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The state of British comedy

Sarah McDermott | 16:01 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

From Newsnight editor Peter Rippon:

"Where was I?"

It's snapper-tastic here at Television Centre today. The Jonathan Ross show is being recorded for transmission on Friday night. I'm guessing you will be able to read all about it in tomorrow's papers. His return has got us thinking. Not just about the impact on tomorrow's viewing figures, but also about what the whole Ross-Brand-Sachs affair has done for comedy. Our Culture Correspondent Steve Smith will be ruminating on this tonight.

Tomorrow night Kirsty and her Newsnight Review panel (Tony Parsons, Frank Skinnner and Natalie Haynes) will touch on similar themes. They've all been to see Russell Brand's new tour. Far from shying away from references to the controversy Brand devotes the first twenty minutes of his aptly named show, Scandalous, to the affair.

We want to know what you think. Have you detected a new nervousness in the comedy you've seen since the storm broke? Have the boundaries shifted? If comedy cleans up its act a bit, is that a good thing?

Let us know what you think by leaving your comments below.


  • Comment number 1.

    The BBC doesn't control British comedy thank god! Comedy is alive and well in pubs and clubs up and down the country.

  • Comment number 2.

    I suspect the boundaries have shifted, and that Ross/Brand style of vulgar comedy is nearing the end of its life. It will be a good thing if comedy cleans up its act a little; the Ross style was just tacky, seldom funny. If you have to rely on that, perhaps a bit of shock factor, its not fit to be called comedy.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think British comedy is in a dire strait and quite out of step with the bulk of the British public who, baring a minority would I think like it to take a step out of the gutter and claim some of the more high-brow and sharply observed ground it once occupied.

    Quite a few famous British acts have found themselves booed off stage of late at various venues but rather than see themselves at fault the comedians think the fault lies with audiences. I think we need to start seeing some new and more talented faces.

  • Comment number 4.

    Is Russell Brand funny? Is Jonathan Ross funny? I don't think so, unless you think that being made to feel sorry for the guests on their shows is funny. Actually Jonathan Ross is often offensive. He gets away with it by talking so fast that you're not quite certain what you heard and by not pausing to allow the unfortunate guest to reply.

  • Comment number 5.

    In my opinion, the Jonathan Ross show should get the axe - permanently.

  • Comment number 6.

    There is this idea amongst some that if you cant swear it is not funny. And there is a growing trend amongst teens that swearing is a sign that you are grown up.

    Neither is true.

    The odd comic, Connelly being one, has managed to turn swearing into a comedy device - mostly it just makes comics sound stupid, makes them sound like if they dont swear they wont get a laugh

    I suspect for many that is true.

    There is no such beast as British Comedy. It is a useful media device, but it doesn't exist. It is as mythical as the idea that Americans dont get Irony. No one has watched Frazer then.

    I spent years in studios making programmes involving comedians from now and way back then. And a few of the 90 year old members of the water rats were far quicker and funnier that Jonathan Ross will ever be.

    I took as my benchmark a regular visitor - Mr Barry Crier. He is unusual in that he is equally accepted by the youngest of today's comedians and by the old troopers.

    He was interesting to talk to about comedy because he felt that having a fixed idea about what was funny or not was not just incredibly limiting, but was very quickly going to be not funny.

    Comedy needs to use many devices and not be afraid to use them all at once if required. And it must not find itself funny. It must be serious - it is the audience that must find it funny.

    Ross is part of a breed of presenter who find themselves funny. Russell Brand is another. You get the feeling that they are really pleased with themselves when they are clever. Whether or not we find them funny or clever.

    Compare them with someone like Eddie Izzard, or Stephen Fry - people who have built their comedy persona on a real person that they feel comfortable with. All they ask is that you trust them a little and with any luck we will all enjoy the experience together.

    Ross and Brand really have nothing to say for or about "British" comedy - there are plenty of talented people out there on the circuit who do not need these two desperately trying to be comedy icons.

