Film review: A Family Affair

So, I’ve just watched Angeliki Aristomenopolou’s documentary A Family Affair, about one particular branch of the Xylouris family, a Cretan family of musicians. Aristomenopolou’s film has the misfortune to have the same title as a considerably more easily-found-on-the-internet documentary, Tom Fassaert’s A Family Affair, which I haven’t seen and which this blog post isn’t about.

Ms Aristomenopolou’s film is — what’s the best way to put this? It’s not a great documentary, but it’s a wonderful document. It’s 90 minutes long, but feels a lot longer. I’m going to say that this is her fault. It’s certainly not the fault of her subjects, the family of Giorgos Xylouris and his wife Shelagh Xylouris-Hannan, together with their kids Nikos, Antonis and Apollonia, and Giorgos’s cranky father, also called Antonis, a legend of Cretan music, universally known as Psarantonis (this sort of means ‘Fish-antonis’; it’s a long story, and not as interesting as the music.) The Xylouris family came to fame in the 60s and 70s, when Antonis’s elder brother, also called Nikos, became a star of Greek music and a symbol of resistance to the military regime that ruled Greece for a good chunk of the late 60s and early 70s. Interestingly, the film does not mention the elder Nikos’s political significance at all, although it does tell you that he got famous.

The focus of the film is on the elder Nikos’s nephew Giorgos, a Cretan lute prodigy who has been a hard-working professional musician since he was 12. It follows him from gig to gig, workshop to workshop, country dance to country dance, as he plays the hell out of his lute and strives with all his considerable charm and charisma to pass the tradition on to those willing to receive it. This includes his own kids. The younger Nikos and Antonis, together with their teenage sister Apollonia, have spent half their lives in Australia because Giorgos fell in love with and married an Australian woman, Shelagh Hannan, who is now in the position of being the stoically resigned matriarch of this family of musicians. I could have done with hearing more from Shelagh about the widow-like quality of being married to a professional musician who, as soon as they got off the plane from Australia after being married, was tearing off to play a wedding. But Aristomenopolou tries to do a lot of things at once, one of them being to tell you something or other about the places where this music is being played by having lots of lovely shots of the Cretan landscape or Melbourne’s cityscape. Beautiful as these are, I could have used less of them. A lot less.

Let’s get to the good stuff. The best thing about this film, by far, is the music. Aristomenopolou’s camera catches Giorgos and his kids and other musical partners in many different contexts: public dances, concerts, recording studios, practice sessions, and the music is great. The younger family members, for all that they look like (and sound like, when they speak English) regular Australian young people, are clearly already steeped in the music and are keen to make it live on.

The hidden presence for the first two thirds of the film is Giorgos’s dad, Psarantonis, who is spoken of in reverent terms as being the real musical genius of the family. What comes across in the film is that, however brilliantly talented Psarantonis actually is, his family certainly defers him as the authority. And it’s here that the film is not only full of insight into the life of a musician, but also revealing about the nature of Greek families and Greek masculinity.

The most gripping sequence is when Apollonia has flown out to Australia to join her elder brothers, who are studying sound engineering, and Giorgos and Psarantonis fly out to do a short concert tour, one of which dates will feature all three generations on stage together. At the very beginning of the film, we have seen a sequence of shots of all the principal people: Giorgos, Psarantonis, the younger Nikos, the younger Antonis, and Apollonia. Over this was sung a quiet song with a haunting melody. When we get to the shot of Apollonia, it takes some time to realise that she’s the one who’s actually singing it; her affect is so low-key that it takes you a moment to notice that her lips are in sync with the singing you’re hearing.

Over an hour later in film time, the family convenes in Melbourne to have its only rehearsal for the concert they’re to give. It turns out that Giorgos’s children have never played with music with their grandfather, only with their dad; such is Psarantonis’s celebrity that he never seems to have seen fit to share musical experiences with his own grandchildren. They play a tune; it goes well. Then Giorgos suggests that Apollonia sing a song. She starts singing, but it’s her first time ever performing with her grandfather, and on film, at that. Being nervous, she fluffs a verse, and her dad points it out, but they get to the end anyway.

