Ed Whitfield’s Mirthless Nights…with Frankie Boyle and friends

As a dye in the wool tele-visionary, I spend most of my time watching the drool box with eyes like glazed cherries and a long worm of saliva stretching from my lip to the floor. There’s very little to sustain the mind; the flicker from the box and the occasional thunderclap of voices or applause maintain my waking coma and ensure it never mutates into a deep sleep, the kind you wake up from in a pine box with half of ton of earth baring down on the lid.

Like you, I long for days gone by, when Television could challenge and surprise you. In a regulated environment incorporating one publically funded network free of commercial constraints which the government didn’t try to destroy every five minutes, one enslaved to market forces and one specially created as an alternative to the other two, TV commissioners had a protected audience and a clear remit, empowering them to take the occasional risk. Sometimes they did y’know.

I bring this up because of the deep depression I felt reading Ian Burrell’s piece on “How British Television lost its nerve” in today’s Indy. The thesis was sound, namely that the networks opt for safe formats and have slid into a creative lull, a malaise that is deep and deepening. In fact I was quite content to be spoonfed the bleedin’ obvious, as I get to do the nodding dog thing, until he mentioned the just ended Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights, cited as an example of a programme which had managed to offend audiences. The implication was that this was Channel 4 taking a risk, after all the show had stoked the ire of Katie Price and mental health groups; this surely was iconoclasm with a thick Scottish accent?

Well, no. Burrell’s piece skirted round the issue, namely that delinquent guff like Boyle’s sketch show and Come Fly With Me with “the year’s biggest comedy audience” (it was shown on prime time BBC1 with no competition on Christmas Day), which like Little Britain before it mined most of its humour from social/racial stereotyping and the mentally infirm, is deeply regressive television; the diametric opposite of the kind of taboo taunting, boundary busting TV that it thinks it is.

Hang on, you say, stifling a yawn, aren’t these shows flag bearers for the comedy of embarrassment? Shouldn’t audiences be challenged? Isn’t it healthy for a society to have a counterweight to this straightjacket of politeness and tolerance that we’re forced to wear in public? Well, that all depends on the target of your joke, doesn’t it?

As noted by many a comedian who’s been on the wrong end of a knee jerk complaint, there’s a marked difference between the subject of a joke and its target. Said difference makes all the difference. For example, Chris Morris’ Brass Eye made satirical barbs at the culture of drug use, sex, morality and most famously, paedophilia, but the target of the humour, delivered with wit and intelligence, was the media’s presentation of these subjects; its propensity to create and stoke a moral panic, the ill-advised intervention of light entertainment personalities into subjects they knew nothing about. Consequently Brass Eye had an important cultural function; it was more than comedy, it was a media course condensed into six hilarious half hours. It used the grammar and hectoring tone of TV journalism to attack the same; this was genuinely dangerous television, the kind of thing that C4 is remitted to make but now never does.

Brass Eye was arguably the last time Channel 4 took a risk with its audience. In the Noughties it was content to pluck its comedy writers from the playground, assuming that what worked within a gaggle of mates in the hour between period 4 and 5, should do the business on the box. Consequently TV comedy has atrophied on the alternative channel, becoming cruder and more infantile at the expense of thought. It’s telling that the best three hours of stand up on TV in the last ten years came from Stewart Lee (on BBC2) and that the same comic branded his one ill-considered 2007 appearance on Channel 4’s lad mag panel show Eight Out of Ten Cats as the “worst professional experience” of his life. The reason this matters is because a culture of witless sarcasm, devoid of political and social comment, is retarding the comedic sensibilities of a generation. You think that’s bollocks do you? Okay, let’s return to the Primark subversion of Frankie Boyle.

A comedy series is in trouble when attempts to describe it are funnier than the show itself. Channel 4 should give the writer of the Electronic Programme Guide their own series for bullshitting that Boyle’s comedy abortion was “mined from the darkest recesses of the human psyche”. Burrell’s piece contained another zinger from Shane Allen, Channel 4’s head of comedy – a position that’s currently a little like being commander in chief of the Royal Navy, who suggested Boyle was ridiculing culture from within. Complainers who were perturbed by Boyle’s puerile gags about rape, AIDS, race or mental illness were part of the “can’t say that crowd…the very crowd that made those comedians want to kick against them in the first place”. No problem Shane, but your first question to any comedian that wants to build a routine around taboos should be, “what, if anything, do you have to say about these subjects?” If they don’t answer, you know you’ve got a problem.

I don’t belong to the “can’t say that” brigade. I find that idea as offensive as Frankie Boyle’s beard. In fact, I believe, like most reasonably intelligent, liberal minded folk of my age or thereabouts, that you should be free to say anything – that comedy, especially comedy, should be unshackled and unafraid to go into any psychical crawlspace. All I ask is that once it enters, it brings with it wit, skill and intelligence, that it has a real go at changing the way I see the world, covering everything it touches in a gloopy defamiliarising gagoplasm. That’s the test, and any piece of comedy that can do that is essential. What Boyle has created is a working man’s club act with long breaks for visiting your own private bar or taking out pent up aggression on your spouse with an impromptu bout of rough intercourse – Boyle has labelled these breaks “sketches”.

It isn’t clear who Boyle’s target audience was, though people whose funny bone has been broken would be top of my suspect list. It was an offensive show, offensively unfunny, which is really the only type of offensive, which in comedic terms is genuinely offensive. Did you get that? In the same way that someone trying too hard to be funny is the opposite, trying too hard to shock leaves even a sensitive soul like me, cold.

Boyle will profess not to care about naysayers of course and to a degree he’s telling the truth, as those that prefer a repeat of Dad’s Army to anything made in their lifetime are not going to be part of Boyle’s comic-constituency, but he should care that those with a darker sense of humour found his programme about as funny as a botched colonoscopy. If Boyle wants to know what a genuinely demented take on modern life looks like, with imagination to spare, he should watch the aforementioned Chris Morris’ series Jam, which is the programme Boyle had in his head, written by people with approximately 15,000 times more wit.

Tramadol Nights has been a personal tragedy for Boyle because he’s been found out. In the most brutal arena imaginable, that of prime time TV, the public have discovered that far from being held back as a proficient craftsman of glib one liners on Mock the Week, (or Mock the Weak as Stewart Lee wryly calls it), that gig showcased the zenith of Boyle’s skills. With the seatbelt off, Boyle’s managed to do a Mark Bolan and smash himself into a tree. Few will mourn him but some will ask why the likes of Lee, Rich Hall, Mark Thomas, Doug Stanhope and others of their ilk, don’t have a greater presence on TV, while Jason Manford, Michael McIntyre, Jimmy Carr and fuck me, Russell Howard, are now ubiquitous. The question for TV commissioners in 2011 should be, do you want to follow your audience or shape it? Do you want to pander to existing tastes or forge new ones? If the latter, putting the right people on Television would be a great start.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. True, dat. I miss Mr Morris.

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