No laughing matter: accusations of transphobia wrecked Graham Linehan’s life

Graham Linehan is an unlikely political campaigner, but in 2018 the sit-com writer embarked on a second career in what is possibly the most contentious and vitriolic arena of our time. According to Linehan, he was fighting for women and children, but his advocacy has cost him dear. Accused by his opponents of transphobia, he has found himself out of work and out of his marriage. Jobs began falling away, and a tour to Australia to teach comedy was cancelled In Tough Crowd, he tells the story of how he ‘made and lost a career in comedy’. It’s a tough read – a man who once made so many people

‘Comedy is much more important than I thought’: John Cleese on the press, his new talk show and the power of Fawlty Towers

John Cleese enjoys tough questions. He’s currently touring America with An Evening with the Late John Cleese, and a substantial part of the show is thrown open to the audience. He tells me that when someone asks a particularly rude question – such as ‘Why can’t you stay married?’ – it simply adds to the fun. Another one of his favourites is ‘What’s the worst film you ever made?’ I ask him the same question. ‘Well, there are a lot of contenders,’ John says. Apparently his ‘sabre-toothed daughter’ Camilla might have the answer, because she often introduces him to the stage as ‘the star of The Pink Panther 2’. When

What a joke

The award for the funniest joke at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was won by Lorna Rose Treen, with this: ‘I started dating a zookeeper, but it turned out he was a cheetah.’ There you go. It’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it? Maybe with the fact that the joke doesn’t really work. Why would a zookeeper be a cheetah? Just because his work may involve looking after them? There’s no sense to it: the bloke just works in a zoo. If she’d said ‘I started dating a big cat – turned out he was a cheetah’, then that still wouldn’t be terribly funny but it would at least

Ben Lazarus

‘I disliked him intensely’: Richard Lewis on first meeting Larry David

Richard Lewis first met Larry David at a summer sports camp, aged 12. ‘I disliked him intensely. He was cocky, he was arrogant,’ Lewis says. ‘When we played baseball I tried to hit him with the ball: we were arch rivals. I couldn’t wait for the camp to be over just to get away from Larry. I’m sure he felt the same way.’ Eleven years later they met again on the New York stand-up scene – but didn’t recognise each other. One evening, as they drank into the night, it dawned on them. ‘I looked at his face and I said, “There’s something about you, man, that spooks me.” Just

Trump, Diogenes, the Mitfords and Malaysian comedy: Edinburgh Fringe round-up

The Mitfords is a superb one-woman show by Emma Wilkinson Wright who focuses her attention on Unity, Diana and Jessica. In the early 1930s, Unity became Hitler’s lover and she lived in a luxurious Munich apartment confiscated from a wealthy Jewish family. The Führer, whom she nicknamed ‘Wolfie’, gave her the pearl-handled revolver with which she shot herself in the head shortly after Britain’s declaration of war. To carry out this bizarre act of self-sacrifice she chose a favourite spot in Munich’s English Garden where she used to sunbathe naked. In wartime Britain, Diana was held in Holloway prison and she complained bitterly about being separated from her baby boy,

Rizal Van Geyzel races through his 60-minute set peppering the material with snatches of Chinese, Tamil and Malay

Forgettable stuff: The Crown Jewels, at the Garrick, reviewed

In the 1990s, the BBC had a popular flat-share comedy, Men Behaving Badly, about a pair of giggling bachelors who were scolded and dominated by their mummy-substitute girl-friends. The author, Simon Nye, has written a historical crime caper about the theft of the crown jewels in 1671, as Charles II prepared to celebrate his tenth year on the throne. The psychological co-ordinates of the play are poorly handled. The thief, Colonel Blood, is an irritating Irish crosspatch who wants to drive the hated English from his homeland. Charles (played by Al Murray) is more attractive, a fun-loving gadabout who enjoys sex, jokes and science and who can’t bear Puritans. So

Can topical comedy survive?

