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First, read this…

Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.

Now watch this:

You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.

Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.

Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.

When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.

But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.

I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.

No one wants to steal your scripts.

No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).

Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.

Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”

However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.

And, besides…

Your ideas are not all that important.

Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.

You need a writer to write a film.

The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”

Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.

It’s all in the execution.

And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.

Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).

In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…

Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Ostia Antica

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About three years ago I thought it would be funny to write a blog called Having A Poo With… In each entry I would parody the thoughts of a famous person as they went to the toilet. To do a poo.

It would show off my keen ear for language that was ripe for parody (it didn’t); it would be a regular and hilarious addition to people’s inboxes (it wasn’t); and be an excuse for a lot of jokes about bums (it was). The whole thing was prompted by an image of Will Self describing the “proleptic, anti-peristaltic turtle’s head” of a stool that was proving difficult to shift from his duodenum. This would show that Craig Brown…

Needless to say, I got bored after doing one entry. It sits there, alone in a corner of the Internet, unloved, leaking misery and loneliness into the ether. As it should be.

I was reminded of this when seeing another piece of advice to young writers in which they were sternly admonished to finish those things they started. That that was what separated the professionals from the rest of you. We finish what we start. We don’t leave abandoned half-drafts all over our hard drives. We don’t start without a plan, we know where we’re going, we finish what we start.

Balls. Unalloyed donkey-balls.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that you can never get anything made (or published) unless you finish it, I think that there’s another risk just as great as starting something you never finish. And that’s never starting the thing at all.

Whereas in the past I would have happily ploughed in to a new idea whenever it occurred to me; now I have pinboards, charts mapping out act breaks, the will to muscle on through bits of writing that might not be working the way I’d hoped, and a huge pile of projects that I haven’t ever started because I’m not happy that I’ve got a complete grasp of them yet. Before writing was my job I would have played with these ideas, tried writing them. Now that seems irresponsible unless I know how they are going to turn out.

So they sit there.

And I look at them and think that if I’d taken that first moment when the idea seemed so brilliant and written everything that enthused me about it then, then I would have at least have a bit of them written. At least a bit I could look at, decide whether there was anything in it and carry on with. A bit that would have the fire in that initially excited me. Rather than a bunch of denatured plans for incomplete ideas.

Sometimes we have to play. Sometimes we have to just follow what excites us. Sometimes we have to fail.

We have to do the bit we think is excellent to realise that we don’t want to do the rest of it.

Which is why I’m glad i wrote the one entry on Having A Poo With… It’s a testament to doing something incompletely, but still having something that you like at the end of it. Its one entry is short, but still funny, and written. It’s there.

As opposed to all the well-worked through, not-quite ideas I have planned. So whilst it’s great advice to young writers to learn to finish the things you start, I wonder whether it might not be just as important to start things you have no idea how, or even if, you are ever going to finish.

That one entry? Having A Poo With… Charlie Brooker. Here it is:

Have you ever noticed how tawdry and awful doing a shit is? No, really. It is.

You sit there with your trousers around your rotten ankles, waiting for death, and straining so hard you look like Popeye wanking himself into a stupor, as he lies alone in bed imagining Olive Oyl being savagely bummed by Bluto. Who’s dressed as a clown.

Not only do you grunt and squeal like a piglet drowning in a bathtub full of razorblades and gin, but you’re actually squeezing actual human turds through your foetid ring-piece. You disgusting cock. Get some fucking dignity.

You’d almost feel sorry for yourself if you weren’t as despicable as the rest of the human sodding race. We should all have our heads replaced with bums, so that instead of going around having opinions, we could just spoot noxious clouds of toxic guff in each others’ bum-faces. Like cocks.

As if that weren’t bad enough, you’re then expected to wipe your own arse like some sort of idiot slave with nothing better to do than to smear actual shit around a piece of semi-absorbent paper. The shame of this makes you leak hot twat-tears into the uncaring toilet bowl.

The only thing that makes the process half bearable is the knowledge that the whole degrading process is at least confirmation that you’re still alive, and taking up precious space on this rubbish planet. For now.

Portrait of The Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingha...

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Dear Nick,

The most important thing to remember when you are on stage is that it is you who is on stage.

