Back in the lads-mag days, over ten years ago, one of my regular tasks was sitting by the side of our regular contributor, author Norman Parker, to make his words fit on a Quark Express page layout. He didn’t trust sub-editors to carry out this simple task – and rightly so – so we’d sit together and make sure he was satisfied with every sentence. We’d have to trim a few words or add a line or two, then we’d print up the piece and Norman would sit in the corner of the office, with his glasses on, and have a silent read-through. His stories were pretty spectacular, so you can understand why he wanted to get his published words spot-on. He’d travel up-river in Colombia and locate cocaine kitchens, things like that – really dangerous projects.
Norman was – and probably still is – keen as a Jack Russell, a small bloke, but he exercised at 6am every morning and you could almost sense, by osmosis, the power in his chest. He was well into his fifties by this point and would often impart advice and wisdom to the rampaging males on the magazine team, all wrapped in a direct Ipcress File-era London accent. What was interesting about Norman was his own rampaging past and deliverance.
In 1970, Norman was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a criminal – or should I say, fellow criminal. Norman was a figure in London’s underworld in the Sixties, but even before the murder conviction, he’d served a six-year stretch for manslaughter. Norman Stanley Fletcher, he wasn’t. Norman served 24 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, in a variety of locations, most notably Parkhurst. While incarcerated, he attempted to escape more times than was sensible, rioted a fair amount and also went on hunger strike. Norman was not a happy camper.
Realising all this excessive expenditure of energy was getting him absolutely nowhere, Norman opted for an alternative survival strategy – education and fitness. He studied hard and earnt an Open University degree (later, around the time of my tailored sub-editing sessions, he also got an MA in criminology, although I had to find that out – he didn’t leak the information). When released from clink in 1994, Norman mentioned that the one major aspect of British society that had changed was that everybody had become a comedian. “By this, I mean people have got to have the last word, the last laugh,” he explained.
This had a profound effect on me. I realised we were living in an unplanned, unscripted, mediocre sitcom, where everybody had the starring comedy role. For the young, office-based Lukes and Joshuas who had entrusted themselves as guardians of modern humour, wisecracks had become part of conversation structure, and the more I observed, the more I realised we had a comedy catastrophe on our hands.
The soft-lad gobs***eism of New Football, with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner as joint-managers, was a major conduit of this grotesque state of affairs. In fact, I blame Baddiel and Skinner for many of society’s ills, and strongly suspect that Baddiel’s studenty Mary Whitehouse Experience mob has irrevocably transformed this nation into a safe refuge for the criminally unfunny. The term “British comedian” is now something that means “indescribably dull”. I listen to BBC’s Five Live radio station a fair amount, but on Sunday it’s been completely upended by masters of the naff wisecrack from the stand-up world. You should switch off after Tony Livesey.
Our stand-up comedians are failing miserably at the one job they’re supposed to do, which is to take comedy forwards. We’ve stalled with humour; our current crop of stand-ups are like Lukes and Joshuas with a loudhailer. They’re accountants that have overcome stage fright. Cynically, they’ve discovered that the best way to make tons of cash is to aim their blank humour at the average bank employee, people who send links to each other about cats. Today’s comedians give a constant stream of below-par observational gags powered by a shouty voice and rapid movement from stage left to stage right. Sweated jokes for a DVD-buying public.
I don’t wish to name names, but the worst culprits are Marcus Brigstocke, Rufus “It’s Always Movember” Hound, Michael McIntyre, Jimmy Carr, Dom Joly, Alan Carr, Rhod Gilbert, Russell Brand, Shappi Khorsandi, Shazia Mirza, Gina Yashere, Lucy Porter, Sue Perkins, John Bishop, anyone on Mock The Week, and that self-obsessed, feel-sorry-for-me, I-don’t care-what-we-talk-about-but-can-we-talk-about-me Humpty, James Corden. It’s as if they know they’re not funny, but, y’know, what the bloody hell are they going to do – work for the council? These people that send pictures of cats in sombreros and Santa hats to each other, they lap up this mediocrity and share it with other likeminded lost souls. Peter Kay’s had his day, as well. Jokes of schooldays, Spangles and the past? It’s a very Nineties outlook, that.
The worst of all modern comedians is that sparkly-eyed soft-soak Jack Whitehall. For him, there ought to be a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style disappearing, where not only does he no longer exist, but he never existed. I saw him on The Graham Norton Show last year and he was slobbering over that leather jacket-wearing, clingfilm-wrapped crooner Michael Bublé (who looks like a regular in a Coventry nightclub), snuggling up to him like he was in love, touching his trousers.
“My ideal night these days,” said Whitehall, “is to go home, run a bath, light some candles, open a bottle of Shiraz, put on a little bit of this gentleman’s music [Bublé] and have what I like to refer to as a ‘Bublé bath’.” Is that it? That’s your big gag for the watching millions on a Friday night? “Bublé bath”? I couldn’t turn the telly over quick enough. I feel sorry for Whitehall’s girlf, the actress Gemma Chan. She should have dumped him by telephone live on air – although she must have a slate loose for dating him in the first place.