    We dont need them either.

    I think it is not Ross who needs to take a careful look at himself, it is the broadcasters who need to look at who they take on, who they help to build and then how they use them.

    I know producers, I know how they work - they would far rather take someone who is okayish talent wise but that they can build into a celebrity than take someone highly talented who the public are going to be slow to appreciate.

    Thankfully, the world of comedy will survive either way.

  • Comment number 7.

    Five hundred years of in-breeding and what do you end up with? Ruddy Welsh language Television!?

    Oh dear, am I allowed to write that? Am I alllowed to say that? Am I allowed to even think that?

    If I posted this on the BBC Wales website would it get past the censors? Would I now find myself at the centre of an investigation by the Taffia or wake up in the middle of the night to find a circle of druid-like robed Gogs standing silently around my bed about to drag me off for ritual sacrifice in the Brecon Beacons. Baaaaaaaaaa!

    I hope not. I get chilblains easily. People have been known to lose 'their bits' on the Beacons of a cold night.

    The above is a joke - no more, no less - but no doubt there will be some in Wales terribly offended and even insulted by anyone daring to even criticise the Welsh language and the Welsh Meeja but comedy, all comedy, has always walked a thin line between what is considered tasteful and what is not. Historically, it has often been used as a beacon of democracy and free speech in times of terrible oppression and censorship. We must never forget that.

    Perhaps the real question here is not about Ross and whether he has upset the Comedy applecart by crossing a line but whether the arrival of the Internet has empowered people to post their thougths and feelings about Broadcasters up on blogs, on news sites and elsewhere online and this is the real, fundamental change now going on that Television is having enormous difficulty coming to terms with?

    After all, isn't the great thing, apart from the salary and pension, about being a Producer, an Editor, a Head of Programmes or a Controller of Programmes is that you have 'the power' about who appears on TV, who says what and, most powerfully of all, who sees and hears what?

    The Internet is negating such 'power' and arguably there are a great many in traditional Meeja who simply resent this. The Internet has empowered a new generation of surfers - the next generation of Broadcasters - and this time the traditional Meeja have no choice but to listen. Times they are a changing.

    Right, I must flee as I can hear the sound of close harmony singing nearing...

  • Comment number 8.

    The state of British Comedy is just like the state of the speech we hear every day, from schoolchildren and adults alike.

    When I was brought up, there was no mention in my Family, of words that raised objection in the minds of the listener.

    I think of comedy as in the shows like 'Dad's Army' and 'Fawlty Towers'. Who could restrain themselves from laughter at the comedy in those shows.

    Indeed, a Faulty Towers show, produced after only 12 episodes were made, is touring this Country at the moment. Tickets for the whole tour of eleven venues in the UK were sold out within 36 hours! Is this not an indication of the popularity of comedy in it's true sense?

    The English language is abundant with word of such description, the use of foul or obscene words is totally unnecessary.

    Whatever we thought of Mrs Mary Whitehouse, her views coincided with many of the viewers and listeners and those who are drawn o the us of obscene and foul language are, in my humble opinion, devoid of an education in their own language.

    As a Licence payer, I would have been delighted to hear that Jonathan Ross had been sacked. His cohort had the grace to resign. My money and that of many others who pay the Licence fee, should be listened to.

  • Comment number 9.

    British comedy as a whole has lost it`s soul.
    Since the days of Steptoe & Son, Harry Worth, On The Buses, Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Yes Minister, As Time Goes By, The Good Life, Are You Being Served, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
    British comedy on TV has been infiltrated by shows that are, well, just NOT funny and badly acted by peole who shamefully think they are actually funny.
    Whatever happened to the writers of these great comedy`s? Have they given in to the awful modern non-comedy poe-faced nobody`s that are on our screens now.
    I can`t recall having a good belly-laugh since the demise of the above shows.
    Let`s get back to good old british comedy and throw out the new shows which really, are not comedy shows.

