Thursday, January 06, 2005

Alternative comedy is the new establishment

On New Year's Day Channel 4 broadcast The Comedians' Comedian - a countdown of the top 50 comedians as voted for by more than 300 comedy performers, writers, producers and directors. Like all these "best of" programmes it was introduced by Jimmy Carr, but it was a class above most of them. Paul Ross was nowhere to be seen and there were no D list celebs intoning: "We always watched Magpie. Blue Peter was for posh kids."

The winner was Peter Cook, which seems fair enough. You could argue for days about whether he was the funniest, but it is a matter of fact that he has been the most influential comedian of modern times.

More interesting, though, was the treatment of some of the performers who came further down the list. Anyone who did not fit the required mould for a modern comedian - left-wing, swears a lot, at Cambridge with Stephen Fry and so on - was treated with contempt. So though such minor figures as Reeves & Mortimer and French & Saunders were revered, when Charlie Chaplin and Bob Monkhouse were being discussed there were as many clips of people disparaging them as there were of praise.

I always had a guilty liking for Monkhouse because of his professionalism and lines like: "Fifty years ago, when I said I was going to be a comedian, people laughed. They're not laughing now." Chaplin is a more interesting case. In terms of fame and the way he provides a link between Dickensian London and Hollywood he has a claim to be one of the great men of the twentieth century.

Is Chaplin funny? The odd thing is that, watching him today, you can see that he is a brilliant performer but you don't laugh. Normally, when comedy ceases to be funny it becomes merely embarrassing, but this has not happened to Chaplin. Whatever you think of him, he deserves better than to be patronised by the likes of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis in Blackadder.

And now that Elton is the compere of the Royal Variety Performance we can see clearly that the Alternative generation has become the new establishment. More than that, it is every bit as blinkered and self-satisfied as the Jimmy Tarbucks and Bruce Forsyths they replaced.

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