The song being over, Psarantonis turns to his son and says ‘She forgot the words.’ Giorgos goes into pro-musician mode and insists that it just needs a bit more work; they can print out the words, if they have to. Psarantonis is visibly unimpressed. They take a break, and Giorgos goes over to his daughter and starts running the song again, just him and her. She sings with more confidence, but while she’s doing so, her grandfather shambles into shot, walking up and down behind them. They keep performing, and Giorgos gives her more advice, but then Psarantonis waves an imperious arm and says ‘You’re over-thinking. Keep it simple,’ and throws out a few more gnomic statements, before wandering off again.

Apollonia watches him go, and then asks, ‘So, is it okay?’, meaning Am I doing this song in the concert, or what? She gets no reply, and buries her head in her hands, subsequently admitting how embarrassed she’d been to make a mistake in front of her grandfather.

In the concert itself, however, she sings the song beautifully, and Psarantonis can be seen rocking himself from side to side to her unaccompanied delivery of the end of it; what’s more, it goes down huge with the Melbourne audience, and she tells in voice-over of how it had been the best musical experience of her life. So it all seems to have worked out great.

But somehow, Aristomenopolou’s camera missed that. As often happens with filmmakers who aren’t in full control of their material, there’s an attempt here to do too many things at once. It’s as if Aristomenopolou thought that this film tells its own story, but decided not to tell it herself. The film feels like the best bits of the raw material for about four or five different films about these people, with Aristomenopolou unable to decide exactly which one she wanted to make, which I guess is why it feels like it’s much longer than it is. There’s no narration, which doesn’t help.

On the other hand, it has got me permanently interested in Cretan music, so there’s that. And I would rather have no narration, than a bad one. So on balance, I think Angeliki Aristomenopolou deserves the thanks of the world for such a bare-bones document of the life of a family of musicians. Here’s the trailer, or at any rate a trailer: some of the stuff in this trailer is not in the actual film. Thanks to the Edinburgh Greek Film Festival for letting me see this.

Film review: A Family Affair

All About That Bass

I don’t know exactly when I first fell in love with the guitar.
I remember when I first wanted to be able to play music. I grew up in Ireland. My Irish dad came from a Protestant family but had never been particularly religious: his US Army dog tags gave his religion as ‘EPISCOPALIAN’, which for the early 60s US Army was by way of saying ‘[INSERT RELIGION HERE]’. Nevertheless, when I was a small boy he began to show signs of having faith, which was and still is a bit baffling to the rest of us, who didn’t. We used to go to church on Sundays and I was too shy to sing hymns, but I liked the predictable sound of the music, and I used to sit there working out what you could sing as well as the melody; what else would sound good, besides the boring old tune that everyone else was singing? I didn’t know it at the time, but my instinct was to harmonise.

Later, we would go round to my grandparents’ house for Sunday lunch and I would hear my grandpa’s Oscar Peterson LPs, and I liked the smoky, intimate, predictable-but-not-too-predictable sound of the music. I soon found out that that was called ‘jazz’, so I decided that I wanted to learn to play jazz. I liked the Beatles, but I couldn’t figure out how you played a guitar, so I expressed a wish to learn piano because I thought it’d be easier. The fact that we didn’t own a piano did not strike me as much of an obstacle.

So, when I was nine, we bought a piano from a family friend and schlepped it to our house. It got tuned, and I was sent off to have piano lessons with another family friend who was a professional piano teacher. I didn’t know at the time that my teacher loathed jazz. It was more that we couldn’t very well have me taught the basics of piano by anyone else, because she was the only person we knew who taught piano, and it would have been rude not to ask her to teach me.

My piano teacher’s daughter was one of my best friends from school, and she in turn was learning the guitar. I used to look at her big acoustic guitar on my way out from lessons, and wonder how you made a note with it. Compared to a piano, it looked ferociously complicated. But I soon found that learning piano didn’t agree with me. I realise now that if I had had a teacher who sympathised with my desire to be able to make stuff up on the piano, things might have been different. But my teacher was more about showing me how to sit and how to hold my wrists and how to play simplified versions of ‘Hall of the Mountain Kings’. I don’t blame her. She taught classical piano, not jazz; we just didn’t realise that, or my parents didn’t notice, or something, anyway, but she was never the right teacher for me to be the kind of musician that I might have become. She drilled into me the basics of scales and harmony, and after a few months of me being increasingly bored at never being taught how to improvise, I asked if I could stop.
The piano sat in our living room for a few more years and my mum figured out some tricky Scott Joplin pieces on it before we eventually got rid of it. In the meantime, I discovered rock.

