Don't become an old joke

Chris Hallam tells comics how to become national treasures not washed-up has-beens

What is it about older comics? The funnier they were when they were young, the more we seem to resent them when they get old. And no, I’m not saying old people can’t be funny. Richard Wilson, Humphrey Lyttelton were and (in Wilson’s case) are still hilarious. But most of us never experienced them being funny in their younger days anyway.

Most comedy success stories inevitably peak too early. Take John Cleese. Most of us would agree that in his prime he was one of the best. Asked to name the funniest ever Briton still living and many of us would doubtless name him.

But does your heart leap for joy when you see him crop up as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter films? Or when he appears as Desmond Llewelyn’s replacement in the later Pierce Brosnan era James Bonds? No. Because he isn’t as funny as he was 30 years ago and you resent him for that.

Sometimes there’s a feeling of betrayal too. Billy Connolly was another one who was absolutely hilarious in his day but seems to be vaguely resented now. The same can be true of younger men or women, perhaps only slightly past their peak. Rowan Atkinson is undeniably a comic genius. But Mr Bean has ruined him forever in many people’s eyes

So how, short of dying young, can a white hot comedian retain the eternal love of the British public? Here are a few tips.

Try to avoid doing shit adverts: Adverts are an easy route to big money and I’m not condemning them per se. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie made a fortune from them (mostly in the Eighties) but didn’t harm their reputations, partly because a) they were young then and still making a name for themselves and b) because people only tend to remember the good ones now if at all. John Cleese has appeared in a mixture of funny and unfunny ones while millionaire Billy Connolly pushed many over the edge with his: ‘Don’t live a little, live a Lotto’ catchphrase. Generally, while the odd voiceover is okay, it’s best not to test the public’s patience too far with too many unfunny adverts in a row. Paul Whitehouse, if you’re reading this: take heed!

Don’t attach yourself to political causes: As you’re inevitably going to alienate anyone who doesn’t support your cause. Cleese backing the now defunct SDP didn’t win him many fans. And though sadly he would never be troubled by the issues of old age, Kenny Everett’s yelling at a Young Conservative conference: ‘Let’s bomb Russia! Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!’ did him no favours reputation-wise either.

Don’t leave the country: If the British hate one thing more than success it’s somebody leaving the UK and becoming a success abroad. Tracey Ullman was never forgiven for this. Don’t do it.

Become a curmudgeonly TV presenter: Are Griff Rhys Jones, Tony Robinson and Bill Oddie as funny as they used to be? Of course not. Yet they retain the public’s affection through hosting fairly bland TV shows and not trying too hard to amuse.

The Garbo solution: Avoid the public gaze entirely

Don’t be very funny in the first place… then age: Oddly, the rules seem to work the other way for comics I never liked that much in the first place. Perhaps it’s because have no hopes to disappoint? I’d even watch Joe Pasquale for perhaps a few minutes now and Bobby Ball even seems acceptable as an occasional guest on Not Going Out. The same trick doesn’t seem to have worked with Jim Davidson though.

Remain funny forever: This is perhaps the hardest trick of all. But it is perhaps the only way to retain the enduring love of a greedy general public.

Published: 15 Aug 2012

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