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This is an occasional series, the Comedy Book Reviews, in which I’ll look at various books and tell you how useful I think they are to the budding comedy writer, or writer-performer.
Opening this book is like stepping back into the late 1980s. From the drop shadows on the geometric shapes that litter the pages, serving as – I can only guess – graphic design, to the choice of comics used as examples, to the description of the industry, this book is clearly 20 years out of date. Which is unsurprising, as it was first published in 1989.
Well, it is. Although the industry it describes isn’t a huge amount like the one that will face a comic in the UK, it’s fun to wallow in the world Bill Hicks described as his ‘flying saucer’ tour, one where there are actually clubs called things like ‘The Laugh-Inn’, and where Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Roseanne Barr are still working comics rather than bloated, corporate comedy brands. The industry may have changed, however, but the job hasn’t.
There’s a reason that this book is still in print (and pretty readily available) more than two decades after it was published. It gives a really good grounding in how to write and perform a particular kind of standup act. Admittedly, it’s standup of the confessional kind, the autobiographical kind, and the observational kind, but all of those styles are still relevant and popular today.
The joke-writing and material-generating techniques are still solid, and should enable anyone to craft a couple of minutes of decent gags about themselves, their situations, and the things they have noticed about the world. If that’s the style of comedy you’re interested in performing, then this is a good introduction.
Even if it isn’t, there are things to be gleaned in terms of structuring a set, setup and punch, and general rules about how to handle an audience and prepare for a gig. The section that deals with the more alternative forms of comedy: topical gags, character comedy, musical comedy or prop comedy is a little perfunctory, and this book is much more helpful for people who want to do straight standup.
This is a good basic primer I would recommend to all comics who are preparing an act to get up on a stage. The appendices and actual club and industry information are obviously of little use now, but the principles and ideas for material, how to generate and structure it, remain as true today as they were back when there was a Tory government, regular riots in London, IRA activity, and Libya was always in the news. Oh.
This is an elongated version of an article that originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog here.
Did you know that if you took your bowels and laid them end to end, you’d die? That joke works with practically any of the useless facts you were given about the human body as a child. Did you know that if you took off your skin and laid it out it would cover five tennis courts? And then you would die. If everyone in China stood on each other’s shoulders they would reach past the moon? And most of them would die. And life would go on in Midsomer completely unchanged.
There is, however, one substance, deep inside many of us that is inexhaustible. No matter how much you pull out of us, lay end to end, stretch across tennis courts, croquet pitches or badminton galleries, wind around the surface of Jupiter, or hurl, cackling, into the fiery bowels of the sun, there will still be more. Day after day, week after week it comes. That substance? Hatred of Richard Curtis.
No matter what his achievements, his international successes, his seemingly irredeemable niceness, all qualities we claim to value, almost everyone can be driven into a fizzing, supercilious foam by the mention of his name. Assailed from the left, scoffed at from the right, article after article after article appears, solely about how appalling Richard Curtis is.
I’m guilty of it myself. In an article I wrote for The Spectator last year I spent much of the middle section berating Mr Curtis, culminating in this particularly unpleasant couple of sentences:
“Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually.”
It’s all too cool and easy to join in the Curtis-bashing without thinking. Or even with thinking. With thinking and gleeful anticipation at all the horrid things you can say with impunity. And with writing yourself little notes in the middle of the night when you dream a particularly acidic putdown and don’t want to forget it before morning. I assume.
But all of the comedy I truly loved growing up had Richard Curtis’ hand in it. The first television programme I ever learned off by heart, imitating each and every one of the performers’ vocal tics, was Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. At school, we all knew it off by heart (when I say ‘all’ of us, I mean those of us not involved in the rugger, violence or sodomy cliques. Four of us).
In the mid-nineties he was responsible for the teenage female population of Great Britain becoming infinitely more susceptible to awkward public school boys with unruly hair, when Four Weddings And A Funeral became a hit. My teenaged self is forever grateful. Many women now entering their mid-30s may well not be.
In fact, as the creator of so much of the comedy I devoured repeatedly during my formative years Richard Curtis is certainly responsible, at least in part, for the fact that I now make my living writing and performing comedy. That may be another black mark against him for many.
When I started writing the terrible student plays that terrible students write, I kept crossing out jokes, muttering ‘too Richard Curtis’. Now I just cross them out, muttering ‘too shit.’
How, then, did it reach this pass? How is Curtis-lambastation such an easy trope to fall into? How has Britain’s media become a trough of venom for one of the most successful figures our country had produced in the last century?