I followed my brother’s taste. He liked Status Quo, to begin with; not the relatively tame Status Quo of the early 80s but the somewhat rougher Status Quo of the early 70s. I wasn’t all that taken with the songs, but I liked the sound of the records. I realise now that what I responded to was the coarse, blunt sound of twin overdriven Fender Telecasters.

At some point I started obsessing about guitars and their shapes and what they sounded like. Aged 14, I did a work placement in Eason’s newsagent in Dublin city centre and they rewarded me at the end of it with a £15 Eason’s voucher. I spent it on the first edition of Ralph Denyer’s The Guitar Handbook, still one of the most massively useful guitar tuition books you can get. It contained jewel-like pictures of some of the more famous guitars; scale diagrams; brief biogs of great players (it was where I first heard of Robert Fripp); information about setup, maintenance, and even basic electronics. I befriended the guys in my school that played instruments and quickly began to annoy them by not wanting to talk about anything else, whereas to almost all of of them it was something that they did for fun. By that point, I was listening to Cream, Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker — musicians that, in early 80s Dublin, meant little or nothing in the mighty shadow cast by U2 and their clones.

I decided that I had to learn to play guitar. But then I made a fateful decision.

I reasoned that I had not shown any great talent as a pianist, and the only person who was encouraging me to play music was my mother, who did so not on the grounds that I had any talent, but on the grounds that I didn’t have many friends, and she (rightly, as it turned out) thought that this would be a good way of making some. I wanted to be a great guitarist, but there were already half a dozen guitarists in my school.

However, there were no bass players. 

If I learned bass, I thought, I would be in demand. Plus, only four strings. Two less to learn.

I had some money saved up, so one Saturday I went to Walton’s in Dun Laoghaire and bought an East German Musima knock-off of a Fender Precision, and a 10 watt East German bass amp called Sound City, no relation to the much more famous and better brand. I also bought a strap and a cord. But not, for some reason, a gig bag. I think I didn’t have enough money.

I took my black-and-white Musima home, plugged it in, and spent an hour or so figuring out where to put my fingers. Then I spent the rest of the weekend learning how to play the bass line for ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. By Monday my fingertips were raw and bleeding, but I could play it in such a way that my older brother could recognise it and give me an approving nod.
I started to listen to everything with an ear on the bass line. In so doing, I made one of the biggest ever leaps in my own musical education. I learned to appreciate the solid, laconic style of Phil Lynott; the ominous, dramatic style of Jack Bruce; the clipped, classic style of 60s Motown, which was then having a bit of a mid-80s revival. I bought Stanley Clarke’s School Days and marvelled at it; I got given Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Jaco Pastorius blew my mind.

Over time, my taste broadened, especially when I discovered Talking Heads and realised that everything didn’t have to be virtuosic. I first heard ‘Psycho Killer’ in the Stop Making Sense version, but when I heard the original I loved it all the more for Tina Weymouth’s fantastic, implacable bass line. 

But I was putting off the inevitable. I had to learn guitar. I had to learn to make the sound that had made me fall in love with rock music: the entire gamut from David Byrne’s weedy clang to Jimi Hendrix’s Cinemascope Armageddon. In 1987 I had saved up enough, and I went to Musician Inc in Dublin and paid out cash for a black and white Squier Stratocaster with a rosewood fingerboard.

