It's not new comics vs old... it's good comics vs bad

Liam Mullone on the lionisation of Frank Carson

Roger Lewis recently wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph on how Frank Carson was brilliant. and all ‘modern’ comics are not funny. Since the argument will likely crop up every time someone from the bow tie brigade goes to his eternal reward, I thought it warranted a response. The quotation marks in that first sentence are mine, by the way, since Lewis throws Jack Whitehall in with Ben Elton. They are both the same, Lewis seems to claim. They are equally not Frank Carson, but is that quite the same thing?

There’s nothing new in saying that things were better in the old days when they clearly were not - hospitals, street crime, the police, television, homework, national service, measles.

This illogical habit is something we associate with old people, but that is unfair because not all old people do it. It is something we should more accurately associate with unintelligent old people and, in the case of Roger Lewis, who is only 50, and a respected writer, this precocious lack of intelligence is something he must have positively strived towards.

Lauding the comedy of yore has become the hobby horse of every hoary hack who knows he doesn’t like something and can’t be bothered to do any research. The ‘serious’ papers are worst. You can’t, as a broadsheet journalist, attack Government policy without getting some statistics together. You can’t talk about immigration without at least paying Lip Service to the other side of the argument.

But a journalist for the Telegraph, Guardian, Times or Independent (yes I’m stretching ‘serious’ to see if it snaps) can quite happily say that comedy was much better in the working men’s clubs of Salford in the Seventies without even a cursory check on Google to see if they’re talking shit.

Lewis goes the all-too familiar route of saying ‘comedians today, such as Tom, Dick and Harry’ as if, my naming three of them, he has named all of them. But he confuses stand-ups with presenters, comedians with comic actors and comedians doing their job with comedians who have been given the task of presenting something, funny or otherwise. It’s all part of the message: It’s all the same, there’s too much of it, I can’t be bothered.

It’s the same argument used by those who miss television of the Seventies or Eighties. They don’t care that all those old programmes are still readily available on UK Gold or YouTube. They miss the fact that we all had to watch the same crap together, fondly reminiscing that, ‘We’d all talk about it at school the next day’.

Talking about the Kenny Everett Video Show with my mates on a Monday morning is a memory I’ll gladly pigeonhole with rolling blackouts and luncheon meat, and that was the best thing about schooldays telly that I can remember – the word ‘video’ made it sound terribly modern; foretelling a time when we could watch what we liked whenever we wanted.

There’s all too much of it and it’s all the same. Except it isn’t. There’s more than 250 professional, jobbing comics in the UK right now, and while many of them are trying to be either Bill Hicks or Stewart Lee, that’s all the same to Roger Lewis. They’re all the same, they’re not funny and they’re not Frank Carson.

You would think that Roger Lewis would have more sympathy for comedians. When his first book (a biography of Anthony Burgess) was panned by critics, he exclaimed: ‘Why bother, if I’m just going to get this mockery and disdain?’

Welcome to our world, Roger Lewis. A world of mockery and disdain, where the people we rely on to deal with us intelligently, sympathetically, articulately, just can’t be bothered because we’re not the same as something from 40 years ago.

There’s comedy near to where you live in Bromyard, Roger Lewis. I know because I’ve checked. Go and see Russell Kane at Cheltenham Town Hall tonight. Then go and see Jethro at the Blake, Monmouth, next Saturday and see if you STILL think comedy has gone backwards. Then try Jimmy Carr at the Atrix, Bromsgrove on March 11, Doug Stanhope in Wolverhampton on the 13th and then - you’ll be gagging for it by now - Jim Davidson: The Legend! at the Grand in Wolverhampton on the 18th. You might discover than comedians who ‘deem just about everything sexist, racist, homophobic, or liable to offend disabled single-parent Muslim lesbians on benefits’ are actually in the minority. And there is plenty of the shtick Carson used to peddle still around.

But then, he has no sympathy for the modern comic. We ‘haven’t lived’. He laments that we don’t play the Lancashire clubs that were Carson’s true home, ‘with broken microphones, drunken and abusive audiences, a pall of cigarette smoke, and concert secretaries interrupting the acts to sell bingo tickets’, thereby repeating every drunken heckler’s belief that dealing with cunts makes you funnier.

But then Carson was a real man, who was funny because he had suffered. He ‘served with the Paras. Milligan served in the Royal Artillery. Peter Sellers was with the RAF in Burma... Les Dawson guarded Rudolph Hess at Spandau.’ So we can’t possibly be funny, even if we shared Carson’s love of easy gags, due, it seems, to the worldwide decline of internecine violence and the end of National Service.

It’s interesting he mentions Dawson, though. Dawson gets rolled into every tedious discussion of old versus new with the same lack of clarity that allows journalists to roll Whitehall and Elton into one terrifying creature. Dawson hated the clubs. He hated the drunkenness, he hated the ignorance, he hated the unwillingness of people to listen to any routine that took more than a minute to build and didn’t rely on obvious targets for its payoff.

His comedic style was modelled on the 19th Century essayist Charles Lamb, and he was saved - as he admitted many times - by the intercession of television. In later years, his beef with the new wave was not that it wasn’t funny. He was just terrified that he would have to go back to the appalling clubs Lewis remembers (or should that be imagines?) as the very crucibles of humour.

And so to Carson, the man to whom none of our peers can hold a candle. Well, I loved him to bits on Tiswas. But reacquainting myself with his back catalogue was the most depressing hour I’ve ever spent. It seems that his jokes fell into three categories: cracker (the Christmas kind), borrowed off someone else, and offensive.

And not offensive in a squeamish, precious, you-can’t-say-anything-anymore-can-you? way. Offensive in the most obvious, plodding, see it coming from a mile away, mean-spirited, boring way. Gay men are always out to bum you. Black people are always thieves. And anyone who says that he himself had to laugh off all the Irish jokes, check out Britain’s first black comedian Charlie Williams on YouTube having a go at the Pakistanis, and ask yourself whether kicking downwards is the best way to win over an audience - then, now, or ever.

The word ‘genius’ is used too lightly. Dawson was a genius. Ken Dodd is still a genius. Of the old guard, the rest were just men doing a job . And like many of us they sometimes just did what was easy.

Published: 29 Feb 2012

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