Will the credit crunch kill comedy whimsy?

by comic Grainne Maguire

When comedy historians look back at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008, what will they say? After a baffled pause to marvel that anyone ever thought that much rain was possible, they will surely note it as the moment ‘comedy whimsy’ peaked and was then eaten up by the credit crunch. Its king, David O'Doherty, had finally won the big if.comedy award, but it was the end of the reign for this most delicate of stand-up forms.

By whimsical comedy, I mean the personal, eccentric, almost studied uncool comedy that has been so influential in the past decade. This lo-fi celebration of underachievement, vulnerability, personal quirks and odd obsessions were a welcome reaction against the increasingly shallow posturing of Nineties laddish humour.

Comedy a decade before may have been called the new rock and roll but the actual club scene at the turn of the millennium showed little in the way of excitement or controversy. After the hurly-burly of the alternative comedy boom, clubs were returning to the same tired routines. Wank jokes, check. Racism seasoned with a gesture towards irony, check. Why men and women are different... what? men and women are different?!

Acts like Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, Robin Ince and Isy Suttie brought a soulfulness, depth and playfulness to a new stand-up scene. The rules were now different. Audiences were not to expect traditional set up punchlines of gag-based humour, they were not to heckle, they were simply not going to laugh every ten seconds. They had to trust the comedians knew what they were doing, listen and think rather than nod and get drunk. In return they got acts liberated from the constraints of club comedy, free to find the funny in unexpected places.

Strange turns of phrases, subtly odd characterisations, quietly honest confessions that would have wilted painfully at loud late night clubs, were given the space to blossom. Home-made cartoons, PowerPoint overheads and acoustic guitars were given free rein to create something different. Comedy nights were welcoming places in libraries, laundrettes and secret locations, the indie alternative to gladiatorial stag night entertainment.

Like all movements, however, as it progressed, it began to resemble the very thing it began as a reaction to. Old school comedians (Jim Davidson and the boys) were criticised for pandering to their audiences’ prejudices, confirming their superiority and suspicions about anyone who was different. Increasingly whimsical comedians did the exact same thing. They reassured their predominantly white middle-class audiences that they were better because they read literary fiction, listened to indie music and hated George Bush. God forbid, they read Nuts, went clubbing or drank WKDs, then all hope was truly lost. Not even Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, musical patron saints of all things whimsical could save them.

The movement became increasingly self-indulgent and inward looking. This was highlighted at this year’s Edinburgh by the dearth of shows discussing the ensuing financial crisis. Instead of shows demanding how London elected a mayor on the basis on a few good TV appearances and why Britain was on the brink of electing a Margaret Thatcher that recycles, we had shows about animals, about shows that never made it as shows, shows about a comedian’s passion for VHS, shows about a comedian’s passion for Fifties tea cosies... like the increasingly obtuse concept albums of the late 1970s, stand up just seemed to be running out of ideas.

Everything works in cycles. Just as the silliness of the Goons was replaced by the satire of the Sixties, the surreal Seventies elbowed out by the angry Eighties, a sharper, tougher style is sure to be on its way. The current economic climate means that smaller clubs will begin to close. The audience that comes to the surviving ones will be different. They will either want their anger at our collapsing economy voiced on stage or they will want big simple laughs and jokes. If they have just found out their house has lost half it’s worth, they will not want to hear a comedian postulate the reasons why they are so rubbish at 1970 home crafts. Things will have to change.

Despite this comedy wimshy's legacy will live long after it. There is a precedent now for oddness, obtuseness and erudition that will give generations of comedians the confidence to try new things. There is also a new career path, thanks to its successful transition to radio and TV, which will reassure many acts that there is a career beyond the club circuit. Hopefully thanks to acts like Josie Long, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie and Sarah Kendall, a new generation of women will be bemused by the idea that stand-up was ever seen as the preserve of men.

Now, new comedians all over the land will be able to reassure themselves after another night of a regional audience’s angry bafflement, that Robin Ince would have loved their set.

I admit a real affection, no, love for comedy whimsy. As long as people buy second-hand cardigans in Oxfam shops, whereever someone makes a mixed tape on an C-90 cassette, whenever someone hesitatingly strums a ukulele and bashfully admits to being a bit rubbish as it, the comedy whimsy gods will be there, smiling knowingly, because they got the reference.

Published: 14 Oct 2008

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.