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

The perfect holiday read: The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray, reviewed

Hello, summer! This is it. If you have been waiting for your big holiday read, finally here it is: an immersive, brilliantly structured, beautifully written mega-tome that is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is deeply disturbing. It is never a good idea to begin a review (or indeed to end one) with a round of applause unless you want to sound like a complete pushover or a total patsy, but full credit where it’s due: Paul Murray, the undisputed reigning champion of epic Irish tragicomedy, has done it again. He did it first with An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003), which read as if a young, Irish P.G. Wodehouse were

How Ireland lost its craic

So, which country is putting health warnings and calorie counts on bottles of alcohol for the benefit of its citizens? Nope, not Canada or New Zealand. But you’re getting warm… It’s Ireland, the country that gave us Guinness, Jameson, Bushmills and, for those who like that kind of thing, Baileys. That’s right: a health warning just like for cigarettes. But instead of rotting lungs, presumably there’ll be a lovely picture of a liver with cirrhosis. What effect will it have on me? None, dear reader, none. I drink to forget this sort of thing. But that’s the way Ireland is going (actually has gone) for a generation: not so much

Laughing in the face of cancer

A much cited statistic of the modern era reminds us time and again that at some point in our lives one in two of us will get cancer. So routinely is this doled out that its repetition must surely have dulled the threat somewhat – until, of course, we become the one in the two. When chemotherapy leads to virulent mouth ulcers, Patterson reaches for onomatopoeia: ‘Aieeoo’ In 2019, this statistic took on new emphasis for Sylvia Patterson. Then a 54-year-old pop music journalist clinging on for dear life in an industry going the way of the dodo, she discovered a curious leakage around her right nipple. Doctors confirmed Google’s

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,

My existential crisis was straight out the terrible twos’ playbook

Early on St Valentines Day I walked down to the car park where the raindrops were knocking off the young almond blossom petals. The slow-dropping rain was refreshing after the January drought. In the car park the red car was shining wet instead of furry with dust. I drove for 20 minutes on a winding road through low hills, intensively cultivated since the days of Roger the Norman, but abandoned since the Grande Guerre. My destination was a commercial laboratory in the nearest town for a pre-scan blood test. On the journey I went over in my mind what Catriona had said to me the night before. I wasn’t yet

The problem with Brighton’s summer hordes

I expect there are those among you who are pleased to see their home towns returning to something like normality this summer. Well, not me. Brighton and Hove was bliss during lockdown. Without the endless Southward drift of London chaff – pronounce that word anyway you feel works, hard F or soft – my adopted home regained something of the elegance that had led Noel Coward to include it and its seagulls in a list of things that have style. Now, it has become once again the Brighton that Keith Waterhouse said, had the perpetual air that of a town that is helping the police with their inquiries. Brighton does

A meditation on everyday life: Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny, reviewed

There were many moments in Early Morning Riser that made me laugh out loud in recognition. An episode where the main character, Jane, coaxes a wailing child to the car with marshmallows and milk after ‘a temper tantrum so severe that it might have qualified as a psychotic break’ so precisely pinpoints the absurdity of life with small children that it is hard to know whether to laugh or wince. ‘Patrice took a sip and yelled, Kalt! Apparently she had returned from psychosis speaking German.’ Yet Katherine Heiny’s new novel isn’t so much about parenting or marriage (a common target of her merciless yet affectionate wit) as it is a

Is there anything left worth joking about?

Here are a couple of books that seek to tackle the difficult issue of comedy on the front line. One deals with an increasingly toxic global cultural war; the other plunges into the battle to take on jihadists by laughing at them. In their different ways both ask the same questions: what’s funny and what’s not? And both examine the consequences of challenging those who police what is and what is not considered acceptable. Find yourself on the wrong side of cancel culture and you lose your career. Take on the jihadists and you lose your head. Andrew Hankinson, a journalist and writer from Newcastle, is the author of the

The peerless social satire of Pont of Punch

Eighty years ago this month, the cartoonist Graham Laidler — better known as Pont — died of polio. He contracted the disease while evacuating refugees from London in his car. He was only 32. In 1940, thousands of people were dying in the war, but Pont’s death was marked by an appreciation from J.B. Priestley in the Times, and an outpouring of grief in readers’ letters to the magazine with which he had become synonymous: Punch. Pont, the son of a successful painter and decorator, originally trained as an architect. But after he caught TB, doctors advised him to abandon his work and travel to Austria to recover. There he

Why does no one want to be a cartoonist any more?

