Stereotypical Northern Irishman Frank Carson who, like not a few comedians, made a career out of telling simplistic jokes, used to have a catch-phrase “It’s the way I tells ‘em” which, perhaps one of the ultimate truths about his chosen profession, may explain why we find some performers inherently funny and others – some of them as, or more, successful – quite the opposite.
Because sometimes not much else can.
I just enjoy watching them at work: the way they relate to each other, the way they move, their range of characteristic expressions, their different physical styles and their comic timing. Just waiting for Hardy – having just listened to some crackpot comment by Laurel and/or suffered his latest indignity – to turn slowly to the camera with a look of mixed puzzlement and resignation on his face, is worth the price of admission on its own every time.
Two of my top-rated British comics are Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper, who both worked for ITV.
I never personally met Benny Hill who, off-stage or camera, was a famously private and shy man, but often had the privilege to watch him making his shows, either as a member of the studio audience, or by switching my office TV to ‘live’ slaved continuous coverage of Thames Television’s studios output (whether the action was rehearsals or recordings). For me, Hill’s word-play – he wrote his own scripts – and style of physical and expression-based comedy bordered upon genius.
Without any doubt, Cooper was the most naturally funny man I have ever seen or met in the flesh. Some of his gags flirted with the banal, but this didn’t matter because, if he had wanted, he could have reduced any theatre or television audience to hysterics by simply reading out the contents of a telephone directory. Even just standing silently in line with a tray of food queueing to pay in the studio canteen, he made those around him laugh out loud.
Morcambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies were often – but not always – capable of tickling my funny bone, not least because over time they somehow ‘connected’ with their television audience and became part of the British cultural mainstream. Collectively we ended up loving them and wanting them to make us laugh – a task at which they rarely let us down.
The former – a funny man/straight man combo – were out-and-out performers, best served I felt by scriptwriter Eddie Braben [who can forget Morecambe, in his dressing gown, standing by the bedroom window curtain and hearing a police car siren going by, quipping “He’s not going to sell many ice creams going at that speed!”?].
The Two Ronnies were both excellent performers, but Barker was by several notches the more talented and often wrote his own scripts.
Of the modern [i.e. relatively new to me, which means they’re already middle-aged] crop of comics that I see on television – I don’t go to clubs or theatres – my favourites are the sweaty and manically physical Lee Evans and the rotund Lancastrian Peter Kaye, who has an affecting anecdotal style that I find highly amusing.
Having listed some of those I love, I have to confess that there exists a much larger block of contemporary comedic talent that – for whatever reason – leave me totally unmoved.
I believe that Michael McIntyre is currently the most successful stand-up comic in the United Kingdom, certainly in terms of sell-out tours, DVD sales and sheer commercial revenues.
He specialises in a style of essentially inoffensive but relentless cheeky-chappie patter delivered with a cheesy grin, plenty of hopping and skipping, and not a little self-satisfied smugness.
For my brother and his family, it seems, he can do no wrong.
Sadly, he does nothing at all for me – I just don’t ‘get’ him. I must apologise to him because watching him performing on television doesn’t just leave me cold, it leaves me thinking very negative thoughts indeed.
Miranda Hart is another modern phenomenon. As a female comedian, her Miranda sit-com is plainly one of the most successful and warmly-reviewed of recent times and her ‘large arena’ UK tour in 2014 was a sell-out.
However, difficult to avoid as it is, Miranda drives me nuts. I find its characters, including her own, uniformly shallow, puerile and irritating and its plots pathetic.
I can only assume that she appeals to the female half of the nation but – having said that – I’ve personally yet to come across a single woman who finds Miranda funny either.
Frankly, it’s just silly and the best comedians aim higher than that.
Lower down the pecking order, Russell Howard seems to be constantly on our television screens at the moment. I had the misfortune a few weeks back to watch an entire half-hour show of his and found it excruciating. It was as if someone had set out to make a spoof parody featuring the unfunniest comedian in the world … and succeeded.
Lee Mack has a growing reputation for being funny and quick-witted which makes him a regular on comedy panel shows. The first series or two of his self-written sit-com Not Going Out, in which he plays a loser who shares a flat with a middle-class hottie somewhere in fashionable London, were pretty good, helped along by a constant stream of excellent one-liners but unfortunately – in contrast – the new series has been disappointing.
The plot of last Friday’s episode – in which the protagonists were set on board an aircraft threatened (they mistakenly thought) by a hijacking – was so ridiculous that I could barely watch to the end. And it just wasn’t funny. In a programme aimed at a post 9.00pm adult audience, Mack’s dialogue and jokes might have been written by a 12 year-old. It was as if the producer had momentarily switched his quality control button to ‘off’.
Still, I suppose one man’s meat is another’s poison …