By that point I had a respectable 30w Vox bass amp, but not enough money to get a guitar amp. I compensated by getting a ridiculously complicated Digitech programmable distortion pedal with two channels, one a fat valve-like overdrive, the other a screaming metal fuzz. That was my only effect, for years. It served for me. I learned about true valve distortion when I experimentally plugged my Strat into my parents’ Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder, a legacy of their shared professional past in TV production. I wasted my late teens in failing to study enough to earn decent places in university, preferring instead to learn how to imitate Adrian Belew. I named my guitar Kathy, after the American writer Kathy Acker, and when I would get frustrated at a plateau in my learning curve I would hack at it with a screwdriver, then covered up the scars with black duct tape. I dive-bombed so hard I snapped the tremolo arm; I used the screwdriver instead. I wore out picks so fast that I made my own metal ones, hammering out Irish 20p pieces on the concrete floor of my parent’s cellar and then filing them into a pick shape.

I sold my bass to a schoolfriend and wasn’t sorry to see it go. My bass-playing apprenticeship was behind me.
Over the years, I sold the Vox amp and somewhere or other I acquired another one – I forget what, now. I stopped playing for a few years in my early 20s, but I kept the Strat. In my mid-20s I took it up again, and soothed that I-need-a-new-guitar itch by buying an Epiphone LP 100 that I couldn’t quite afford. For a while, I loved the fact that I could sound like a low-rent Robert Fripp. But the Epi was fragile, and when one Christmas the flat below mine caught fire, I had to move all my stuff out and store it in the hallway of my flatmate’s boyfriend. He was a classical guitarist and he looked down on my lowly Japanese Les Paul copy. When I got it back, it was temperamental and I sold it to a friend who’d coveted it for years.

In the 2000s, I decided that I deserved a new guitar. I didn’t, but I had a bit more money. Influenced by the fact that Fred Frith in Massacre had played a Burns, and the fact that Musician Inc had some gnarly-looking Burnses in their shop, I got one. I told myself for some weeks that it was great and I loved it, but I didn’t. It was fiddly and it misbehaved and it sounded weedy. I went back to the shop and pointed out that it was less than perfect quality. Plus, by that point, I already had my eye on another guitar.

It was a display model, a black and white Standard Telecaster, Mexican-made, slightly grubby, slightly scuffed. It was about €600, more than I’d ever paid for an instrument. I’d never played a Tele, being in love with the elegant, eloquent Strat, but this thing was hanging there staring at me, defying me not to take it home, and I’d never owned a guitar with a really cool name on the headstock. I asked the shop if they’d part-exchange my almost-new Burns for this grubby Tele, and they said yes.
That was how I got my main guitar. I immediately had problems with it.

The strings on a Tele are noticeably further apart from each other than on a Strat or a Les Paul. You can no longer just place your right hand there and make gentle moves with your fingers. You have to play the damn thing. I was used to five pickup selection options; now I had three, and let’s be frank, the neck pickup on a Tele is more like a condiment for the other pickup, than a sound source in its own right.

Ah, but the bridge: that is the soul of the Tele, that resounding clang. Telecasters don’t have much natural sustain. They were designed for country music. But turn them up and give them some grit, and they are among the filthiest guitars. I reconnected with that shabby, seedy sound I knew from early 70s Quo albums. Then there was the fact that it worked equally well for Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison was the resident Tele player in that band) or early Zeppelin or Bill Frisell. A Telecaster produces one of the purest electric guitar sounds you will get; what you do with it, having obtained it, is entirely up to you.

I love my Tele. It’s called Marcos, after Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. It sits in my office on a stand, waiting to be picked up, which I do often. Of course, as time went by and I earned a bit more money, I wanted a completely different guitar. I ended up getting a lurid orange-red Ibanez AF-75D, a cheap but very well-made jazz box with pretensions as a rockabilly instrument; it’s faster than the Telecaster, although much bigger, and on it I managed to unlock such secrets of bebop as I’ve been able to get into my fingers. It was after doing this that I met my old piano teacher in my parents’ house, one day, at a party. I told her I’d been studying jazz.

She looked at me intently, paused, and said “Why?”

That was when I realised what had gone wrong with my piano lessons.

Which brings us to the present. I now live somewhere else, with a full-time day job and two kids aged nine and two, and I get to play from time to time with very much better and more experienced musicians than myself. I bring the Tele and my Digitech Whammy and an E-Bow, with which I can cover most of the registral and timbral ground that I want to cover.
And then, one day about six months ago, having time to kill which I don’t normally have, I wandered into Red Dog Music on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, just out of curiosity. And I saw, hanging on the wall among the basses, something I’d never expected to see.