  • Comment number 10.

    As Scripture aptly says,

    'The dog is turned to his own vomit again'

  • Comment number 11.

    Fortunately receivers of broadcasts have switches. If you don't like what comes out of the screen or loudspeaker, you can turn it off. Listener/viewing figures are a major influence on what is broadcast. If people keep turning off, programmes will be pulled.

    It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so it is with being offended. We are all individuals. What amuses one person may not amuse, or may even irritate another. For the BBC to attempt a universally accepted standard of humour is to attempt the impossible.

    The Brand/Ross affair was not about humour. It was about being unpleasant about someone who did not have the immediate right of reply - namely Andrew Sach's granddaughter.

  • Comment number 12.

    Enough of this foul mouthed yob on our TV screens. I cannot stand the sight of him and have had to stop watching his show because of the embarresment I feel for his guests. It is not just down to a matter of bad taste as this guy is not a comedian just a so called chat show presenter who has insulted so many people that it just has to stop. I ask how can you have a presenter of a show who has a serious speech impediment anyway.
    Unfortunately the BBC Executives are so out of touch with what is required by it's viewers, they are drawing inflated salaries and probably drugged up most of the time so are not able to see what is going on.

    As far as comedy is concerned its gone.......
    visit local clubs if you want real comedians
    and good old fashioned laughter.

  • Comment number 13.

    Jonathan Ross isn't terribly bright so like any other human with undeveloped intellectual capacity he likes talking about sex and poo and and willies and shouting rude words.

    Presumably the DG and BBC commissioning editors must be similarly afflicted.

  • Comment number 14.

    Good humour is humour that lasts, is innovative, and not boringly repetitive.

    Russell Brand does not fit the above criteria.

    Perhaps 12 weeks of time to reflect will have lifted Jonathan Ross above the level of male teenage pubescent joking.


  • Comment number 15.

    The biggest disservice that the BBC ever did to broadcasting was to tolerate the foul-mouthed in its effort to maximise audiences. It would be such a relief to get back the old Beeb.
    As for the foul-mouthed comics – cast a critical eye on them for a moment – what do you see?

  • Comment number 16.

    The PC police have ruined comedy and now it is easy to "offend" anyone who a comic in the past would ridicule.

    I loved Charlie Williams, the black Yorkshire comedian whose by-line was that "If we didn't behave he would move in next door to us". I bet there are many would think this as racist, I didn't.
    "The Comedians" would never get past the censors today and how Bernard Manning became a figure of hate in the later years of PC. I liked him, even went to his club in his early years.
    As some have blogged, comedy is not to everyone's taste and I have never found Jonathan Ross funny nor clever but many do!!! If I were to do a list of those who I think funny I would not be surprised that many of you would disagree and give your own lists, to many then I would disagree.

    There is a Radio 4 programme I sometimes catch late at night as I go to bed and these so called young comics never make me laugh once. Their material is purile but again perhaps younger people think they are clever. No accounting for taste as my mother oft said.
    Yes I am offended by some comics who think EVERY other word has to be a swear word, but perhaps I am showing my age.

    Well done Newsnight, we could do with a laugh after all this "doom & gloom"

  • Comment number 17.


    Let's hope the second coming is not imminent - we might never know.

  • Comment number 18.

    Ross has been sniffing his own ego up his nose and has blown all common sense out of his mouth !

    Now with the 'crunch' upon us this guy is wangling his verbal dongler on our screens and being paid stratospheric sums to do it ! It doesn't amuse a lot of us , rather we find it embarrassing and a waste of our hard earned license fees it .

  • Comment number 19.

    I have quite a wide range of friends, colleagues and acquaintances and not one of them thinks Ross is funny, witty or "edgy". Of those who've heard of the other one, the unanimous vote is "desperate".

    No publicity is bad publicity so they're both bound to profit from it.

    Ross profiting from licence payers' money?