You may find it difficult to forget, of course. You might find yourself gazing out over patient rows of expectant faces, your bowels curdling under the lights as the gags you expected would bring the house down drift aimlessly across the room only to sputter against the far wall like disappointed farts in a week-old balloon. At that point you might find it quite difficult to forget that it is you who is on stage.

No matter what happens, remember that you have a right to be there, people have come to see you, you have the microphone. From the moment you walk on the stage – even if you are playing a meek and nervous character – you must own the space. It’s yours. Look at home in it. Try not to apologise for your presence.

Nothing is more uncomfortable for an audience than watching an act who isn’t convinced that they should be up onstage. From the apologetic way in which they handle the microphone, to the sympathetic ear they lend hecklers, to the self-pitying murmurs of “This isn’t going well” when it isn’t going well, if the audience don’t feel that the person on the stage is in control of the situation it panics them.

And rightly so. It would be like sitting down before your long-haul flight to hear across the tannoy: “Good afternoon, everyone, this is your 1430 hours departure for New York. The temperature at JFK is a balmy… I’m not sure I can do this. I practised for ages, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going very well. Is it going very well? Don’t know why I’m asking you lot, you don’t cre, you vultures. Now, which of these buttons makes it go up?”

The only difference is that the fear your audience will feel will not be that of a fiery, ocean-bound death, but rather of an excruciating five minutes of comedy. All right, so it’s not really the same at all.

But, still, it’s your responsibility to be in charge of the stage. To look like you know what you’re doing, even when you have know idea what you’re going to say next. Like Prince Philip.

When we watched the video back you noticed that your body language changed when you were dealing with the heckler. You physically tried to move away from him and avoid eye contact to defuse the situation. However, comedy is occasionally quite territorial and mammalian. You have to assert your authority over the group using your wit. And the fact that they don’t have a microphone.

You must become a silverback gorilla, throwing the weight of your enormous barrel-chest around, and grunting and hooting your authority to all challengers. Like Prince Philip.

You are the one who is meant to be there. You are the one people are there to see. Bear that in mind and straddle the stage like a smug giant, untroubled by doubt, secure in the knowledge that, undeserved or not, you are in charge of everything you cast your gaze upon.

Exactly like Prince Philip.

Cover of Dungeon of Dread

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Dear Nick,

What you are about to do is not important.

It may feel like a nerve-wracking ordeal devised especially to torment you, but it isn’t. Your every waking moment might be filled with the dread of imminently having to stand on a stage whilst people watch you and laugh at you. Or, even worse, watch you and not laugh at you. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.

It is five minutes. In the middle of other people doing their five minutes. Even if it all goes horribly wrong, if the only reactions from the audience are yawns, gasps of horror, or wheezes of despair, it’s not that important.

You won’t be ruining anyone’s life. You probably won’t even be ruining anyone’s evening as there will be lots of other comedy to watch. To you, this is an experience that can consume your every waking moment. To the audience, you’re a brief distraction from the problems in their lives and their own ever-present dread of mortality.

So, relax. Take it easy. I’d suggest that you take a chill pill if it didn’t sound highly illegal, and exactly the sort of thing that caused all that trouble for that nice Dr Shipman.

Relax. Drink the experience in. You don’t get to spend much of your life being silly in front of people. Even if they don’t like it, so what? It’s not like they don’t like you. Unless they do.

And, even then, so what? What does it signify, at the end of the day? That you and some other people met for five minutes, discussed some ideas, and didn’t come to any mutually satisfying conclusions.

Relax. It’s not that important. No one’s life depends on it.

Except in your case, of course, as you’re doing it for charity. The fundees of the Comic Relief charities are directly dependent on your success for life-saving treatments, in some cases.

So don’t relax too much.

Rick Wakeman in 30. October 2003 in Somerville, MA

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The CRCCISC posts are a series of tips to help Nick Wallis, breakfast presenter for BBC Surrey, prepare for his first standup gig, at The Komedia, on March 17th. There are more details in this post.

Dear Nick,

The second lesson is even easier than the first. It’s simple: be forgiving. Be understanding. When you look at the world and notice its absurdities and ridiculousness, pause for a minute to try and understand why it might have got itself into such an absurd state, before condemning it out of hand.