Remember how, before I’d ever owned a guitar, I’d owned a book about guitars? That’s typical of me: I tend to read about experiences before I ever have them. In that book of cool guitars that I knew I’d never, ever get to own, there was one that had grabbed me.

Fender invented the bass guitar. It was the greatest single innovation they ever made, in that it was an entirely new instrument. There had been electric guitars before the Telecaster, and there had even been solid-body ones, but nobody had ever made a guitar that played an octave lower than a regular guitar until Fender brought out the Precision in 1951. They followed it up nine years later with its classier, slinkier, more versatile sister, the Jazz Bass.

Then, in 1962, they brought out the Fender VI, popularly known as the Bass VI. It was tuned like a bass guitar, an octave lower than a regular guitar, but it had six strings, was shaped like Fender’s ineffably cool Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, and had a slightly shorter neck than the Precision or Jazz. Denyer’s Guitar Handbook has a picture of one, with the withering comment ‘however, the Bass VI was never very popular and Fender discontinued it early in the 1970s.’

But I knew, even as a teenager, staring at that picture of a scuffed, sunburst, heavy-looking six-string monster, that I wanted one. A six-string bass? Hell yes! All the low end of a bass, but you could go higher! Plus it has a whammy bar! Jack Bruce played one in Cream! He then painted it in psychedelic colours and it never dried properly so he had to switch to another guitar, but still!

Of course, in 1984, it was all academic: I knew I’d never find one, or if I did find one, be able to afford one. I didn’t reckon on the marketability of nostalgia. By the early 2000s, Fender Japan was bringing out a replica VI and in 2013, Fender brought out two: a Fender model which was pointlessly messed-about-with, and a much cheaper Squier model which was essentially an Indonesia-made replica of the original instrument.

It was one of these Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI’s that I found hanging on the wall in Red Dog Music. I asked them if I could try it. The assistant enthusiastically took it down and plugged it in for me, and as soon as I started playing, I fell in love with an instrument in a way that I hadn’t done since I first picked up Eoin O’Brien’s Squier Strat in Sefton Lucas’s front room in 1986 and wanted one for myself.
It so happened that both my birthday and Christmas were on the far horizon. I suggested to my dear wife that the ever-present problem of what to get me for birthday/Christmas could be put aside, basically forever, if everyone in the family who wanted to get something chipped in some cash towards a Squier VI. She replied, basically: Of course, lovely, but you’re going to have to go and get it yourself, because we’ve all got more important things to do than mess around in guitar shops trying to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

And so, a few weeks ago, I went back to the shop. I’d expected to have to order one, because their website said they were out of stock. I was surprised to find the exact model I wanted still hanging on the wall, probably the very one I’d tried out back in March. I tried it out, and while I was at it, I tried out many other basses, within the same price range, just to be sure: a Squier Jazz Bass, a fretless model of the same, a five-string Jazz Bass with a low B string.

None of them made the grade. Apart from anything else, it’s so long since my fingers had to handle regular bass guitar strings that I’ve lost the strength in my right hand needed to play one. I had a last fling on the VI, took it to the counter and paid for it. It is currently sitting in its box under my office desk, where it will remain until Christmas, screaming at me to take it out and plug it in. But for the sake of ceremony, I will leave it there until I officially get given it.

My late encounter with the VI has shown me something that I’d forgotten: that although I have learned to be able to operate a guitar to a certain extent, I still think like a bass player. I love the way that bass can change the way you hear other instruments. Bass players steer arrangements in a way that guitarists simply can’t. Also, the VI is an unusual instrument in that there is no definite agreement about what kind of instrument it is. It occupies a liminal space between guitar and bass: some people regard it as definitely a baritone guitar, albeit lower than normal, others as a bass with an unusually high range, but nobody seems to be willing to say that it’s definitely one or the other. Plug it into a bass amp, turn the treble down and the volume up, and it’s very much a bass. Plug it into a guitar amp, engage the so-called ‘strangle switch’ (one of the four switches on the guitar’s body, a high-pass filter) and it’s the twangy guitar from hell.