Seen any good stand-up recently? It’s a loaded question, but if you have, there’s every chance you didn’t view it via terrestrial TV. You might instead have laughed at some brash American on Netflix, or a deeply un-PC comic on YouTube – or more likely still, a comedian sitting in the palm of your hand. Over the past 12 months in particular, stand-up clips have been going down a storm on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. The kind of clips which do well online have come as a surprise to some of the industry’s traditional gatekeepers. In a shock twist, it seems audiences still find stuff about the differences

Gag order: China’s stand-up comedy crackdown

‘The Chinese Communist party is probably the funniest thing that exists,’ the dissident artist Ai Weiwei once told me, ‘but it doesn’t have a sense of humour.’ The brave band of comics in China’s fledgling stand-up comedy scene are discovering that poking fun at the grim-faced old men who run the country with an ever-tighter grip is a dangerous pursuit. Last month, at a comedy club in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, 31-year-old Li Haoshi mocked a military slogan coined by President Xi Jinping. Li said that ‘Forge exemplary conduct! Fight to win!’ reminded him of his two dogs chasing a squirrel. A clip of the show spread rapidly online. The Beijing

Woke culture is strangling comedy

Three weeks after that South Park episode and the memes just keep on coming. Despite years of highly articulate fulminating against the preposterous pair by essayists like myself, there’s a feeling that the satirical cartoon was the conclusive blow to the Sussexes’ reputation – no well-turned phrase will ever better the glorious awfulness of ‘The Worldwide Privacy Tour’. One of the things that the woke hate most about our lot is the fact that we’re far more amusing. Their natural mode of address is to scold – and scolding and wit are polar opposites. I daresay some clown somewhere has stated that punchlines are probably imperialist. In his book The Rise of the New Puritans,

The tragedy of Fawlty Towers

The secret of any great sitcom is the delicate balance of sit and com. Mess the ‘sit’ bit up and you lose the ‘com’. Del Boy without Nelson Mandela House is as unthinkable as Alan Partridge without his ‘grief hole’ (aka the Linton Travel Tavern), which is why both of these characters eventually came unstuck. Sending the Grace Brothers’ employees on holiday to Costa Plonka in the 1977 Are You Being Served? feature-length comedy fell flat because, devoid of petty department store politics, the characters had no reason to exist – thus audiences felt cheated.  Remove tightly written characters from their uncomfortable surroundings and viewers stop caring. The tension between tragedy

I’ve finally been offended by a joke

I went to the O2 on Sunday night to see the comedians Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Chappelle, who survived an attempt to cancel him last year, didn’t disappoint, delivering some hilarious, politically incorrect jokes, and Rock was equally seditious, although his set went on for too long. But the rest of the evening was pretty painful. The effort it takes to get to this relic of the New Labour era is truly Herculean. Indeed, Rock made a joke about it, claiming he’d set off from his hotel on Wednesday morning and only just arrived. The Tube station is North Greenwich, one beyond Canary Wharf, and your only hope of

A four-way race between poet, actor, video artist and sound engineer: Edinburgh Festival’s Burn reviewed

In a new hour-long monologue, Burn, Alan Cumming examines the life and work of Robert Burns. The biographical material is drawn from Burns’s letters, and the poems are read out in snatches. You won’t learn much except that Burns was a poor farmer who later worked as a taxman. To represent his many flings with women, a few high-heeled shoes are dangled on strings above the stage but this looks strangely cheap given that huge sums have been lavished on graphic imagery projected onto a big screen at the rear. Flashing lights and surges of music add to the sense of distraction. Cumming’s performance centres on dance, which looks like

Why Harry Hill’s little green aliens are popping up all over London

Sitting in a posh office overlooking the Royal Academy, the comedian Harry Hill is deploying one of his lesser known modes: introspection. ‘I suppose I’m one of a growing number of celebrities who do art,’ he says, one hand fiddling with his trademark oversized shirt-cuff. His point – which he returns to several times – is one of definition: as much as he enjoys making art, and as much art as he makes, he can never quite see himself as an artist. In his defence, he isn’t alone. After more than a decade as the face of one of the most-loved comedy shows this century, Hill can probably count himself

Has the Edinburgh Fringe lost its edge?