He has many of the virtues our right-wing media purport to hold dear. He’s a self-made man; and, although Harrow and The House don’t exactly smack of clawing one’s way up from the streets, he won a scholarship to Harrow, and his career has been marked by an quite boggling amount of work. Richard Curtis clearly works hard. Almost constantly.
And I think this is one of the things we hold against him. We’re lazy. We’re all lazy. Writers are crippled with the knowledge of all that time they’ve wasted checking emails, ‘doing research’, or playing Mineswee… rechecking emails. And when we catch a moment between wines for a quick snooze, we fall asleep haunted by the knowledge that somewhere Richard Curtis is writing something that millions of people will love, and that will lead to his having to build an extension to his bank.
Mr Curtis’ body of work is an indictment of every lazy one of us. Added to which, to a certain part of the right-wing commentariat, it’s probably just typical unpleasantness about a scholarship boy; every haughty reference to The Boat That Rocked a coded whisper about how Curtis has second-hand hockey kit.
He is also an incredible public fund-raiser. Funds that, much to the chagrin of the same cabal of tiresome proto-fascist foghorns, are freely given by people whose concerns are much the same as those of Richard Curtis: alleviating poverty in Britain and abroad with grass-roots projects.
It gives the lie to those libertarians (or, indulge me, ‘fibbertarians’) who claim that they don’t object to things being done for the poor in and of themselves, it’s just when they are done by governments that it’s also a problem for them when Richard Curtis does it. The fact that they are whipped into a steaming, broken, hate-froth by a man who spends a lot of his time organising charitable giving, bankrolled by his private income in the free market (where, incidentally, he’s pretty successful, too) just goes to indicate what decrepit, empty, noise-hoses they are, blaring hateful inanities until their eyes burst, or until Nanny turns down the topsheet. To be clear: they are against the Nanny State, not nannies
You’d think that if you wanted charitable giving to replace the welfare state you might at least take a polite interest in the activities of a man who has raised £630 million through Comic Relief (not counting his involvement in Live Aid or Live Eight). You might be a little intrigued by the way in which it operates on the Golden Pound principle, whereby none of the administrative costs of the organisation are paid for by donations, but rather through interest on money in the bank or corporate sponsorship.
If nothing else, Comic Relief took a grim, drab, wet, minor public school in the bumcrack of Surrey in the late 1980s, where most of the spring term was spent running between classrooms with books over your head to fend off the rain / hail / prefect urine, and offered the possibility that maybe, just for one day, the teachers might let you tell jokes, watch videos, do silly things to raise money. They never did, of course. Being slippered by a man in a plastic red nose is very similar to being slippered by a man without one, but it at least gave us hope.
We’re often told that the left ‘hate success’. They can’t bear it. They search around for anyone showing the slightest zest or entrepreneurial spirit, and then tear them down like a bunch of barely-motivated lions mauling a zebra. Or Richard Branson.
Very few Britons have been as internationally successful as Richard Curtis. It’s often a bit of hyperbole, but it actually would actually take too long to list all of his accomplishments here. His creations are beloved by the world: he co-created Mr Bean. He single-handedly invented a whole genre of films ‘the Britcom’. He’s Oscar-nominated and has a string of hits to his name. He came up with two long-running sitcoms. He hasn’t met a format in which he hasn’t had a huge success. He has exported a certain sort of British culture across the world, and had it embraced everywhere.
It isn’t the left who hate success. Dastardly from Wacky Races (or Stop The Pigeon if you’re a purist) hates success. As do people who write endless gloating articles about Richard Curtis’ perceived failings.
And how can we hate Richard Curtis? He’s so nice. So absolutely, irredeemably, bastardly fucking nice. He’s polite, unfailingly respectful (in public at least) of those around him, gathers talented people and gets excellent work out of them, for free. He’s a national treasure. What is there to get so upset about?
Four things keep coming up.
I’d probably best address the one I played on in the article I wrote: that he seems to have a tin ear for emotion, that he seems not to distinguish between real, earned emotion and cheap sentiment. I was first troubled by this in the infamous “we actually are expected to entertain, even for a beat, the fact that Julia Roberts’ stardom is more of a burden than Gina McKee’s not-having-any-legs and not-being-able-to-have-children” pastry distribution scene in Notting Hill.
To me, this made Love, Actually unwatchable actually (have a look at the other article for some of my specific problems with it), but, you know what? Curtis straddles the line between emotion and sentiment, and the exact position of that line is different for all of us. For some of my friends “Oh, is it raining? I hadn’t noticed…” is intolerable, but I relax into it with an enjoyable mental squelch.
Millions upon millions of people disagree with me about Love, Actually. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m emotionally deficient. Or maybe it’s all right when people disagree about films. And when he gets it right, he gets it exactly right, as he did at the end of his episode of Doctor Who last year.
