I have visitors arriving soon and there will be no new post until on or before Sunday 2nd June
BLACK COMEDY FOR ADULTS
There is a recurring and impressively sour old character entertainingly called Bert Bastard on Channel 4’s vintage comedy sketch show, Absolutely (1989-1993). Bastard is played by the versatile and gifted Welshman John Sparkes (born 1954) and is a white-haired octogenarian, understandably bitter as he is living alone and impoverished and with serious mobility problems. In one sketch, we have Bert in the bathroom with his Zimmer frame, facing the camera, and to vigorous musical accompaniment he is trying to perform the famous Hokey Cokey song and dance.
He begins, ‘You put your left leg in…’ and then attempts to do just that.
His left leg refuses to move even an inch. He scowls then doggedly resumes, ‘You put your left leg in…’ and ditto a failure. This happens three times, until Bert decides to doctor the lyrics in accordance with his personal reality. To the rumbustious Hokey Coke tune we now have…
You stay exactly where you are!
You get OLD…
And then you DIE…
And THAT’S what it’s all ABOUT!
Cue as finale the Zimmer frame lurching forward, and Bert Bastard landing flat on his face.
In another sketch, Bert who has very shaky hands, vainly chases some elusive processed peas around his meagre lunch plate, until finally cornering a single pea, he addresses it man to man:
‘I’ve got you now! You little BASTARD!’
Bert, you will note, though he might be old, is a man of vehement passion, for he is angry as well as bitter at his hopeless situation. Nor is he in the least charming nor amenable on the wider front. One convenient fiction about very old people is they have no sex drive, and doddering Bert not only has his, he has a pre-war bawdy vocabulary to go with it. Fantasising one day what it might be like if he attended a local Day Centre for the Old, he drools lubriciously as he weighs the odds of likely tedium versus the presence all those women:
‘Just imagine. I’d be in amongst all that quim!’
The reason why this is very funny is that it is rooted in a reality that is not even remotely comical. Being semi invalid, being alone and lonely, struggling to eat your dreary economy lunch, being patronised and/or ignored by the young, facing perhaps before long total immobility, contemplating and in some cases even looking forward to Death: all this Bert Bastard exemplifies extremely economically, for the Hokey Cokey sketch only lasts 50 seconds, but in its own way tells you almost everything you need to know about life at its limits. Apropos which, one thing it took both UK TV and radio a long time to learn, is that you don’t get enduring comedy out of stand-up facetiousness and boom-boom one liners, which are all, you might say, comedy felt at the level of possibly a reflex chuckle in the neck (if you are lucky). By contrast belly laughs are aptly so called, as you feel the depth of the comedy in your viscera, and the reason why you do that with Bert Bastard is that he is trawling the painful depths when he makes comedy out of mortality, illness, inanition, isolation, depression, despair. Meanwhile the definitive torch bearer when it came to this comic treatment of thwarted lives, came in the early 1960s, when the legendary script team of Ray Galton (1930-2018) and Alan Simpson (1929-2017) wrote a pilot 30-minute comedy for BBC TV about a couple of impoverished East London rag and bone men. They comprised a father and son called Albert and Harold Steptoe, whose scrap was gathered by horse and cart, with the horse heroically dubbed Hercules. Steptoe and his son used the hitherto taboo words ‘bleedin’, ‘git’ and ‘ponce’ to excess, had a grubby outside lavatory with newspaper instead of toilet paper, bathed once a week in a tin bath, and relaxed in amongst a comical array of antiques, stuffed animals and junk picked up in the course of their work. Harold with his struggling cultural pretensions was a frustrated bachelor of 39, who was aching to find a nice woman, but was saddled with his appalling old Dad who was both foul-mouthed and determined not to be deserted. Steptoe Senior artfully foiled every attempt Harold made to find a girlfriend (Albert invariably termed such women ‘birds’ or ‘bints’) including once squatting sloshing in the tin bath wearing his battered trilby hat and eating his supper of meat and pickles as Harold arrived back with his heartthrob. At one point a pickled onion drops in the bath and with the ladyfriend played by an incredulous Yootha Joyce (1927-1980) Albert tersely grabs the fork and goes spearfishing, only to stuff the soapy pickle into his mouth. Filial betrayal is thus nipped in the bud, regardless of Harold’s ranting accusations. The belly laughs, you will note, are rooted in the pathos of two objective living hells, viz being in your late thirties and having no sex life, nor much prospect of it, or alternatively finding yourself very old and terrified of being alone.
