2017 minus 63: You can’t teach…

Posted: 30 October 2016 in 2017 minus

It was Alistair Cooke, as it so often is, who said that there were three things it wasn’t worth arguing with friends about, as you would never convince each other:

  • whether something tastes nice
  • Whether someone is attractive
  • Whether something is funny

The last of these fascinates me and we’ll get to it in a moment, but the first two bear a little – but just a little – discussion.

I’ve never been a ‘foodie’. Though there are dishes, and meals, I’ve enjoyed, enjoyed hugely, it’s never actually mattered to me whether or not something tastes wonderful, as long as it tastes nice. Many friends of mine are very ‘into’ food. They enjoy making it, presenting it, cooking it, baking it, and take equal enjoyment in the pleasure others have in consuming it.

I’ve never understood that. Not the taking pleasure in someone else enjoying something you’ve created. I’m a writer; of course I love people enjoying something I’ve written. But the pleasure in food. My older [late] brother enjoyed food, but enjoyed so many different types of food that it was a standards family gag that ‘if it didn’t get up and walk off the plate, Mike would eat it.’ But he enjoyed every bit of the experience: the choosing of it, the serving of it, the eating of it.

Not me.

Food to me has always been… fuel. That’s pretty much it. I’m sure I’ve disappointed many a friend and family member when they’ve realised – after preparing a sumptuous meal – that I’d have been quite ok wth grilled cheese on toast, or an omelette.

Same really applies with liquids. I enjoy a single malt whisky for the warmth, and – understandably – for the alcoholic affect on me. And I don’t like brandy, nor wine*, but in terms of actual pleasure of consumption? A glass of water, a cup of coffee or a can of coke will do me just fine, thanks.

(*Wine is the single exception I’m prepared to make to my rule that “you’ve just never experienced xxxx is nonsense.” I’ll acknowledge that I’ve drunk a tiny, tiny fraction of the wines available, and there could be out there a wine I’d enjoy; I just don’t see the point in trying all the wines I won’t like in order, maybe, to find one I will.)

For a long time, whenever I was asked what my ‘type’ was, I’d say “Arial Rounded”. What people meant, of course, was what physical body/face type did I find attractive, or what part of the body attracts me. Truth is, in the main, I don’t have a type, not really, and never have had. An honest answer, when I was a teenager, was “any type that finds me attractive”, but it’s been a long time since I was a teenager.

Eyes do it for me, often, it’s true. Communicative eyes, but then again, I seemed to be off school they day they taught reading the messages sent.

And anything else on this subject is ideally left for another day, and probably best left until three days after hell freezes over.


Sure, my sense of humour has changed over the years; I can remember – just – finding specific comedians and material funny as a child that I dont’ even find mildly amusing now. But there are similarly comedians, acts and material I found funny then and still find funny now. My father introduced me to The Goon Show before I was a teenager, and my brother (him again) introduced me to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again when I was a teenager. I loved both then; I found them both funny then; I still do. It would be remiss of me not to point out though that both sometimes, occasionally, include racial stereotyping that I was far too young to notice then and which repulses me now.

I don’t know about Spike Milligan, but in the latter case (ISIRTA), with the writers still alive, I at least hope they’re ashamed of the material.

Jumping forward to today’s comedians (though to be fair, some of the comedians on the circuit now have been going for decades, half a century in some cases) I could start listing the comedians I find funny five a day and not be finished by Christmas. What’s interesting, when I consider it, is how many younger comedians I find genuinely funny (and heartbreaking when they do pathos) are women. What’s interesting about it – to me – is that I genuinely don’t know how many I would have included in a list maybe only ten years ago.

I’ve always been interested in comedy and, as long term readers will know, have written comedy for the BBC and others on occasion. One of the nicer, one of the nicest, things about 2015 was getting to write three shows for Radio 4 with Mitch Benn, who I had the incredibly fortunate luck to meet in 2010 after being a fan for years… and who quickly became one of my closest friends.

It’s through Mitch that I’ve learned so much more about comedy – both the craft and the history – than I knew before. It’s also through him that I’ve met lots of comedians and discovered that many, most, of them are as nice offstage as they are talented on.

Tiffany Stevenson, Andy Zaltzman, Al Murray, Gráinne Maguire, Simon Evans, Pippa Evans, Marcus Brigstocke, Phill Jupitus, Rufus Hound, Andrew O’Neill, Jess Robinson, Arfur Smith, Carly Smallman, Rich Hall, Nick Doody, Bethany Black, Robin Ince. So, so, so many others.

All superbly talented comedians, all lovely people. The first is why I like their work. The second is why I like them.

The problem happens, of course, when you like the act, but not the person… or the other way around. Fortunately, the former has only very, very rarely occured. The second…?

When I was an entertainment accountant (not an entertaining accountant; as I’ve mentioned before, there are very few of them of them), one of the dirty little secrets was that almost everyone I met in the ‘business known as show’ was… nice. Another was that they were genuinely – no I mean that, genuinely – grateful that people liked their work.

It made it difficult, but not too difficult, when you found you didn’t enjoy their act, didn’t enjoy their material, didn’t enjoy their work. But I always had the excuse that they were clients.

I never – at that time – thought I’d welcome that excuse.

For there are comedians I’ve met over the past few years who I like enormously as people; they’re fun, funny as hell off stage, and very enjoyable company… but I just don’t find their acts funny.

And, as Cooke says, while you can teach someone to appreciate art, or music, humour is so subjective, so personal, that it’s a wasted effort to try to convince someone that something is funny when they don’t think it is.

What I’ve deliberately missed from that is the ever present but unspoken “…to me”.

For I’m not saying that comedian X’s act, or a single joke even, isn’t objectively funny. I don’t think I’ve the right, not the expertise, to say that. Especially since that comedian is playing to packed houses, and people are laughing the place down. They’re just not funny… to me.

And yet, I don’t want to walk too far in that direction either, because there are comedians who do objectively racist material… and with the ‘right’ (the word is appropriate in more than one sense) audience, they’ll similarly bring the place down, laughter up to the rooftops.

One more thing that never mattered to me before I met Mitch, and through him, like him, other comedians who care about the craft of comedy.

“Crowdpleaser”. It’s a term thrown around, almost always pejoratively, to attempt to lessen a comedian, to suggest that his material isn’t risky enough, isn’t edgy enough, is always ‘safe’, is always… ‘nice’, twee, boring.

As I say, I’d never considered the term much before, and if I had, I suppose I mildly subscribed to the common view.

Yeah, I was wrong. I was about as wrong as I could be.

I’ve seen in recent years what it takes to please a crowd at a comedy gig. It’s fucking hard work, as hard as anything I ever did as an accountant, as a financial director, and as hard as anything you’ve ever done at work as well… And the fact that a comedian can make it look easy is a testament not to their ‘safeness’, not to their lack of effort, but to their abilities, their talent and their very, very hard work.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.


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