Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Watching the last couple of episodes of the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was a bit of a strange experience. Seinfeld is an ever-present, um, presence throughout Larry David’s schlemiel-celebrating, political correctness-challenging  HBO show, but usually only in passing references. In the seventh season, Larry puts together a Seinfeld reunion show – just to try to get back with his ex-wife; the last two episodes feature pretty, pretty, pretty long segments of the show within the show in rehearsals and later on TV.

Which made me feel kind of strange.

As I’ve watched the first seven seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s a fair bet that I like it a lot. Some episodes are better than others (it’s a lot patchier than many other TV programmes, I think), but the good ones are fantastic. Seinfeld, on the other hand – from the admittedly little I’ve seen – was, not terrible, exactly, but not funny in the slightest. All the characters seemed to have exactly the same voice (perhaps not Kramer), there was something smug and shallow about it, it was very static and the laughter (or laughter track) never matched up to the wit (for want of a better word) of the dialogue. I found Jerry Seinfeld moderately amusing as a stand-up comedian, but his show just didn’t work.

So in the midst of the hilarious awkward-fest that is Curb, you had these leaden, clunky bits of a made-up Seinfeld episode that everyone in the programme was made up with – but they were just as unfunny as Seinfeld ever was.

Curb Your Enthusiasm Seinfeld

Maybe it started growing on me, however. There was one snippet that I found droll.

George: Well, I’ll never meet anyone else again.

Jerry: Probably not.

George: Meeting is hard.

Jerry: Meeting is hard. Why can’t you meet?

George: Can’t meet! Why is that?

Jerry: This is what single people are thinking about the minute they wake up in the morning. And yet we’re surrounded by people – they’re right next to us on the bus, on the street – but we can’t meet them.

George: Why won’t they meet us?

Jerry: Because strangers have a bad reputation.

George: A few bad strangers have ruined it for the rest of us.

Jerry: It’s unfortunate.

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Isn’t it great when one of your favourite things references two of your other favourite things?

Sheldon: What kind of tea would you like?

Amy: I think I’m gonna try … green tea mixed with Lemon Zinger.

Sheldon: (doubtfully) Two tea bags in one cup. (acerbically) You’re not at a rave.

Sheldon: Now, imagine this: you and I, entering Stuart’s party, and all eyes turn to see America’s most beloved and glamorous couple …

Amy: Yeah?

Sheldon: R2-D2 and C-3PO. Dibs on Threepio.

Amy: Sheldon, when I said couples costume, I meant, like, Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella and Prince Charming, not two robots from some silly movie I don’t even like.

Sheldon: (shocked) OK. Now, I’m gonna let that slide because I know you’re hopped up on teabags.

‘The Holographic Excitation’, The Big Bang Theory.

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If I remember rightly, I first heard about this book not long ago by reading a Cracked.com article about supposedly cursed films. John Candy was to have played the main character, Ignatius J Reilly, but he died; Will Ferrell was down for the role, but it didn’t come to fruition. When visiting my friend Lawrence recently, I saw that he had a box of books outside his door and he invited Habiba and me to help ourselves. One of the books I took was A Confederacy of Dunces (Great Apes and Grimus were the other two).

The story concerns the aforementioned Ignatius Reilly, an obese thirty-year-old man who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is a larger than life character. He lives in something of a fantasy world in which he is an unappreciated genius bent on bringing order and enlightenment to the dunces that surround him. He is obsessed with Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae and even more obsessed with the state of his pyloric valve (a part of the body that controls the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine). When he is nearly arrested one day and his mother crashes the car into a neighbour’s wall, a chain of events is set in motion that culminates with men in white coats coming to take him away to a mental hospital.

A Confederacy of Dunces is considered a comedy masterpiece. It’s certainly funny in many places – occasionally, laugh out loud funny – but the main attraction is the gloriously grotesque protagonist and his struggles against the world. That said, the supporting cast of characters add much to the novel, as well. Patrolman Mancuso, the hapless police officer who fails to arrest Ignatius at the start because he gets heckled by an old man, is punished by his sergeant by having to put on a different fancy dress every day and go and bring in a ‘suspicious character’. The conflict between a trouser factory owner, his mercilessly bitchy wife and the doddering old secretary whose only desire is to retire but who can’t because the owner’s wife has adopted her as a project and believes only work keeps her going is also a fun one to watch unfold.

Two things are impressive about the writing: one is the variety and credibility of the voices employed; the other is how the various plot threads are kept on the boil for much of the novel and come together at the end. Ignatius employs the bombast of a firebrand preacher or an eccentric professor; his mother is cut from different cloth and has a Southern, working class accent; Jones, the sassy but put-upon janitor of a club drawls with a distinctly black lilt. All these characters and more muddle through the story, unknowingly the puppets of the chaos Ignatius leaves in his wake.

While Ignatius J Reilly – his appearance and personality – is described in uncompromising terms – he has a bloated head and body, his moustache is full of crumbs, his voluminous trousers swaddle him in stale air, he loves to go to the movies and loudly decry the moral outrages he identifies on the screen, he harangues anyone he takes issue with (which is most people) – and while he is clearly severely deluded, he somehow comes out of the story with a sort of tragic nobility. He is very likeably very unlikeable. When the hospital ambulance comes for him, you want him to get escape and continue wreaking madness on the world.