If you wish to find the equivalent matter in literature, meaning someone who makes others wretched and uses them to his own ends, you will probably need to explore great literature aka the Classics, and perhaps most instructive of all is Charles Dickens who can make laugh out loud comedy out of the most appalling, manipulative monsters. A prime example found in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) is the fawning arch-hypocrite Pecksniff who to suit his own greed gives away his daughter Mercy to an even more appalling monster called Jonas Chuzzlewit, he who inter alia hastens his old father’s death (i.e. murders him) to get his hands on his considerable fortune. The atrocious Pecksniff is repulsively hilarious, partly because Dickens, in order to emphasise his villainy, subjects him to elaborate decorous ironies and wonderfully leisurely digressions, including a 2-page riff at the start of the novel where he fantasies snobbish Pecksniff’s distinguished genealogy going back all the way to Adam and Eve. Yet as George Orwell first pointed out, Dickens, while a master at comic evocation of monsters and their heartless manoeuvres, is more or less hopeless at depicting happiness. Instead he regularly opts for a blurred and risible sentimentality, often with a rhetorical address to the readers, effectively commanding them to be touched by these saintly waifs who have been through their trials but by dint of uncomplaining piety have come out on top. Thus, when Pecksniff’s exploited lackey Tom Pinch is reunited with his equally exploited governess sister Ruth, their domestic felicity is so treacly, sickly and all-purpose nebulous in its gushing excess, you start to wonder why it was the great author was so critically split down the middle. A genius at humorously evoking human selfishness and cruelty and their tragic effects, he often reads like a penny dreadful hack when it comes to evoking the mystery of human happiness.
All this, believe it or not, is very relevant when it comes to contemplating the cream of TV entertainers, and those very few contemporary performers who could be described as comic geniuses. There are essentially 3 kinds of comedy entertainment: the collaborative sketch show, the collaborative situation comedy series, and the solo stand up performance. As I’ve said, in my view, the last one with its convergent one liners and often limp and overstated ‘observational’ humour, is predictably the least impressive. So it is that even though the enormously gifted Peter Kay (born 1973) whose drama series Phoenix Nights, set in a Lancashire working men’s club, is of a very high comic order, he is, I would argue, a great deal less commanding as a stand-up comedian. For example in his televised Blackpool Tower stand up, he has all the crowds of grandmas and grandads as well as the mums and dads and aunties and uncles, in amiable and harmless stitches over such things as (apropos good drying weather) ‘fine rain’ as opposed to ‘heavy rain’, and the habit working folk on package tours have of ringing up immediately from Torremolinos with nothing to say other than they have just arrived and it is sunny. To be sure, such observations are both anodyne and harmless, but hardly sidesplitting, and the only way they would work is if they came torrentially, with only a second to laugh at each gag (a second being surely all they deserve). This was the unique case with one of the very few great stand up comedians, Liverpudlian Ken Dodd (1927-2018) whose feverish puns, athletic wordplay and saucy doubles entendres worked as a kind of collaborative visceral assault, with the nature of the genius there on offer being the sheer speed of Dodd’s mind and the hurricane nature of his comic delivery.
The excellence of Phoenix Nights (2001-2002) resides in the fact that although its comic milieu is the friendly Lancastrian working class, it eschews all sentimentality, and instead portrays certain driven individuals trying to rise to the top, despite all the odds, and to do that they are required to put Self first, meaning to be as callow and at times breathtakingly heartless as possible. The heartlessness as with Bert Bastard versatilely braces itself to cope with disability, serious illness, aching loneliness, and it even makes authentic gallows humour out of the universal fear of Death. Regarding which, the Phoenix night club is owned by portly, doleful and irritable Brian Potter who is played by Peter Kay (he also plays sardonic, wisecracking Max, one of Potter’s bouncers, the other being Paddy McGuinness). Potter is wheelchair bound and behind his back is routinely referred to as Ironside (qv the detective played by Raymond Burr aka Perry Mason, who also had a wheelchair). Potter is callowness personified, yet he is an unarguably likeable as opposed to lovable monster, and his one moral quality you might say, is his commitment to his beloved club, for which he will do literally anything. Otherwise his moral scruples are wonderfully appalling. When his compere the club singer Jerry Sinclair (Dave Spikey, born 1951) has a bowel cancer scare, we are bemused to see that Jerry after a fashion is rather proud, and even theatrically bragging to strangers about his condition (that’s what I would call real observational humour, if perhaps too close to the bone for those who prefer stand up). In reality the compere is shitting himself and going along for a colonoscopy is terrified. Not only do we see him quailing in his pathetic hospital nightie, but we watch the camera inserted in his rectum and astonishingly we follow the aeronautic progress of the lens inside the depths of his bowels, aka viscera (qv visceral comedy). To his massive relief, the compere is told there is no evident cancer, and that what he has is most likely irritable bowel syndrome. Cue Jerry skipping his way joyfully back to the Phoenix, ready to share the good news with Potter who is looking rather strange not to say very shifty as he does. What he tells Sinclair is preposterous while also blackly hilarious. That he, Potter, has cleverly spread the profitable news that Jerry very likely has cancer, and that there is a to be a mega benefit concert tomorrow night organised specifically for him. Common sense then, and for the good of the club in terms of hefty ticket sales, Jerry must pretend that he does have cancer until the concert is over, after which he may say whatever he likes.
Even by Potter standards this is rather too much to swallow.
“But I don’t have any cancer, Brian. I’ve just been told that I’m OK.”
The man in the wheelchair looks even shiftier, and then throws a meagre baseball cap too small for the compere’s head. Potter commands him to wear that cap tomorrow night, the singular and pity-inducing headgear that all cancer sufferers have in any fundraising context. So it is that the following night there is Jerry Sinclair aping terminal illness, as he croons his saccharine ballads to the mostly elderly hence decidedly mortal audience. En masse, as we have all seen in numerous poignant dramas and documentaries, they are holding up their ignited lighters, and with tears streaming down their faces at the heartbreaking sight before their Lancastrian eyes.