Every August, thousands of comedians make the pilgrimage to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. By the end of the month, those who manage to stand out in this crowded field (and it is a very crowded field) might have Live at the Apollo or Netflix calling, or maybe even a sitcom commission. But this year, with performers facing hefty registration fees, rent more expensive than a luxury foreign holiday and exorbitant marketing campaigns, all in the midst of a cost of living crisis, more and more are asking: has the Fringe lost its edge? As the festival kicks off for its 75th year, comedian Vittorio Angelone says its culture seems

Who are these pathologically liberal rozzers? Channel 4’s Night Coppers reviewed

Grizzled police officers of the old school should probably avoid Channel 4’s Night Coppers for reasons of blood pressure. Like most documentary series with close access to the police, this one paints them in a light so favourable as to be almost comically sycophantic. The trouble for those grizzled types is that – the times being as they are – what’s now considered favourable is to make the rozzers who patrol Brighton after dark all seem like that pathologically liberal Dutch cop played by Paul Whitehouse in the late 1990s. Not that this is a reference which most of the officers featured in Wednesday’s opening episode would get – largely

Why TikTok reels are reshaping comedy

Bella Hull started standup six years ago. Back then, she lived in fear of a bad set being uploaded to YouTube, where a shaky camera and lacklustre crowd might stain any Google search of her forever. Now, due to the rise of video ‘reels’, popularised by TikTok, Instagram and YouTube during the pandemic, for Bella and other digital savvy comedians, creating online video is a necessity for reaching fresh, young, and more global audiences. Bella has been publishing funny short-form videos in portrait (AKA TikTok reels) for one year and has amassed over 888k likes on the platform. For a lot of circuit comedians, lockdown forced them to put down

How I prepare for the Edinburgh Fringe

I am going to the Edinburgh Festival this August. That declaration could be said in a number of ways. Celebratory (unlikely). Showing off (possibly). Self-promotion (in there somewhere). However, I’ve been in comedy a while and have reached what my wife recently called ‘solid middle-age’, so announcing I’m going to the Fringe is more of an incantation: a chant designed to steel myself for a taxing endeavour. Not that there will be much tax owing afterwards, I’m not likely to make much money. No-one in Edinburgh does as well out of the Fringe as some bloke called ‘Josh’ who rents you his airing cupboard for six grand. I’m assured this

Ricky Gervais is an achingly conventional Millennial posing as a naughty maverick

Just how edgy and dangerous is Ricky Gervais? There is no one more edgy and dangerous, we learn from no less an authority than one R. Gervais. He keeps reminding you of this at intervals in his latest stand-up special, for which he was reputedly paid $20 million (to go with the other $20 million Netflix paid him for its predecessor). Every few sketches, he’ll announce to his live audience that this one was so offensive there’s just no way Netflix is going to broadcast it. But Netflix has done just that – and yet, quite incredibly, neither it nor Gervais has been cancelled. Funny that. What this suggests to

Ricky Gervais is guilty of blasphemy

I have long thought that if Life of Brian came out today, it wouldn’t be Christians kicking up a fuss about it — it would be trans activists. When Monty Python’s classic tale of a man mistaken for a Messiah came to cinemas in 1979, people of faith weren’t happy. They saw it as taking the mick out of Christ and they aired their displeasure noisily. Nuns in New York picketed cinemas. In Ireland the film was banned for eight years. In 2022 I reckon it would be a very different story. It wouldn’t be Monty Python’s ribbing of the gospels that would outrage the chattering classes — it would

Boldly and brilliantly unoriginal: Kermode and Mayo’s Take reviewed

Last April Fools’ Day, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo wound up their award-winning film review show on BBC Radio 5 Live after 21 years on air. A little more than a month later they are back with Kermode and Mayo’s Take, a podcast so similar in flavour and format that you could call it an up-yours to their critics. While Mayo stressed that it was their decision to go their own way – ‘we have decided, and to be clear: that’s no one else has decided’ – he was slightly more candid about his experience in an interview with the Radio Times a few weeks ago. People of my generation