Admittedly, condemning things out of hand is funny. Anger is funny. Your frustrations are funny. But they’ll only take you so far. About as far as being Rick Wakeman in an episode of Grumpy Old Men. And no one wants that.

Comedy has enough middle-class white men sneering at a world that doesn’t quiet defer to them in the way they’d like. You’ll get laughs pointing out everyone else’s deficiencies, but you may well lose your soul in the process.

Keep your bitterness, your ire, your condemnation as arrows in your comic quiver; they’re all easy ones to fall back on. Spend a day trying to find the other kinds of comedy in world. Glory in silliness; see humankind’s foibles as symptoms of what we’re trying to get right, rather than evidence of all we get wrong; meet the world with an open and generous heart.

Above all, if you go to meet someone to talk about standup and you find they may have been out at the Chortle Awards until incredibly late, doing unmentionable things to the free bar, and that they’re now in no real state to see their own feet, never mind tutor anyone in comedy, be forgiving. Be understanding. Be quiet.

And maybe bring them some paracetamols.

Tapley, Wallis, and Amused Bystander

What could possibly go wrong?

There are certain small moments of indescribable joy when one’s teaching comedy. There’s seeing a quiet child suddenly find a huge voice when you’re playing improvisation games in a school. There’s watching new jokes coming into being. There’s the look of unadulterated horror on a breakfast DJ’s face as he realises that he has agreed, for Comic Relief, to perform an original set at a proper comedy club in front of a proper audience in a few weeks’ time.

That last one’s my new favourite. You can see his mind’s eye roving over each imagined hostile face, and sweating its way through each uncomfortable, silent second. This is going to be fun.

Yes, as those of you who listened to BBC Surrey (104-104.6 on your FM dial) the other morning will know, I’ll be training Nick Wallis, presenter of the breakfast show, in comedy for the next couple of weeks. Then, on March 17th, he’ll be performing a set, in front of a room full of paying punters, at The Komedia in Brighton.

Nick, of course, will be fine. Not only are (in my Treason Show experience) Komedia crowds delightful in the extreme (and VERY forgiving), but the fact that it’s for charity should mean that no one is going to be judging him too harshly. None of that, of course, will stop him visualising a room so quiet that you can hear people’s expectations crumbling.

Especially now that I’ve mentioned it.

The fact that it’s for charity is a double-edged sword, however.  If I fail to train Nick well enough, we will actually be making the lives of the less-fortunate much, much worse. I get the feeling that for every gag he does that falls flat, Lenny Henry will personally close a hospital in Somalia. For every weak pun, Billy Connolly will throw sawdust and scorpions into the well of a village in Burkina Faso. Each time Nick fluffs a line, Richard Curtis will punch a child carer.

So we’d better get it right…

I’ll be keeping track of Nick’s progress here over the next few weeks, and he will be blogging about it over there. In the meantime, if you run a comedy night in Surrey, and have a spare five minutes to give to Nick between February 25th and March 17th, drop me a line…

This article was first published on the The Spectator Arts Blog, on 14th October.

A couple of Thursdays ago, The Daily Mail told us, on Prince Charles’s behalf, that modern comedy was offensive, ‘cruel and witless’. However, its front page the very next day was a dire warning that the EU was coming, and the thing it was coming to take away? Our good, honest, cruel British comedy, by which only pansies, Guardian readers, and the deaf could possibly be offended. Confused readers were possibly not helped by the following Wednesday’s article, which was back to bemoaning how offensive British comedy now is.

The Daily Mail is of two minds about how offensive comedy should be. Or would be, if that didn’t imply that it had one fully-functioning mind to begin with.

The columnists in question, of course, may accidentally not have been describing comedy, but themselves. Who, for example, is more ‘impossibly ugly’: comedy or Jan Moir? Is it possible that there was a mirror somewhere in the periphery of Quentin Letts’s vision when he described comedy as ‘smug, scornful and obsessed with sex and flatulence’? What, Prince Charles, is more cruel: knob gags, or, when sitting with your wife-to-be, suggesting that someone who wants to know whether you love your fiancée should define their terms?