So that’s how I’ve come to fall back in love with bass playing. I’ve owned the thing for three weeks; I am honour-bound not to play it till Christmas. But I can’t wait. Except that I can, because honour, etc. Incidentally, apart from my lollipop-coloured Ibanez, the VI is the first guitar I’ve ever owned, and plan to keep owning, which isn’t black and white. Its colour scheme is, in fact, factory sunburst.

If you read this post hoping I was going to say something about the Meghan Trainor song: cute song, smart production, great sentiment, and I fully endorse and applaud the message decrying body-shaming. But it’s not a song that reveals more depth on repeated listening. I say this because my two-year-old son has an iPod and a dock ,and he sometimes puts that song on repeat. Bless you, Meghan Trainor. But I have heard your song plenty of times, now. Thank you.

All About That Bass

I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy

So, I was thinking about comedy lately. I was thinking in particular about comedians who specialise in saying stuff that they know that their audiences are likely to find offensive, but who say it in such a way that they can get their audiences to laugh at it. (The crucial thing here is the plural: ‘audiences’. Not all comedians have the same audience. We’ll get back to this.)

Now, one of the basic axioms of our understanding of modern comedy is that its fundamental function is to make you laugh. You can find it articulated here, in this archive review from 2007, on the website of my current employers, of a show by Australian comedian Jim Jeffries: ‘Through all of this, Jeffries’ humour borders on the visceral, but you can’t write him off as simply a shock merchant; anyone can be gratuitously offensive but Jeffries never forgets that his prime task is to make us laugh.’ I think that this is something that most comedians, and most lovers of comedy, and most comedy critics, would agree about: the ultimate function of comedy is to make you laugh.

Now, here is where I depart from the consensus. I think that most comedians, and most comedy lovers, and most comedy critics, are mistaking the medium of comedy (or, perhaps, ‘genre’, but let’s go with ‘medium’ for now) for the functions of individual comedians.

I think that, to claim that the ‘prime task’ of any comedian is to make us laugh, is like saying that the prime task of any novelist is to assemble words into sentences that compose an extended narrative sequence, or that the prime task of any painter is to produce canvases with paint on them. Saying that comedians are supposed to make people laugh, only describes how it is that comedians do what they actually do.

Making the audience laugh is not the prime task of the comedian. Making people laugh is just what distinguishes comedians from non-comedians. Making people laugh is what Michael McIntyre has in common with Stewart Lee, and what Jim Jeffries has in common with…okay, well, any comedian you can think of who is exceptionally family-friendly. The prime task of the comedian varies, depending on whatever it is that that particular comedian is using the medium of comedy to do.

The medium of comedy is that you go up on stage and make people laugh. But the reason why comedy is still in so many ways such a confused, immature and thoughtless art form, is that too many comedians still think that all they really have to do is make people laugh, By Any Means Necessary. This is why comedy reviews are usually so fucking boring. The reviewer sits there and reports on whether or not a show was, In The Reviewer’s Opinion, funny, without usually taking the effort to describe what the comedian was doing; what the comedian’s stance was with respect to the audience; whether the jokes were intended to bring the audience in or drive them off; whether the jokes were jokes on the comedian or jokes that enlisted the audience with the comedian, at the expense of some third party, etc. And the reason why most comedy reviews don’t talk about stuff like that, is that most comedians haven’t thought about it either.

Of course, there are some comedians who have thought about it. Stewart Lee is probably the most glaring example, but really, any great comedian has confronted these questions on a visceral level, and with any great comedian’s act, I would submit that their solutions to these problems become very complex. Lenny Bruce, at his best, offered himself up as a kind of sacrificial lion to the priests of bigotry, rhythmically deploying the N-word and other offensive phrases in a noble if doomed attempt to defuse their power. Richard Pryor made comedy out of his own almost helpless self-destructiveness. Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and other black American comedians made comedy out of their rage.

