Archive for December 9th, 2010

Who’s Joking?

When did you last wet yourself laughing?

Well, it probably wasn’t in front of the television.

Who would want to be a comedian in Northern Ireland?
There are few of those that we already have who don’t, at least
occasionally, ooze the sort of desperation that betrays their greater
need to be affirmed by us than to entertain.
There must be easier ways to find love and approval.
Choosing to be a comic here is a bit like taking your daughter out of
secondary school and off to China for training in gymnastics, where
she hasn’t got a chance of distinguishing herself if she hasn’t
already done a triple somersault by the age of three.
Gymnastics is what Chinese girls do and comedy is what practically
everyone in Northern Ireland does. If you are going to seek to stand
on a stage or go on television and show people here how to raise a
laugh then you must either be bloody brilliant or you are a dimwit who
hasn’t noticed the milleiu in which you already live.
These are considerations that broadcasters should take to heart when
planning the future of comedy in Northern Ireland.
And we are living
in a period of brave expansion, with the emergence of talent like
Diarmuid Corr, or Sketchy.
Things will be different. Sketchy is at least a move away from the
local fixation on the camp, dating from a period when a man had only
to talk like a woman and say ‘oo-er’ to raise a laugh: a humour
grounded in old fashioned rural contempt for the different.
Sketchy is making an effort to identify local types and parody them,
the sort of thing that Nuala McKeever did better than anybody though
UTV made the call that not enough people wanted that.
Our tv comics, even those who are occasionally quite funny, surely
must live with a determined rejection of the obvious, that every bar
in the country is propped up by some scurrilous cynic or other who
could eat him.
And that reminds us of the other core fact about Northern wit that the
pretender to comedy has to cope with. It is lethal. We excel in
And as naturals in sarcasm, Belfast’s home grown wits recognise
contrivance and disdain it.
The scripted joke can almost never have the verve and attack of a
spontanous riposte.
And when you see the panellists  on The Blame Game competing to get
their rehearsed jibes in and, in the rush, losing their grasp on the
sort of timing that alone could make them sound passably natural, you
wonder why they bother.
But they support each other, of course, and the audience will be
generous, and it must be fairly easy to come out of the studio
afterwards, content that the overall project has worked.
I would rather have a few friends round for tea where the laughs are real.
Tim McGarry often gets it right in that taxi sketch at the end of
Hearts and Minds. What he reproduces there is the tone of contempt
that is familiar here. Nuala McKeever has it too.
In a political culture which demands civility humour’s responsibility
is to break the rules.
It must never sound as if it is deferring to anyone’s status.
But the ways in which ordinary people discuss our politicians is far
more grisly than can be allowed for on television.
Our indigenous default mode in humour is rage and disgust, and the
challenge for any performer is to match that and to stay within the
bounds of mannered decency which is the bottom line in broadcasting.
For our humour is transgressive and the first thing it violates is the
assumption that we should behave.
Clowning does not work for us, at least not the self conscious
clowning of the comic who is working for a laugh. The hard labour
should not show.
Jennifer Aniston’s clowning worked because her character Rachel was
getting things wrong while intent on getting them right.
And the great comic genius of our time is Miranda, reproducing some of
the devices made famous by Frankie Howerd, for instance commenting on
the action.
This is different from the leakageof self consciousness by an over
zealous comic, for the commenting self is part of the act and remains
in character.
The only viable background to all this is darkness, the acceptance
that life may be unutterably bleak, indeed is so by nature. In
Miranda’s world, the fantasy that an ungainly lump of a woman can ever
find love and contentment is what always leads to trouble. Conclusion:
a life of misery is preordained for her.
Who would dare to sneer at our sectarianism on the presumption that we
are stuck with it for all time? Yet that is how street humour works.
The trick in Folks On The Hill is to present our poltiicans as sub
standard intellects, so that we may take comfort in being wiser than
they are. Really great, dangerous humour leaves you without that
Comedy, like everything, works from contrast, and there is nothing to
laugh at when the alternative of crying is not a close option.
Rachel, in Friends, walking into her former fiance’s wedding party,
with her frock tucked into her knickers after going to the toilet, is
funny because it is horrifying. Similarly, Miranda running after a
taxi in her underwear, after her dress has been trapped in the door,
is too close to what we all dread for us to be able to contain the
idea without some emotion – hence laughter.
Who locally puts us at such risk of contemplating our own disgrace? Or
to put it more simply: who locally is as funny?
Well, Gerry Anderson is funny. Sean Cromie is funny when he does Gerry
Kelly.  Newton Emerson was hilarious when he edited the website
Portadown News. What is consistent in all of them is mockery, and not
just aimless sneering, but unbridled contempt for the revered
shibboleths. My pick of the funniest joke ever told about the Troubles
is Newton Emerson’s line from his mock obituary of IRA leader Joe
Cahill: ‘He is survived by his wife and a million Protestants’.
And my sense is that if a comic is to be transgressive in this society
then he or she has to address the politics and the sectarianism and
the other areas that betray our piety and hypocrisy and our other
little protections.

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