‘Nightmare!’ is how The Spectator’s cartoon editor Michael Heath has been describing cartooning for at least 30 years, but it’s truer now than ever. Eighty years ago, cartoonists were so celebrated that waxworks of Low, Strube and Poy were displayed in Madame Tussauds. Today, all that remains of Low is a pair of waxy hands in Kent University’s British Cartoon Archive. We are a vanishing species. There is a lack of new blood in the industry that doesn’t bode well for the future. When I was a student, getting published in Punch and Private Eye was seen as the pinnacle of a career in humour. Many tried —and succeeded —

As long as jokes remain legal I’ll keep on making them

Mr Benn has been in touch because he wants a right of reply to an article I wrote about my horse insurance. Yes, I am aware that sentence makes no sense, but this is the world we live in. You may remember I was surprised to receive my insurance documents for Darcy the thoroughbred with a covering letter from the 1970s children’s TV character. For reasons I could not make out, my insurers had gone from being a reassuringly serious-looking outfit called Equine and Livestock to being called the Insurance Emporium in big loopy letters with a logo that was a bowler-hatted, waving Mr Benn. All things considered, the incongruity

Why we’re all in love with Fleabag

Why would you need the scripts for Fleabag? It’s hardly a lost classic. It’s always popping up on BBC iPlayer. So it was with a touch of scepticism that I picked up this volume, subtitled not ‘The Scripts’ but ‘The Scriptures’, in reference to Fleabag’s long, pitiless pursuit of a hot priest in Series 2, and beautifully presented: sombre hardcover without, shocking-pink end-papers within. Clever — there’s already something of the spliced rhythm of the series in the design. But the pink band wrapper made it look too much like a present: was this just a commercial attempt at cramming that scabrous lost soul, transgressive cultural heroine and all round

Ricky Gervais: why I’ll never apologise for my jokes

There’s a moment in Ricky Gervais’s 2018 Netflix stand-up show Humanity when he talks about buying a first-class air ticket, only to be informed that nuts would not be served on board due to a fellow passenger’s serious allergy. ‘I was fuming,’ he says. ‘If being near a nut kills you, do we really want that in the gene pool? I’ve never wanted nuts more. I felt that she was infringing on my human right to eat nuts.’ A member of the public tweeted him directly to complain after hearing him tell this story on The Tonight Show, but instead of apologising Ricky wrote a routine about it. As he

Children’s questions about death are consistently good fun

What strikes me most about the Christmas gift-book industry — for industry it surely is, as I can confirm, having toiled on that production line myself — is the incurable optimism of everyone concerned. After all, most of these books are terrible. Some are merely appalling. But the simple act of writing and publishing them is to hope beyond hope that this will be the year for you, the year that your not-very-good book will become a bestseller and buy you everything you want and need, and that no one will notice its manifest flaws until it’s far too late. Or maybe not; because every year a few decent titles

6 reasons why women aren’t funny

1. Being funny is the main way men attract women; we can’t take that away from them. There’s nothing better then a man who makes you laugh – it’s a quality women value highly and one used to describe every successful date and suggested set up. If women were funny it would be unfair, I mean we already have the gloriousness that is breasts, what more do we want! It’s why male peacocks have colourful feathers, why lions have manes. Women have to tone it down because, without the upper hand in the humour stakes, what do the unfairer sex have? 2. There’s nothing funnier than a man’s appendage There’s

Spot on target

This is an ebullient, irreverent and deeply serious novel in the noble tradition of Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis (especially Babbitt and Elmer Gantry) and John Kennedy Toole. Sam Lipsyte certainly hits his prime target — the cultish behaviour around mindfulness, motivational speakers and pallid spiritual beliefs — but one of the joys of the novel is that over and above that there is a scatter-gun sniping at various fads. Although it is laugh-out-loud funny, it swerves towards the end (the reasons would be too much of a spoiler) into slightly more melancholy and mystical modes. At the novel’s centre is the eponymous Hark, a strange, naive man who has developed

Every man in his humour

Since the 17th century, a ‘humourist’ has been a witty person, and especially someone skilled in literary comedy. In 1871, the Athenaeum said that Swift had been ‘an inimitable humourist’. But in modern usage the term seems to describe a specifically American job title: someone who specialises in writing short prose pieces whose only purpose is to be funny. The current king of humourists is David Sedaris, and his books are essentially scripts for his sell-out reading tours. But is he funny? On a line-by-line basis, he sure can be. He helps push someone’s broken-down car, ‘and remembered after the first few yards what a complete pain in the ass

Low life | 10 May 2018

Should I or shouldn’t I go and see The Death of Stalin, showing at the French village cinema last Sunday evening? To help me decide, I looked at what the compendious movie website Rotten Tomatoes had to say about it. The scores on the Tomatometer were disquieting. Ninety-six per cent of the 202 reviews by critics deemed it a hit, whereas only 78 per cent of 4,129 reviews posted by the general public agreed. Interesting. Normally, if a film is worth seeing, the film critics’ scores and the mob’s are roughly in alignment at 90 per cent or above. But when they differ by as much as this, one suspects

Dear Mary | 19 April 2018

Q. My husband and I are excited to have been invited to dinner by our most important neighbour. However our neighbour is fairly correct so I imagine it will go down like a lead balloon if I ask for his wifi code as soon as I walk in. The problem is that now I own a smartphone, everyone knows I’m accessible at all times, and I like to discreetly glance at my emails to reassure myself that there is nothing urgent. Should I pop in earlier in the day with flowers and ask for the code then? — S.C., Tetbury A. I fear you are out of date. Your emails