Life’s too short to hate Michael McIntyre

Ralph Jones comes to a reluctant realisation

I reached a significant realisation recently. The title of this piece spoils the surprise somewhat, but I have come to the conclusion that life might be better spent not hating Michael McIntyre.

I used to believe Michael McIntyre to embody much of what is awful about contemporary stand-up comedy: insincere jollity, arena crowds, and banal observations. And in fact all of these objections remain true but I don’t think that McIntyre himself is the culprit I pictured him as being. I no longer 'hate' him. So what’s changed?

In contrast to an arena comic like Lee Evans, whose success has baffled me for many years, I have grudgingly come to the conclusion that McIntyre appears to be a genuinely gifted writer, able not only to spot the oddities of human behaviour but – the excruciatingly hard bit – actually make them seem fresh and funny to others. As many people know, or don't and are keen to demonstrate, this is considerably more difficult than it looks. McIntyre makes this achievement all the more impressive by not wrapping his punchlines up in a barrage of swear words. (Swearing in comedy can be beautiful but is often indicative of weak material.)

Does this mean I like McIntyre’s comedy? Not particularly. Does it mean his DVDs will be on my birthday list? Certainly not. But, as a writer and sort-of comedian, I am able to appreciate the skill he brings to the game and the fact that huge swathes of people find him hilarious. I am no longer under the cynical impression that his audiences have been bribed or lobotomised.

In making this U-turn I am reneging on some strongly held convictions and recognising that McIntyre does no harm in giving people exactly what they are looking for in a comedian. This may sound that it has been written at gunpoint, but I can assure you that it is sincere and that I am being tortured neither by McIntyre nor his agent.

Granted, there is much about the McIntyre brand that is ripe for criticism – his cheesy Christmas specials; his collusion in delivering comedy to television in a boringly unambitious format; the fucking skipping – and I think that it has to be stressed that comedy shouldn't be content with being simply palatable and mediocre, ‘spoon-feeding audiences warm diarrhoea’, to quote Stewart Lee. But this is my point: I don't think McIntyre is mediocre at all; I think that what he does takes real skill. By very definition not all comics can be 'alternative'. There is ample time and space to drone on about stand-ups whose talents fall far short of the rewards off of which they are living, but I don't feel any such hostility towards McIntyre.

Part of the reason for this is that I believe comedy as a whole to have benefited from his explosion in popularity. Stewart Lee is perfectly entitled to take a hostile stance towards him but, without comics like McIntyre, Lee would have struggled to find the audience he so richly deserves. Of course he would still have been successful but, if not for the presence of the mainstream arena comedians, his style wouldn't be an alternative to much at all; it is not in my opinion a coincidence that it is in the last few years, thanks to the 'comedy boom' and the perception that comedy might be becoming a more viable career option, that Lee has found a real audience for himself.

If all comics had Lee’s nuanced delivery and none of McIntyre’s broad appeal, the state of the alternative comedy circuit wouldn’t even be as healthy as it is now. But the point is that you do not need to pick one or the other; they needn't be considered competitors. It is an undernourished palate that can't accommodate a range of styles. You can choose to see all manner of weird shit in various London pubs and then turn on the TV on Friday night to enjoy McIntyre bobbing up and down.

Lee himself has said – in a 2011 piece for Chortle – that he does find ‘much to admire’ in McIntyre's work, and I think the perception that there is a great deal of contempt in the comedy world for him is a myth. I have seen comics conflicted over him – some scornful of his banality, some totally indifferent to it – but he ought to be judged first and foremost as a comedian. And as a comedian I can't ignore the fact that he's extremely good. Watch this space – he could be big.

Published: 15 Mar 2013

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