In the end, A Confederacy of Dunces is not that funny – in large part because of the grotesqueness and pathos of the characters – but it is mesmerising and Ignatius’s antics are always entertaining.

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A quote from Douglas Adams – one of my heroes – who died ten years ago yesterday at the depressingly young age of 49. Here’s what the Guardian has to say about the occasion.

And here are some more Adams quotations.

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According to the Wertzone, there will be a new series of Red Dwarf filming later this year to be screened next year.

This is good new and bad news. I love <i>Red Dwarf</i>, of course, but it pretty much ran its course back in the last millennium. The recent three-part mini-series was mediocre and strangely conceived – visiting Earth wasn’t unusual, but the extensive Blade Runner pastiche and the retread of the despair squid plot didn’t really seem like genuine Red Dwarf. Maybe a bona fide series will provide a better structure for a return, but TV programmes and comedians don’t really get funnier as they get older. We’ll see, anyway.

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In the most recent episode of the wonderful Big Bang Theory, Amy, Sheldon’s friend-who-is-a-girl (ie, girlfriend; Amy is like a female Sheldon, possibly more Sheldon-like than Sheldon), was having drinks with Penny and Bernadette when one of Penny (numerous) exes walks in with a delivery for the bar. Amy experiences some disconcerting physiological phenomona – namely, she gets a bit ‘excited’ when Zack says hello to her.

The following is from Amy and Sheldon’s conversation at work the following day (she’s dissecting a human brain while they have lunch):

Amy: Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take my temperature.

Sheldon: Are you monitoring your circadian rhythms in order to identify your periods of maximum mental acuity? I did that one summer. [wistfully] Ah, youth.

Amy: No, I experienced some distressing symptoms last night, so I’m checking my vital signs every hour.

Sheldon: I’d be happy to create a chart and participate in a differential diagnosis.

Amy: Oh, that sounds like fun.

Sheldon: All right. What were the symptoms?

Amy: Elevated heart rate, moist palms, dry mouth and localised vascular throbbing.

Sheldon: Localised to what region?

Amy: Ears and genitalia.

Sheldon: Interesting. Not body parts that usually team up.

Later …

Sheldon: Possible explanations for your symptoms are – in descending order of likelihood – hyperthyroidism, premature menopause, hosting an alien parasite, or – and I only include it for the sake of covering absolutely all bases – sexual arousal.

Amy: [beat] Where would I have picked up an alien parasite?

Later …

Amy: Let’s look at this logically. I have a stomach – I get hungry. I have genitals – I have the potential for sexual arousal.

Sheldon: A cross we all must bear. You know, in difficult moments like this, I often turn to a force greater than myself.

Amy: Religion?

Sheldon: Star Trek.

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I’ve only just got round to reading last year’s offering by the world’s greatest teller of tall tales, and, to be honest, it was a bit disappointing. All the basic components of a Robert Rankin novel are there – one gormless hero taking on the forces of evil to save the world, a heady mix of science fiction and the supernatural, and much talking of toot.

This novel is a direct sequel to The Brightonomicon and sees Hugo Rune’s assistant Rizla (whose identity was revealed at the end of this novel’s predecessor) travelling back in time to prevent the Germans winning the war. Along the way Rune and Rizla must solve twelve mysteries, each one related to a tarot card (and each of these has a full page illustration created by Rankin), which see them dealing with ghosts and werewolves, the now-legendary Minstry of Serendipity, the spirit of King Arthur resurrected in a Bletchley Park computer, the technology behind the Philadelphia Experiment, and so on and so forth.

A lot of this book seemed like joining the dots. The characters had an arbitrary series of cases to crack before the inevitable show-down with the villain of the piece, Count Otto Black. The story lacked the usual verve – and even the narrator comments on a lack of the usual running gags (although there is a superabundance of devices powered by the transperambulation of pseudo cosmic antimatter). The fact that the narrator’s true identity is also known took away from force of the books, for me.

On the other hand, there are some interesting developments regarding Rune himself – we learn more about his relationship to Black, and there is a suggestion that he might retire himself.

All in all, this was not an outstanding Rankin book, so I look forward to this year’s effort, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

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Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

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Ade Edmondson was interviewed by Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction on Friday (the format of the show is that one comedian interviews another and one week’s interviewee becomes the following week’s interviewer). He talked about his retirement from comedy towards the end:

You’ll think, I’m stuck. Do I have to constantly be this funny man? It’s a very big pressure to put on yourself. I equate it to, you know, I really like caviar. If you’re forced to eat caviar every day for 28 years, you’ll probably want something else – and that’s the same with comedy, I think, in the end. You really work at it and it takes up every ounce of your being and you have to think about it, you have to really concentrate all that time and constantly be trying to turn everything you ever hear into a gag. In the end, what are you doing? It’s weird. I just kind of lost the bug for that.

Lee Mack replied:

I know what you mean. A comedian once said to me, the problem with comedy is you can’t watch a sunset without trying to think of a joke about it. And I remember thinking for about the two minutes after that, I bet I could think of a joke about the sunset.

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Keith Chegwin has been in the news recently for apparently stealing other comedians’ jokes and posting them on his Twitter account. Barry Crier was interviewed about it on the radio (he didn’t approve) and at the end was asked for a joke. His contribution was:

A woman said to her husband, ‘Can we make love now?’

The man said, ‘Why now?’

She said, ‘The egg-timer’s broken.’

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