Eddie Izzard makes comedy out of his own weaknesses as a performer. I once attended a discussion on performance at which Phelim McDermott was one of the speakers. Phelim McDermott talked about classes he’d once given on improv, which a young Eddie Izzard had attended, and Eddie had been, by Phelim’s assessment, seriously bad at them, and everyone had felt bad for him and wished he’d stop coming, but Eddie kept coming and kept doing what he was doing and kept honing it, and after a while, Phelim realised that what Eddie was doing was polishing the appearance of ineptness, until finally the very fact that Eddie couldn’t do accents and couldn’t really become anyone else convincingly was what became incredibly funny: part of the whole point of Eddie Izzard’s act is that he takes the least possible effort to convince you that he is now someone else. His Darth Vader impersonation consists solely of putting his hand over his mouth and being a bit more assertive than usual. He constantly drops the thread and picks it up again, pretends to take notes on any moment that doesn’t get a laugh, etc.

But this brings me back to my original argument. Stewart Lee’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to make them think about comedy and about society. Larry the Cable Guy’s comedy keeps people’s attention by making them laugh, but his prime task is to reassure them that it’s okay to have their prejudices. Jim Davidson’s prime task is the same as Larry the Cable Guy’s. Jo Brand’s prime task, by contrast, is to bluntly confront the audience with its own prejudices. Victoria Wood’s prime task as a stand-up was to tell stories about vulnerability and failure. Michael McIntyre’s prime task is to maximize his brand potential by being no better than his audience thinks it would be if it tried its own hand at stand-up. And so on. The title of this post, ‘I don’t care who you are, that’s funny’, is one of the catchphrases of Larry the Cable Guy. If you insert the words ‘the fuck’ between ‘who’ and ‘you’, you can begin to see the anxious aggression of the comedian who is becoming uneasily aware that the audience is beginning to wonder why, exactly, it’s laughing.

If we laugh, we tend to think that the comedy has been successful, even if it goes against our better instincts about whether or not we enjoy hearing what the comedian has to say. I may or may not find Andrew Lawrence’s delivery funny; I do, however, find what he has to say toxic, bigoted, entitled, self-pitying and depressing, and my sense of humour is not so well-formed that I laugh at him anyway. I just want him to shut the fuck up and go away.

However, Andrew Lawrence, although not in the same league as the aforementioned comedians, is an interesting case, because he proves my argument. When he was younger, his relative youth and extremely dark take on comedy placed him with supposedly similar young comedians of a similarly dark disposition. But Lawrence’s early success as a comedian was based on his performance of tortured guilt about having the kind of opinions that he had. He would deliver up his gags as if he felt bad about making them. (Sample joke, actually pretty funny: ‘I admire these phone hackers. I think they have a lot of patience. I can’t even be bothered to check my own voicemails.’) But as he’s got older, he’s become less and less apologetic.

As Lawrence has entered his late 30s, he’s become more and more honest about how he’s just a right-wing bigot. This is, of course, his right as a human being. What’s surprising is that he’s so bitter that his audience has abandoned him. They liked being teased by his hints at how dark he was, as long as he was willing to look like he felt guilty about it, but let’s face it, all along, he would have been way happier telling racist jokes at Ukip fundraisers to florid middle-aged men in blazers, instead of to Fringe audiences who didn’t agree with him about the EU. But it goes to show that if the comedian’s prime task (which, in his case, has become to unapologetically vent his bigotry) is completely at right angles to the audience’s own sensibilities, then they will no longer find him funny.

So how does he prove my argument? This Independent article from last year quotes him: ‘If you present yourself as a comedian, your job is to be funny, not to educate audiences…Just make me laugh.’ If Andrew Lawrence truly believes that his job is to be funny and not to educate audiences, then you do have to wonder why his Twitter feed as of the third week of June 2016 has become nothing but a conduit for Brexit propaganda.

The only conclusion is that comedians do comedy for lots of different reasons. Some, to pull everyone together. Some, to divide people up. Some, to heal. Some, to wound. The only thing that unites them is that the medium by which they do this involves making people laugh, for one reason or another. It’s when the laughter stops that the failing comedian has to face the difficult questions. And the fact that we still talk about comedy as if it was solely there to get a laugh, is the reason why so few of them ever do.


I don’t care who you are, that’s funny: on some confusions in comedy