The paper’s split personality over comedy doesn’t mean its readers are going slowly, bitterly mad, however. Neither do the front page headlines calling for the abortion of gay foetuses (July 1993). Or the editorials suggesting Hitler should be given large chunks of Africa (March 1934). Or the support for the British Union of Fascists (‘Hurrah For The Blackshirts!’, January 1934). Individually, none of those things reveal you to be squalid and hateful beings, hypocritical, nasty, and prurient – but put them all together…

Of course, I’m being facetious in suggesting that the paper was being in any way inconsistent. The offensive humour that was to be celebrated and cherished and the EU were coming to grab was jokes about women, blacks, and disableds. The sort we should despise is the kind that makes fun of middle-class white men.

That’s not to say that modern comedy isn’t cruel and witless. Just that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The cruel and the scatological are not new elements in British comedy. On the contrary, they are two of the great pillars of British humour. From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Swift and Sterne, from Gillray through Marie Lloyd to The Inbetweeners, great swathes of what the British find funny has been bums and humiliation. Often humiliation because of bums and the things that come out of them.

When Quentin Letts rails against the ‘sex-obsessed’ I can only assume he’s talking about the smutty undergraduates of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue: ‘Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.’ or ‘The archivist says he always loves to watch his little dog as he scampers up to Samantha with her couple of crackers held out and pants around her ankles.’

Those who claim bleakness and cynicism in comedy are new and deplorable traits are, quite frankly, jabbering idiots who would be best served by being put the sort of establishment where they restrict access to pointy objects and have special non-swallowable Scrabble tiles. British comedy has never been darker than during its ‘golden age’: Hancock’s Half HourSteptoe And SonRising Damp are all utterly pitiless, as isFawlty Towers.

To sanitise and strip British comedy of its rich (and thoroughly offensive) heritage is to do it a disservice. I don’t blame the columnists of The Daily Mail for preferring to live in a Baden-Powell fantasy world, but we should really stop listening to them as if they were talking about, you know, reality.

Two other pillars of British comedy are silliness and satire, at both of which we excel, and which are often combined. From the Big-End and Little-Enders to On The Hour’s train drivers, on strike because they can see the track narrowing as it reaches the horizon and ‘with fixed-guage rolling stock, this could derail our trains’ satire often tends towards the surreal, making the point that the world is often surreal.

However, as satire ages, and its targets become more distant its silliness is what endures. Now, MontyPython’s Flying Circus is usually described as ‘surreal’, but what made the programme unique wasn’t its nonsense, but it’s gimlet-eyed view of the world.

All jokes have a point. No matter how surreal or slapstick, every joke tells a story; it represents a take on the world. Richard Curtis appears to have forgotten that.

In this spectacularly misjudged video for the 10:10 campaign, he appears to be labouring under the impression that people blowing up is funny in and of itself. Even when the people around react with screams of horror. Even when it’s grownups blowing up children.

Franny Armstrong, a founder of the 10:10 campaign said it was: ‘a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python or South Park’. Except no one in the known universe has been able to divine what it was intended to satirise.

Is this meant to warn us about the potentially fatal consequences of inactivity on climate change? If so, surely after a couple of people had refused the teacher should have sighed and blown everyone up. If you don’t act we all die. Probably still a rubbish film, but at least one with a point.

The film’s called No Pressure (and I’m guessing that the people blow up because they are de-pressurised?), so it would seem that it is suggesting that there really is pressure, even when people say there isn’t. Except that there’s actually much less pressure around them so they explode. Unless they’re highly-pressurised from the inside. Or something.

No one seems clear what it was trying to say, and if you’re unclear about what a joke is trying to say then it doesn’t work. That’s the thing about public communications: it helps if you have something you want to communicate. Instead, and I say that as someone who generally supports the aims of the 10:10 campaign, of just producing a bullying piece of proto-psychotic wish-fulfilment.

Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’s worst film. That’s Love, Actually. If you don’t believe me, pause for one second to consider a film that begins with a mawkish voice-over about 9-11 and ends with an 11-year-old child breaking through three levels of airport security, essentially unhindered. Next to that, No Pressure begins to look like a conceptual masterpiece.

The campaign organisers seem to be labouring under the delusion that what people found offensive was the gratuitous gore. Here’s a hint: when adults execute children to the screams of their horrified classmates, those adults are not the good guys. The problem is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s utterly incoherent.