The second recurrent criticism is just a vague sort of dislike-by-association, because people have him linked quite closely in their minds with Tony Blair and the late 1990s. I don’t see any real evidence for this, although the years of Curtis’ greatest success and prominence as an international figure were also those of the rise of New Labour.
I think Mr Curtis made his feelings pretty clear about Tony Blair in Love, Actually, and that we should bear in mind that one of them two of them holidays with murderers, dictators, alleged hirers of child prostitutes, and seems unable to distinguish between ‘morality’ and ‘venality’; and the other makes funny films and raises money for the poor.
Another criticism is that he is ‘too political’, something you won’t hear those same commentators saying about Rupert Murdoch. When these fibbertarians spend their time bemoaning the way a private individual chooses to give their time to causes they support, you really have to question their commitment to the principles they claim to espouse.
Their problem, of course, is not that he is too political. I’m sure, if pressed, they would concede that he’s entitled to be exactly as political as he wants. They are merely concerned that he is too good at being political, at achieving things and publicising the causes about which he cares. They remember The Vicar Of Dibley.
hat sitcom took a highly contentious issue (about which some of the pepole who so rail against Mr Curtis probably wish we were still arguing now) and showed its absurdity with some delightful casting and a dopey sidekick. He healed the rifts in the General Synod with a Christmas episode about having to eat lots of dinners. And he did it with a warm heart, jokes about words that sound funny, people who don’t understand things, and without ever stooping to the level of his detractors. (Yeah, me! Take that!)
His concerns are close to those of the general public, which is why when Richard Curtis decides the Robin Hood tax is a good thing, the aim of the bankers’ arm of the right-wing commentariat (which is all of the right-wing commentariat) suddenly becomes to destroy Curtis himself. The flying donkeys have been unleashed, beware a torrent of horse-manure.
The last criticism I have heard a lot is that Richard Curtis’ best work is behind him. To which my response is: And?
John Cleese’s best work is behind him, Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, but that is no criticism. When you have left behind things as glorious as they have, you can keep trying on the offchance. When even your relative misses far exceed most other people’s hits, it’s not a terrible thing to not be on your personal top form.
In conjunction with Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis also gave us something that is, I think, more valuable the whole Britcom genre. I call it the Comic Rallentando of Airy Passages. Or CRAP. This is something you’ll see a lot in the more florid passages of dialogue in Blackadder, or whenever there’s a particularly delightful mental image to savour, Rowan Atkinson slows down as he approaches the end of the sentence, and the silly word (ideally a monosyllable) that completes… it.
Atkinson’s eyes roll around the whole room before giving that last word. Often ‘pebble’, or ‘plinth’, or ‘Bob.’
I found myself using the other day with the word ‘glans’. I hadn’t realised when writing it, but as I mouthed that ‘glans’ in front of a room full of people I couldn’t help but think of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, rolling their plosives around in public.
That’s just one of the rhythms they gave us. When he worked with Rowan Atkinson, we had the joy of seeing someone delighting in writing word for someone who delighted in saying them. Every labial, oily crevice of a word would be exposed. Richard Curtis gave us a comedy in which language wasn’t funny because it had a second meaning, or because it revealed character, but because it was funny to say.
I have problems with some of Richard Curtis’ films, I do think he sometimes takes the easy option for his characters and stories, but he has given us new modes and rhythms of comedy. He wrote the comedy language that a lot of us learned as we grew up. He’s a dominant international figure, an ambassador for Britain, has a phenomenal body of work, and he has added to the lexicon of British comedy, changing it for the better.
Comic Relief is his crowning achievement, a unique testament to the man’s passions and achievements and one that engages all sorts of people across the country to do naff, unsophisticated things because it makes them laugh. Once every two years, Richard Curtis gives us an opportunity to change the world in small, tangible ways and to revel in laughter.
And nothing makes cold hearts sicker than knowing not only is the country laughing, but the country’s giving at the same time.
Oh, and for the record? Bernard And The Genie was excellent. I watched it so often I wore my videotape out. It should be on every Christmas, everywhere. And this Friday, I’ll be watching to see what new things he has come up with to entertain, amuse, and to save lives across the world*.
I’m putting money into Richard Curtis’ pot. I suggest you do, too. And then I’m punching myself in the face for contributing to the torrent of bile that washes over him, and doesn’t seem to have the slightest effect.
Did you know that if you took all of the venom spewed by all of the commentators and put it into a swimming pool, then you’d die. Both because there’s loads and you’d die of old age, but also because venom is… venomous and you shouldn’t even be in the pool in the first place, and… Oh, Richard Curtis is great. Give money to Comic Relief.
