrymore had weeping with laughter. But, I thought, his humour was very niche. Oh no, he’d never get anywhere, he’d just stay a happy memory in the back of my mind somewhere, definitely.

Nowadays, you can’t walk down the high street without seeing Lucas and Walliams grinning back from a DVD cover, T-shirt, video game, or desk toy. You can’t even enjoy a cross channel ferry without the thought that you might overtake Walliams doing the breast stroke. So why aren’t I delighted? Well, simply because Little Britain is nowhere near as good as the sketches he was doing on Paramount Presents. Actually, I’ll rephrase that. It’s nowhere near as good as I remember those sketches on Paramount Presents being.

At the time of the first TV series, Little Britain achieved the ultimate – being both popular and good. Inevitably, it didn’t last. The third series especially drew a lot of criticism for becoming increasingly childish and dumbed-down. The backlash had begun.

So where does the backlash take you next? Well, let’s look back five years or so at the two most notable examples of men who used to be the future.

When the second series of The Office premiered, it seemed that Ricky Gervais really had become the new face of British comedy. The anticipation was fierce, and yet somehow, the series managed to better the first. Still now, Gervais manages to pack theatres with his stand-up, and sell DVDs by the shedload. For someone who made his name by observing the minutiae of everyday life, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that as his life changed, so too would the material.

Extras began as fairly unashamed vanity project, the second series taking this too mind-boggling extremes, forsaking characterisation and even logic along the way. The stand-up, which began with the reasonable Animals, descended into the Fame show. As any appearance on TV came to shoehorn mentions of his various awards, is it any wonder that people are starting to wonder whether the boasting ever actually had the layer of irony we always assumed? Or is it that more and more of us are starting to realise that his magnum opus performance, David Brent, has had its flaws highlighted by the far superior performance of Steve Carell in the American version? If there was any hope for Gervais’s reputation as an edgy and ‘worthy’ figure, surely the last traces were washed away with his shameless courting of the American market, and in particular his God-awful episode of The Simpsons.

For a more extreme example, how about this? Do you remember the first time you sat in a restaurant and heard someone bawl ‘Garlic bread?!’ at the top of their voice? That’s when you knew Peter Kay had arrived. Like Gervais, he had a wonderful sitcom, Phoenix Nights. Like Gervais, he had massive stand-up tours. Like Gervais, DVD sales by the ton. Like Gervais, the sudden realisation that the new hero has given in to the temptations of fame, with the official website that eschewed the most basic functions in favour of a simple merchandise store. And so much merchandise at that.

The moment in which Kay really tainted his reputation is sharply defined. It wasn’t just the comedy anoraks who found it beyond belief that Kay should release a new stand-up DVD, only to find it was just another performance of the same material used on his previous one. Worse still, he hasn’t learned his lesson, releasing yet another DVD, Stand Up UKay, a compilation of the previous three DVDs, two of which were the same anyway.

Kay’s reputation as a warm and genuine performer ebbed away, not helped by his very public and totally undignified falling out with many of the people who helped him to the top. Indeed, listen to the DVD commentaries for Phoenix Nights, and at times Kay comes across almost as the school bully, surrounding himself with people who will sycophantically laugh as he pours scorn on the people who dare to question his genius.

Can the backlash be avoided? Oh yes, but it’s not an easy path to tread. A decade before The Office or Phoenix nights hit the screens, who were the biggest names in comedy? Newman & Baddiel, the ultra-cool double act who were the first to take a comedy tour to Wembley Arena. The backlash was surely coming, and while the post-split Baddiel tried his hand at various methods of staying in the limelight, Newman retreated. No doubt Newman, always regarded as the more talented of the duo, could no doubt have taken the route that Kay and Gervais were to take. It’s a costly business, avoiding the backlash, but that’s why Newman today is talked of in such reverential tones.

Why do we resent comedians reaping the rewards of their success so much more than when actors or musicians do the same? Perhaps because comedy, more than any other art form, is one where a performer has to create a bond with his audience. For anyone who followed Gervais or Kay in their early careers, it’s unsurprising that the sight of their normal, working class heroes behaving like prima donnas should leave a bitter taste to the mouth. In order to enjoy comedy, we often suspend our disbelief and convince ourselves that we’re not seeing is not an act, but the genuine character of the performer.

Perhaps we want to buy into the belief that a comedian has to be a tortured soul, a belief that is shattered when we see them glugging champagne in Hollywood. Maybe we think that comedy is born of suffering, and that nobody who rubs shoulders with the A-listers can possibly have the right insight into the human condition. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because we’re all jealous.

Published: 18 Dec 2007

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