    So does Bruce Forsyth.

  • Comment number 20.

    There is nothing new about comedy that is cruelly personal to named and famed individuals, and is full of sexual and lavatorial references. Aristophanes was writing it in C5th BC Athens. He held Socrates up to ridicule, and his play undoubtedly influenced the forming of opinion that ultimately led to Socrates' trial and execution on a charge of corrupting the young. (No-one seems to have accused Aristophanes before a court of law of corrupting the young.) Aristophanes was filthy rude also about the politicians he didn't like - and could go further than any comedian could get away with today.

    The difference, I suppose, was that access to the performances was controlled. You had to be in the theatre audience for the one performance it received. (Yes, there were revivals, but they were still one-off performances.) It's a moot point if women could attend comedies, but young children probably didn't.

  • Comment number 21.

    Ihave just signed up in Detroit, Michigan. However, other than the site being one belonging to the BBC, how do I get to watch and/or listen to the programs referred to?

    Are these references to the BBC chanel which is available in the United States?

  • Comment number 22.

    J Ross should be banned from ever appearing on the BBC ever again, he is a dispicable person who appeals to the gutter,which say's little for those in the BBC who value his services so highly.

    Pay him off and get rid of him.

  • Comment number 23.

    Agree with splendidhotdog. To me, Ross rabbits on without any discernable pause (the great skill of a comedian - if I can use that title in Ross's case - is timing) and he seems to love the sound of his own voice. If he didn't have that trademark lisp he'd be lost. He is crude - no other word for him. He and RB deserve each other!

    RB - I can't even bring myself to even type his name, is well, just vile. He will appeal to some but they will only boast that they like his humour so as not to be seen as being out of touch with the latest fashion.

    The best comedians are those who tell simple, clean, stupid jokes. For example an Irish comedian mocking his own race. Those who make a laugh out of peoples everyday habits and adventures are also intelligently gifted in terms of observational humour.

  • Comment number 24.

    It hasn't made the slightest difference, eg Chris Moyles and others who regularly make distasteful comments with impunity
    I've been lucky to see the comedy stars from the fifties onwards. Long before the days of political correctness they knew what was inappropriate. Their humour was inventive with plenty of innuendo and suggestion, the iniated laughed and others weren't offended
    Needing to be crude and foul mouthed to get a laugh is just unimaginative and objectional. The F word has become common currency and those responsible for this fashion are paid ridiculous sums by the BBC while 2 million people are out of work. A halt is long overdue.
    Sadly, though Ross was cheered on his return, so he's bullet proof.

  • Comment number 25.

    is ross a comedian?

    if so for 18 million should he not be this standard?

  • Comment number 26.

    The comedy standards, and content, in the country,are symptomatic of the decline in Morals,Respect,Concern for others, and Manners -- which we have brought upon ourselves by apathy.

  • Comment number 27.

  • Comment number 28.

    The Young Ones, Ben Elton, Alexi Sayle, Blackadder, Harry Enfield, The Fast Show, Jeeves and Wooster, Little Britain, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand - all basically the same agenda: irreverent, anarchistic, social destruction masquerading as 'humour'. Monty Python did it in the 70s, and Frost and friends before that.

    We are paying for it.

  • Comment number 29.

    It must have something tp do with my age, but I'm appalled at the state of English, not British Comedy. In the 90s we had the Comedy of Hate from the States via Andrew Dice ????. In the South East of Eng. at present we have the Comedy of Sarcasm, especially via Ian Hislop et al, whom most people I know find to be compulsive viewing. I liked Jonathan Ross, but found it unethical that the BBC, should vist to draw a line under his offensive tirade, and in that much hackneyed phrase - move on - because he pulled in 1 million viewers more for the BBC, when on screen than when off screen.
    I could laugh at Harry Worth in LT Lost Property looking for his lost umbrella , telling a hapless enquirer that its colour was a red double decker going to Ealing.
    I can listen to the News Quiz or The Now Show for one good joke in 30 minutes, and those are likely to be of the Sea-side 1970s variety.
    Tony N.