The thing is, the Nineties wasn’t a bad decade for comedy. Father Ted is the best sitcom ever made, but you also had One Foot In The Grave, Bottom (which, yes, was an extension of The Young Ones, but worked), Black Books, Brass Eye, The Royle Family, The High Life and Alan Partridge. I like the fact that without swearing, Father Ted could easily be a kids’ TV programme. There’s no dirt, no muck, and the priests are little more than children themselves. There’s just epic embarrassment, confusion, danger and shame, the sort of situations that made Fawlty Towers such a winner. I prefer the utter absurdist escapism of Father Ted to John Cleese’s long-legged discomfort; like Harold Steptoe, Ted needed to escape but is thwarted at every attempt.
Much ground is covered in a Father Ted episode – The Simpsons is similar in that respect. Storylines provide a trellis for the vines of dialogue to grow through. It was the ridiculous conversations that provided Father Ted’s hilarity, whether the inhabitants of the parochial house were entering the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called “My Lovely Horse” or getting lost in the jungle-like surroundings of Ireland’s largest lingerie department.
Ted: “Do you remember when he [Father Jack] gave you a big kick up the B-O-T-T-Y?”
Dougal: “Hahaha, yeah, and do you remember that time you were bending over him and he held your nose so tight that you had to open your mouth and then he dropped a big spider in it, hahahaha.”
Ted: “No, that wasn't funny, Dougal. It was funny when he kicked you up the arse, it wasn't funny when he put the spider in my mouth.”
I’ll never tire of that scene from “New Jack City”, where Father Jack contracts hairy hands syndrome (level six out of a maximum of 12). At the Prisoner-inspired Festival No 6 in Portmeirion this September, I’ll be putting a few questions to Father Ted director Declan Lowney in front of a live, deckchair-seated audience. Declan’s also the director of the new Steve Coogan film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – so I’ll have to get off my B-O-T-T-Y and see that flick before the Q&A.
I met Declan, briefly, at Festival No 6 last year, so there’s a linearity at play. He arrived as part of the extended New Order entourage – his wife’s a friend of New Order’s PR lady, Jayne. I was in Portmeirion specifically to see the band and our tents formed a sort of media plaza in our backstage field of mud. Declan failed to mention his comedy credentials, but he let slip some facts a few months later at a party hosted by Jayne in Brighton. Over too many glasses of quickly consumed red, we decided a return to Festival No 6 ought to be attempted, especially if we could get in for free. It soon became apparent that the only way to guarantee a gratis return to that North Wales idyll would be to work for our passage.
At last year’s Festival No 6, me and the wife camped together for the first time. She was more keen than I was; I didn’t fancy the prospect of dew-covered pyjamas every morning. Critical to our canvas-covered stay would be controlling the toilet problem of outdoors living. No way was I traversing to the edge of the camp in the dead of night to expel frothy jets of foaming beer and wine. So we developed “PU1”, a novel system for the removal and storage of urine (P – p***; U – unit; 1 – the first in the series). I can’t believe that nobody else has ever tackled this camping conundrum. Within the warmth of your own tent, you wee into a funnel; this collects in an old ice-cream tub; you then transfer the warm, fragrant trickle into old milk containers. It’s recycling in action! Very alternative, very festival, and for a short time, the plastic bottle acts as a “radiator”.
In the mornings at last year’s Festival No 6, it was my job to traipse to the nearby hotel and deposit the previous day’s collection into the public toilets (rather than pollute Friesian pasture). Between us, we were producing six pints of effluent a day. It was like a military process, but crucially, we’d tamed nature. There was a bit of a problem on the final morning. I hiked up to the hotel with six pints of p*** in my backpack – which is really heavy – and just as I was ducking into the toilets, Gillian Gilbert from New Order leapt in front of me and said, “Oh hi, did you enjoy the gig last night?”
With my back straining under the weight of efflux, I had to provide a positive account of The Prisoner-themed New Order performance from the previous evening. Not easy. Obviously, Gillian had no idea what I was carrying, otherwise she might have given me the cold shoulder – which I was already suffering from.
When I mentioned this tricky tête-à-tête to Declan, he naturally hijacked the narrative and gave my story an inevitable Father Ted spin. He said that the bottles had exploded on my back and New Order’s synth-playing, soft-voiced, guitar-playing mum-of-two was covered in the chilled remnants of lager, red wine and Prosecco. It became clear that Declan’s brain is hardwired into Father Ted and I suspected that he only listens to the build-up of stories and always provides a calamitous climax. As for PU1, I remain very proud of that invention; me and the wife will shortly start work on the slightly improved, uprated PU2.