#oneaday Day 913: Funny Bone

Nothing highlights the passage of time more than switching on a comedy show and see who is standing on stage, clutching a microphone in their hand and talking bollocks to an audience.

Also, nothing makes you sound more like you’re getting old than bemoaning the fact that “modern comedians” aren’t a patch on the standups you used to enjoy.

I’ve never been a particularly hardcore follower of comedy, but I do enjoy a good standup show, and over the years I’ve appreciated the work of a wide variety of comics. I’ve never quite got the reason that comics rise and fall in popularity like fashion trends — surely if something’s funny, it’s timeless and funny forever?

Well, actually, no. That’s not quite true. I recall vividly seeing a show about Tommy Cooper a while back and finding it utterly cringeworthy from start to finish. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but it simply wasn’t funny. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t “of that time” that I couldn’t appreciate it — but then I look back at some of the stuff that Kenny Everett and Les Dawson did, and that’s still hilarious despite being a little out of what I’d describe as “my time”.

The earliest real standup I was aware of was a Lenny Henry video my parents had and which I decided to watch one day when they were out. (It was “15” rated and I was not 15 at the time.) While I didn’t understand everything that he was talking about — some of the stuff about marijuana went right over my head — I found it very entertaining. It’s not fashionable to admit that nowadays, of course, because Lenny Henry is now the guy who did Chef! and the man who advertises Travelodges, but I still find him pretty watchable when he appears on Comic Relief and the like.

The two standups I have the fondest memories of, however, are Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey. I could watch these guys’ shows repeatedly forever. (Perhaps not forever.) Their comedy is distinctive, clever and rewarding — both in different ways. Izzard’s work rewards paying close attention to how he weaves the various chaotic threads of the things he is talking about together, while Bailey’s alternation between slightly-surreal standup and genuinely excellent musical numbers is just a pure delight to watch.

Going to Edinburgh a couple of times with the university theatre group was an eye-opening experience, as we got the opportunity to see a whole swathe of comedy acts — some great, some not so great. Some of the highlights included Daniel Kitson — aka the terrible DJ from Phoenix Nights — and Marcus Brigstocke, who now makes semi-regular appearances on various TV and radio panel shows. I can’t remember the names of any of the lowlights because in most cases it was just embarrassing to watch them fall apart in front of an increasingly-restless audience.

I will always have a soft-spot for improvisation. At university, we played improvisation games as warm-ups for rehearsals, had a weekly “Improv Night” and hosted an occasional  “showcase” event known as Count Rompula, which tended to be largely improvised. (The Web of Dan still leaves me with shivers.) At Edinburgh, one of my favourite memories is seeing improv troupe Boom Chicago (or Boom Shit Cock, as one of our number who was constantly forgetting their name kept calling them) and marvelling at how quickly they picked up on suggestions from the audience and ran with them.

One of the things I like about Eddie Izzard’s comedy, in fact, is that it has an air of improvisation about it — though it becomes clear when he successfully weaves all his threads together that there actually is a significant degree of planning that goes into one of his shows.

I did have a point to all this somewhere. And that is that — yes, I’m an old man now — modern comics seem to be a bit rubbish, although I am using BBC Three as my yardstick here, which may not be particularly wise. (BBC Three, for those outside the UK or simply unfamiliar with the channel, is the dustbin of television, incorporating some of the most asinine documentaries you’ll ever see, a show called Snog Marry Avoid — which is exactly what you think it is — and what they call “experimental comedy”. I call it “shite”.) In recent weeks, I’ve seen a guy whose entire shtick seems to be just shouting at the audience (to be fair, Rhod Gilbert does this too and I find him hilarious — the difference being that Gilbert shouts with passion and righteous fury, while this other guy whose name I can’t remember simply seems to blurt out obscenities), a sketch in rather bad taste regarding death, and a guy who sang a song about a fridge. (All right, that last one actually was quite funny.)

Perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong place for my comedy kicks these days. As I noted, BBC 3 is a big steaming pile of poo at the best of times, so I should probably start by not using that as a means of judging modern comedy. Suggestions for fun and entertaining stand-up shows to catch would be most welcome, then, so please feel free to share!

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Pete Davison

Southampton-based music teacher, writer and enthusiast of Japanese popular culture.

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