Warning: (im)mature content

Philip Johns on the difference between 'adult' and 'grown-up' comedy

Although Manuelgate is fading from view, the aftershocks are still being felt, as the debate widens to the level of offensive material in British entertainment.

Michael Grade has become, via his speech to the Broadcasting Press Guild, the unlikely ring-leader for those wanting to curb comedy’s excesses and, much to my surprise, I’m increasingly finding myself agreeing with him. Clearly I’m growing old, so I thought I should share my thoughts with you now, before I Sprout hair from my ears, develop a fondness for Werther’s Originals, and forget what an internet is.

Not long ago, I read the article Is Cruelty Really That Funny? by JoJo Sutherland on this very website. It made me think long and hard about what I find acceptable in comedy, and there was one sentence in particular that really stood out: ‘In the environs of a comedy club there is a general sense of understanding and acceptance between audience and acts that offensive, outrageous and downright mean commentary might be made.’ I don’t deny that she’s right, but is it really necessary for that to always be the case?

Ask yourself what you’re hoping to see when you take a seat in a comedy club. Am I really the only one in the room naively hoping that someone would walk onto the stage and introduce me to something new? A new style perhaps, a new topic of comedy, or a new way of looking at things?

OK, maybe that’s expecting a bit too much, but can I really be the only one who has been frustrated as performer after performer comes out and does a set about blow jobs? Or just liberally peppers an otherwise inoffensive topic with as many derivatives of the word ‘fuck’ as the English language allows?

Probably the most depressing moment I ever had in a comedy club when I saw a guy start with two minutes of high-quality material about global warming, only to follow it with ten minutes about the carbon footprint of vibrators. Is that really so different from the material that leads so many of us to look down our noses at the likes of Jim Davidson or Chubby Brown?

My real epiphany on this subject came a while ago when I dug out my copy of Stewart Lee’s 90s Comedian DVD. For much of my late teens and twenties, Lee (pictured) and Herring were my comedy idols, and I still find much to admire in both men’s solo work. However, as the DVD entered its final chapters, I found myself listening to his infamous routine in which he hallucinates a meeting with Robert Powell’s Jesus, a routine that leads to a long and detailed audio portrait of my former idol throwing up into Jesus’s hands and mouth.

Whereas I remembered finding this hilarious not so long ago, by the time it got around to the line: ‘I bent over and I vomited into the gaping anus of Christ’, I felt like the little boy who realised the emperor was naked. I suddenly realised how childish it was to expend so much effort trying to repulse his audience. What made it all the more of a shame was that up to that point I’d enjoyed the DVD, and yet when the end came, I pressed the eject button with a very bad taste in my mouth.

What makes it all the more sad is that I now feel so self-conscious about taking friends to comedy shows. I remember inviting a young lady to see Daniel Kitson purely on a friend’s recommendation. After I’d made the offer, I suddenly realised how little I knew about Kitson’s material, and found myself grabbing my phone, and giving my friend a rigorous interrogation about whether I’d be subjecting her to an hour of jokes about gang rape, or child abuse, or indeed, vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ. Fortunately, Kitson was great, and steered clear of anything too extreme, but I’m sure I’d have enjoyed the show a lot more if I’d not had my stomach in a knot worrying about what might be about to come.

Maybe you think I should just accept I’m getting old, put on my slippers and stick to good old safe TV comedy? Oh dear me no, because that would mean sitting through the depressing sight of the once-brilliant Lucas and Walliams simulating anal sex in gym changing rooms, or Peter Kay rounding off Britain’s Got The Pop Factor by getting Cat Deeley to self-consciously scream “FUCKING SHUT UP” at her audience. Really, the thing I find most offensive about such sketches is the laziness that leads anyone to think this is all they have to do get laughs. It’s certainly a long way from the genuinely barrier-breaking use of ‘shocking’ language in Till Death Us Do Part or Steptoe & Son.

It’s the sense of laziness that’s at the heart of things. If I hear Robert Newman call Bill Gates a wanker, I know it’s part of a passionate and – crucially – fully researched, well prepared, intelligent and cohesive show. I can well accept that when I listen to Derek & Clive, I’m listening to the outpourings of two very drunk men, and that I’m doing so in the privacy of my own headphones.

While I do find those records funny, I’m aware that it is a guilty pleasure, and that I would certainly not enjoy listening to such material in a room full of strangers. Likewise, however hypocritically this makes me, I love things like Peep Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm, because while they might be as ‘adult’ as anything you’d care to mention, they are also ‘grown-up’ in that they are well written and rarely exhibit Little Britain’s desperation to shock its audience for the sake of it.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that my current idols of the live comedy circuit are very different to those I adored ten years ago. As I look around my desk I see my tickets for an upcoming Ken Dodd show, a flyer for John Shuttleworth, and a DVD from my true idol, Tim Vine (a man often accused of performing childish material, though given a choice between cheesy pun, and identikit knob-gags, I know which I would describe as immature). All three men regularly fill theatres, but I’d wager much of their audiences would never set foot inside a comedy club due to their fondness for material that is ‘adult’, without being ‘grown-up’.

So, next time I pull up a chair in a comedy club and the compère does his variation on the theme of ‘If you’re offended by bad language, fuck off now!’, maybe I’ll take him up on that offer.

Published: 17 Nov 2008

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