Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Comedians must start reflecting our darker real-life local humour

Who would want to be a comedian in Northern Ireland? There are few of those that we already have who don't, at least occasionally, ooze the sort of desperation that betrays their greater need to be affirmed by us than to entertain. There must be easier ways to find love and approval.

Choosing to be a comic here is a bit like taking your daughter out of secondary school and off to China for training in gymnastics, where she hasn't got a chance of distinguishing herself if she hasn't already done a triple somersault by the age of three.

Gymnastics is what Chinese girls do and comedy is what practically everyone in Northern Ireland does. If you are going to seek to stand on a stage or go on television and show people here how to raise a laugh then you must either be bloody brilliant, or you are a dimwit who hasn't noticed the milieu in which you already live.

These are considerations that broadcasters should take to heart when planning the future of comedy in Northern Ireland. And we are living in a period of brave expansion, with the emergence of talent like Diarmuid Corr of Sketchy.

Things will be different. Sketchy is, at least, a move away from the local fixation on the camp, dating from a period when a man had only to talk like a woman and say 'oo-er' to raise a laugh: a humour grounded in our old-fashioned rural contempt for the different.

Sketchy is making an effort to identify local types and parody them - the sort of thing that Nuala McKeever did better than anybody, though UTV made the call that not enough people wanted that.

Our TV comics, even those who are occasionally quite funny, surely must live with a determined rejection of the obvious; that every bar in the country is propped up by some scurrilous cynic or other who could eat him alive.

And that reminds us of the other core fact about Northern wit that the pretender to comedy has to cope with: it is lethal.

We excel in sarcasm. And as naturals in sarcasm, Belfast's homegrown wits recognise contrivance and disdain it.

The scripted joke can almost never have the verve and attack of a spontaneous riposte. And when you see the panelists on The Blame Game competing to get their rehearsed jibes in and, in the rush, losing their grasp on the sort of timing that alone could make them sound passably natural, you wonder why they bother. I would rather have a few friends round for tea where the laughs are real.

Tim McGarry often gets it right in that taxi sketch at the end of Hearts and Minds. What he reproduces there is the tone of contempt that is familiar here.

In a political culture which demands civility, humour's responsibility is to break the rules. It must never sound as if it is deferring to anyone's status.

But the ways in which ordinary people discuss our politicians is far more grisly than can be allowed for on television.

Our indigenous default mode in humour is rage and disgust and the challenge for any performer is to match that and to stay within the bounds of mannered decency.

For our humour is transgressive and the first thing it violates is the assumption that we should behave. Clowning does not work for us, at least not the self-conscious clowning of the comic who is working for a laugh. The hard labour should not show.

Jennifer Aniston's clowning worked because her character, Rachel, was getting things wrong while intent on getting them right.

And the great comic genius of our time is Miranda, reproducing some of the devices made famous by Frankie Howerd; for instance, commenting on the action.

This is different from the leakage of self-consciousness by an over-zealous comic, for the commenting self is part of the act and remains in character.

The only viable background to all this is darkness; the acceptance that life may be unutterably bleak, indeed is so by nature.

In Miranda's world, the fantasy that an ungainly lump of a woman can ever find love and contentment is what always leads to trouble. Conclusion: a life of misery is preordained.

Who would dare to sneer at our sectarianism on the presumption that we are stuck with it for all time? Yet that is how street humour works.

The trick in Folks On The Hill is to present our politicians as sub-standard intellects, so that we may take comfort in being wiser than they are. Really great, dangerous humour leaves you without that consolation.

Comedy, like everything, works from contrast, and there is nothing to laugh at when the alternative of crying is not a close option.

Who locally puts us at such risk of contemplating our own disgrace? Or, to put it more simply: who locally is as funny? Well, Gerry Anderson is funny. Sean Cromie is funny when he does Gerry Kelly. Newton Emerson was hilarious when he edited the website Portadown News.

What is consistent in all of them is mockery. And not just aimless sneering, but unbridled contempt for the revered shibboleths.

My pick of the funniest joke ever told about the Troubles is Newton Emerson's line from his mock obituary of IRA leader Joe Cahill: 'He is survived by his wife and a million Protestants.'

And my sense is that, if a comic is to be transgressive in this society, then he or she has to address the politics and the sectarianism and the other areas that betray our piety and hypocrisy and our other little protections.

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