Feel the hate

Chris Hallam on the comics we love to loathe

Why are some comedians hated? Consider Frankie Boyle. Or Ricky Gervais. Or Michael McIntyre. James Corden. Or Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. Or even Peter Kay.

Nobody in the public eye is universally adored and comedians are no exception. The internet is, of course, an unreliable source here: a Google search of almost anyone who has achieved even a modicum of fame can bring forth a wave of abuse.

But some are undoubtedly disliked with an intensity which exceeds all reason. Not everyone likes Bill Bailey or Alan Davies for example. But neither attracts the hostility endured by Gervais.

Gervais has, of course, attracted criticism for his repeated use of the word ‘mong’ on Twitter. Perhaps, like Frankie Boyle, he has simply annoyed people (and newspapers) by being offensive? But there seems more to be more to it than that. Gervais was disliked long before the ‘mong’ scandal. And if being offensive is such a crime, then why isn’t Jimmy Carr pilloried in the same way? He is frequently just as offensive as either Gervais or Boyle.

There also seems to be a perception – perhaps justified – that Gervais has become arrogant, like Frank Skinner did before him. Skinner, in the past, didn’t help his image by dating a number of younger women. Gervais doesn’t help himself by having a silly laugh.

Couldn’t it all be about class then? If Gervais, Boyle and Skinner were all more posh would the problem disappear? Well, no. How does one explain the hostility directed towards Michael McIntyre, a comic as middle class and inoffensive as you could get?

McIntyre even went so far as to complain about it over the summer. ‘I think it comes with the territory,’ he said. ‘I'm sure it does, actually. And I can't say, it's water off a duck's back and I'm so thick-skinned, I can't just say that.’

McIntyre was different, however, in that the hostility came not from the public, but from rival comics perhaps resentful at his sudden huge success in 2009. One senses very little popular antagonism towards McIntyre at all.

Is it just a case of traditional British hostility towards success then? Success is usually accompanied, after all, by overexposure. Peter Kay has many enemies for this reason as does James Corden. The Little Britain duo are the same, David Walliams perhaps reducing this through hischarity endeavours.

Never mind that many of the comics so far mentioned were struggling away for years before achieving their ‘overnight’ success. As Morrissey warns us: ‘We hate it when our friends become successful.’

But again Jimmy Carr provides an odd exception to this. He has a silly laugh too, like Gervais. Furthermore, at one point, he was On Channel 4 so much that he joked he ‘should be on their screensaver’.

And what about Alexander Armstrong? Is he not overexposed? In the past year alone, he has continued to occasionally guest host Have I Got News For You, has hosted at least two other BBC One quiz shows, appeared on his own ongoing sketch show with Ben Miller and even (somewhat bizarrely) hosted The Great British Weather. He appears in so many adverts that he occasional on two back-to-back. If he isn’t overexposed who is? Yet there are no signs of hostility towards him at all. Mitchell and Webb remain busy, successful and popular too.

I’m not suggesting any one mentioned here deserves any hatred directed at them at all. Quite the opposite. Ricky Gervais and Alexander Armstrong are doing their job.

Perhaps it just comes down to charm. Perhaps we naturally just like Bill Bailey, Mitchell and Webb, Lee Mack and Simon Pegg more.

But more likely, there’s a strange doublethink going on. How many of us would claim to dislike Ricky Gervais while simultaneously rating The Office as one of the greatest sitcoms ever made?

Who would envy the role of the clown? Sometimes we love them and hate them at the same time.

Published: 22 Mar 2012

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