Why ads aren't bad

Liam Mullone believes comics shouldn't be reviled for taking the money

So we’re all agreed then? Doing adverts is terrible. It makes your comedy meaningless and you might as well wank people off in pub toilets.

I know Tim Minchin didn’t phrase it this way when he refused to do an ad for Pepsi. And I’m glad he’s following his convictions. I just wish he wasn’t being cheered for it by pretty much everyone I know. Because whenever the issue comes up of how we follow Hicks without Mammon, the arguments are always depressingly one-sided. Comedians shouldn’t do adverts. Adverts are bad, m’kay?

Even Marc Blake had a sideswipe at ad and voiceover comedians in his recent Correspondents piece on ‘integrity’. And last month the Independent’s Ben Walsh satanically re-animated the whole stinking mess. He stated that comedians who do adverts have no credibility. They’re sellouts who have taken filthy lucre rather than do something creative with their talents. And their ads aren’t funny.

This last point, at least, is true. But everyone advertises these days - sports stars, ‘serious’ actors, pop stars and John Prescott. But for some reason it’s just awful, unthinkable - for intelligent lovers of wit and satire everywhere - if comedians do the same.

For the liberal intelligentsia, the idea of being sold car insurance by Omid Djalili somehow does us a deeper hurt than being sold it by a former deputy PM who took us into two appalling wars. According to Walsh, after the Direct Line ads: ‘It is frankly impossible to find Chris Addison quite as funny again.’

Let’s get some perspective. Mr Walsh makes this decree against moralising hubris in the paper that gave us Johann Hari, owned by a Russian oligarch, on a webpage so overrun with prancing Billy Elliots I couldn’t really concentrate on one tiresome load of juvenilia at a time.

Can journalists not discuss comedy like grown-ups, as the business and industry it is, without starting every debate from the standpoint that capitalism is axiomatically evil? Does comedy’s spiritual home HAVE to be inside a pop-up tent on Ludgate Hill?

This argument is rooted in fable. From the American idiom ‘Only children and fools speak truth’ came the idea that, in days of yore, only the King’s fool was permitted to tell him the truth without fear for his life (it’s not true; the King’s fool was an arselick; a rolling corporate, a plague-era Jongleurs roadshow).

Here on Chortle, where we’re way ahead on such issues, we covered this two years ago when Mark Watson appeared in a Magners ad and a correspondent called David Jesudason called him a wrong’un. This opinion was echoed by my peers. Mr Jesudason said: ‘The role of the comedian is to highlight the ills of our society and not be scared to say things that other people are afraid of highlighting. This means they have a huge responsibility... to shine a light on how power is used to repress and maintain the status quo.’

Such nostrums are held dear by those who believe in comedy’s ‘mission’; a mission it has been loaded with since the Alternative 80s and still carries, to its bone-grinding detriment, like a third-world donkey piled with tractor parts and whipped with Ben Elton’s backbone.

It’s a hopeless mission. An Afghanistan. Forget for a moment that the Alternative Revolution turned into hot air and We Will Rock You, there’s hundreds of bloody comics now and, unlike the talented Mr Minchin, most of us are trying to make a living in a world with empty pockets and no attention span.

The BBC has pared comedy to the quick, C4 has cancelled Comedy Lab, and the best the media can offer most of us is humiliating jousts like Show Me The Funny, or the abomination Sky is planning where comics get catapulted offstage into goo. Or there’s the chance of national ridicule on Britain’s Got Talent now.

Any comedian, large or small, who is offered an advert should get in there out of the fucking rain, because the only responsibility we have is to ourselves and our families.

Some will, of course, keep the mindset of a Communist playwright starving to death in a 1950s garret, but I have far more respect for friends of mine who have appeared in adverts (most of us will appear in adverts as mere bit-parts and walk-ons, not as stars) and then used the proceeds to fund their Fringe shows. Art does not get made, or seen, or realised, without money.

If earning a living by any means short of murder makes a comic less funny, then I’ve seen little proof of it yet. Greg Davies is still hilarious despite voicing the Andrex puppy, and I hadn’t even encountered Alexander Armstrong before he told us it was Pimms O’Clock.

I do admire comics who say ‘I will never do an advert’. I only regret that most of them will never get offered one that might test this resolve. But if we expect Chris Addison not to take opportunities that we would take ourselves then we are hypocrites. And if we expect him to turn adverts down because ‘he’s got enough money’, then we are arguing out of jealousy, not principle.

Journalists, at least, should know better. They should stop confusing a career in comedy with running a soviet cabbage collective. This dour sense of cause and commitment belongs to another age and another career.

If they want to try making a living by talking to drunks in backrooms, chasing missing cheques while waiting for the glorious, ad-free BBC to shine some largesse upon them, then they are more than welcome to try it. No comedian should be loaded with the hopes, beliefs or aspirations of anyone else, least of all the shiftless press.

No comedian has any responsibility, real or perceived, to do anything but scratch a living. And if anyone takes their mission that seriously then they should enter local politics instead, because no comedian has ever built a daycare centre or saved a school.

To declare any means of earning a living as off-limits is not just pious bullshit; it inflates the value of what we do. As if we are mentors for people too stupid to draw their own conclusions in life. Like we’re meant to engineer society back to some caring, communal idyll.

Thirty years after Alexei Sayle played the Comedy Store the idea persists that we all must play Diogenes. We must live like Stalinist ascetics, damning those corrupted Trotskies who tell us that Crunchy Nut Cornflakes taste nice. Damn it, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes DO taste nice. Why shoot the messenger?

  • Liam Mullone has appeared in an advert for a shopping mall, and would do pretty much anything for money, including wanking people off in pub toilets. He has even worked as a sub-editor at The Independent.

Published: 19 Nov 2011

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