(*This is a fib. This Friday I’ll be at a gig. But I’ll watch it when I get in.)
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.
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy Lesson #4: Relax (nathanieltapley.com)
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #3 (nathanieltapley.com)
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #2 (nathanieltapley.com)
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #1 (nathanieltapley.com)
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.
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #1 (nathanieltapley.com)
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #2 (nathanieltapley.com)
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #3 (nathanieltapley.com)
- BBC radio stars attempt standup for Comic Relief (guardian.co.uk)
She gets it.
[Hat tip: Splitsider]
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.
- The Comic Relief Crash Course In Standup Comedy: Lesson #1 (nathanieltapley.com)
- Wax On, Whacks Off… (nathanieltapley.com)
They say that every journey begins with a single step. This is true. Unless you own a car.
You are starting a long journey of self-discovery, one that could one day lead you to the heady heights of a room above a pub in Islington, where hostile strangers will stare at you, and sigh audibly over your punchlines. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. And the last day of the first bit of your life. And the middle day of a section of your life that surrounds this bit.
Your first task is simple: go shopping. Go and buy a notebook and a pen.
Once you have bought them, keep them with you at all times. The style doesn’t matter. Whether you go for a leather-bound Moleskine and a Mont Blanc or a ring-bound pad with a biro is entirely up to you, but, from now on, you must have them to hand whenever anything strikes you as interesting or amusing.
When you’re at work, having them sitting next to you, at home have them next to you. When you go to bed leave them within reach. Take them with you to the loo. Whilst in the loo you might produce some great stuff. You could also write some jokes.
Write down anything that occurs to you as you think of it. Don’t try and remember it later: the best jokes have a habit of disappearing when you try to remember them. At least, that’s what I say happened to mine…
Give your notebook a name. Like ‘Janice’. Learn to love it, hate it, to take it everywhere with you. Use it as a filter to catch the nuggets of interesting stuff that are whizzing through your brain. Have an affair with it No, don’t have an affair with it, because that could end messily and the one thing you don’t want to lose is Janice.
This is the first step on your journey, and, thankfully, it just involves a trip to Rymans (other stationers are available).
Dare to be a hero, Nick. Go and buy a pocket-sized notebook.
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 Spectator Arts Blog on the 22nd November, 2010.
I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.
And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No
(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)
No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.
And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.
This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.
Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.
For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncatser Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.
Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”
Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?
No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.
The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.
Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The Week, The Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.
Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 690 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.
In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @
Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”
On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.
Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.
It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.
The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.
The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.
You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.
I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.
This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.
Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.
A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?
Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?
Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.
Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ’emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.
We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.
Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.
(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)
We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.
Benjamin Franklin said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.
Update – News has just come through Paul Chambers will be challenging his conviction in the High Court. He’s making a stand for free speech for which we can all be grateful. And what’s the best way to express gratitude? Money. Lots of money. He will need another £10,000 to pay the legal fees for the appeal.
To contribute to the fighting fund, if you feel inclined, please donate here
- When a Twitter Post Can Land You in Court (time.com)
- The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter (leftfootforward.org)
This is why Bill Murray is always watchable. (Well, some of why…)
You have a lot of lines in this one that get tons of laughs I doubt were on the page. It’s all in the rhythm, the delivery. How do you pitch something like that? How do you make something out of nothing?
I have developed a kind of different style over the years. I hate trying to re-create a tone or a pitch. Saying, “I want to make it sound like I made it sound the last time”? That’s insane, because the last time doesn’t exist. It’s only this time. And everything is going to be different thistime. There’s only now. And I don’t think a director, as often as not, knows what is going to play funny anyway. As often as not, the right one is the one that they’re surprised by, so I don’t think that they have the right tone in their head. And I think that good actors always—or if you’re being good, anyway—you’re making it better than the script. That’s your fucking job. It’s like, Okay, the script says this? Well, watch this. Let’s just roar a little bit. Let’s see how high we can go.
But you asked how you get the comic pitch. Well, obviously a lot of it is rhythm. And as often as not, it’s the surprising rhythm. In life and in movies, you can usually guess what someone is going to say—you can actually hear it—before they say it. But if you undercut that just a little, it can make you fall off your chair. It’s small and simple like that. You’re always trying to get your distractions out of the way and be as calm as you can be [breathes in and out slowly], and emotion will just drive the machine. It will go through the machine without being interrupted, and it comes out in a rhythm that’s naturally funny. And that funny rhythm is either humorous or touching. It can be either one. But it’s always a surprise. I really don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth.
The rest of the interview is also well, well worth your time. Get over to GQ, and read it…