For those who are un-shocked by massive child-violence, however, there’s always rape. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran this piece which bemoaned that making jokes about rape is becoming more acceptable.

I’m so politically correct it hurts. Literally. At the first whiff of a historical imbalance in power relations I come out in hives. I get gastric cramps when I read the word ‘niggardly’. However, not only should comedians have the right to make rape jokes, but they should be encouraged to.

Sexual violence is, unfortunately, part of the world we live in, and, as such, is one of the things we have to deal with as humans. One of the ways humans deal with things is by making jokes about them.

The implication of the article’s sub-heading ‘What makes comedians think rape is something to laugh about?’ is that there are subjects which are off-limits to comedy. You could as easily ask: what makes comedians think mass murder / genocide / paedophilia is something to laugh about? Maybe we shouldn’t touch these issues, but without them we wouldn’t have Gillray’s cartoons about the Terror in France, Mel Brooks’s The Producers, or the Brasseye Special. If we decide that some topics are taboo, the question then becomes who gets to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable subject for comedy.

Not all rape jokes are equal. Every joke takes a position, and not all positions are equally pleasant or unpleasant. There is an obvious difference between a joke or routine that honestly explores a comic’s personal reaction to a difficult subject, and one that trivialises sexual violence.

It’s certainly not unfair to judge a comic by their jokes. If their jokes revel in misogyny and use rape as a means of getting cheap laughs, then that tells you a lot about them. The greater a variety of comedians who feel able to give their personal take on rape and its part in our society, the better. As long as the only people who feel comfortable doing material about rape are those who couldn’t care less about it, the worse for everyone.

The problem is not that too many comics are telling jokes about rape, but that too few are, and many of those who do are doing it simply to shock. We need to have a culture in which comedians of all stripes feel free to discuss any subject that is important to them. More rape gags, please, and from more people.

As a comedian you are responsible for what you say. Like it or not, your jokes are yours. Until Keith Chegwin hears them.

But then I would say that. As a character comic, none of my jokes are mine. I get to espouse the most horrific opinions, tell the foulest, most shocking jokes, and blame them on the character I’m playing. And I do.

One of my characters is a racist, sexist, bigoted freak, and the act consists of watching him slowly have a nervous breakdown, and revealing the reasons for his being such a miserable human being. However, some of the laughs during that act do come simply from the shock value of hearing someone say terrible, terrible things. I did the act once at a rural club, where one of the patrons nodded throughout the whole thing, nodded and pointed and muttered: ‘Yes. Yes. He knows. That’s right.’ I later discovered that the pub the night was being held in was where the local chapter of the BNP hold their meetings.

Even a routine in which a horrible person is shown for the hollow, diseased shell they are will be taken by some people as a positive affirmation of their awful views on minorities, women, and the current underuse of the word ‘poppycock’. Standing on a stage wielding a microphone is a powerful thing.

In the end I decided that, as it had only happened once, and that, for anyone with even a sliver of functioning brain, the point of the act was to discredit those opinions rather than give voice to them, I should continue doing that bit. Although I have to accept that in so doing I am also giving voice to them, and a tiny, stupid minority will take comfort from the very thing I designed to discomfit them.

If one really wishes to find comedy that was ‘cruel and witless’ one doesn’t have to look far beyond Quentin Letts’ ‘golden age’ of comedy. (Incidentally, in his staggeringly ill-informed article, Mr. Letts bemoans that we have no Pixar, no animation company capable of making touching films that garner international success. We’ll assume he’s never heard of Aardman.)

The casual, grinning racism of a lot of the acts on The Comedians in the 1970s reminds us that not all comedy of the ‘golden age’ was gentle silliness with a good heart. It appears, instead, that any joke of any viciousness was acceptable as long as it was aimed at the Irish, blacks, mothers-in-law, Pakis, immigrants, married women, unmarried women, and gays. Those who seem so horrified by today’s comedy seem to have chortled happily through the ethnic mugging of The Two Ronnies.

Comedy has always been cruel and witless. It’s just that we only really notice when it stops being cruel and witless about the people we don’t care if it’s cruel and witless about. We only feel the need to write opinion columns about how cruel and witless it is when it’s cruel and witless about people like us. Or, in Prince Charles’s case, people very specifically like us. You know, us.

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