  • Comment number 30.

    Why does the BBC and now Newsnight keep insisting the Ross/Brand/Sachs affair was comedy?

    Nothing remotely funny about taunting a pensioner via his answerphone... they planned the whole thing and there was nothing spontaneous about it. If Sachs had answered their call, he'd simply have put the phone down and there'd be nothing to record for the show.

    I really hope other stars follow Angelina Jolie's lead and boycott Ross. Tacky little man.

  • Comment number 31.

    It takes a really clever and genuinely talented comic to make people laugh with clean comedy.

    If it's funny, then the expletives are not generally missed.

    Without swearing, comics have to rely on their funny bones. Genuine comics tend to have one (or more!) of these.

    Which, in my estimation, is not a bad thing!


    Comic (komik) A professional performer who tells jokes and performs comical acts


    A professional performer who relies on telling tasteless and spiteful jokes and who performs comical acts which humiliate and degrade his audience and others

  • Comment number 32.

    Spiteful, childish, unfunny and talentless.
    The BBC mocks its audience by bringing back the overpaid, over lauded Jonathan Ross.

    Has the BBC even consulted the license payers to gauge whether they want him back?
    I am sure the answer would be a resounding NO.

    British comedy is not on the way down...BBC just needs to look harder and stop its dumbing down approach.

  • Comment number 33.

    I would suggest that a portion of the money from the BBC licence fee could be more usefully employed in arranging for Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross each to be offered a permanent job on the British island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. They could each be awarded a 30-year contract on an annual salary of £50,000 (fifty thousand pounds) per annum with no bonuses (on condition that their passports be deposited permanently in the safe of the BBC Director General). The two alleged comedians could then be provided with the facilities necessary to broadcast to each other from opposite ends of the island so they might freely and permanently enjoy the comedy they both think so worth viewing and hearing. This arrangement would ensure the rest of us a most pleasing assurance of better things to come as a result of the economic savings achieved by the BBC through their absence from the UK.

    Whilst it seems to be generally acknowledged that one cannot please all of the people all of the time, this suggestion does seem likely to come somewhere close to that ideal situation. Since Saint Helena is more than 1200 miles from the nearest mainland this arrangement should be able to protect the largest possible number of people from the occasionally alleged comedy of Messrs Ross and Brand.

    * Over the entire period these two contracts (even when combined) would be a huge saving to the BBC upon Mr Ross's absurd salary which was reported as being £18 million (£4.5 million/year) when a relatively recent BBC contract secured his services until 2010. In fact the combined total of those two contracts would not even equal one year's payment of Mr Ross's reported salary.

  • Comment number 34.

    Some of us have tried to assess the qualities that make for good humour and we came to agree that the best sort didn't attack personalities and did not use swearing and minimised the mention of body parts if it mentioned them at all. Commercial tv is largely funded by big corporations that often dominate the market and wish for instant results. BBC in the past was able to nurse a talent until it matured and the public almost internalised it.
    Andy Hamilton seems to combine this sort of approach with a bit of philosophy thrown in. Few others do. Using character and personality traits gives humour an endless life because we all know the types (some are ourselves). Redoing stuff that's available on film with the original cast is not creative.
    The whole of broadcasting seems to have fallen off the edge because drama has descended into murder and violence etc. or again redoing old stuff. If current society cannot be looked at and challenged then that's censorship.
    It's no good the media moaning about behavior if it's not prepared to treat us all as reasonably intelligent. Much popular culture feels patronising, insulting even. Mind you, we could all be masochists.

  • Comment number 35.

    If Johnathon had a brain he would be dangerous as well as both boring and puerile,qualities which leads him to do ever more shocking things to gain attention.

    The BBC should start a new programme for the dross slot ,with a new personality ,they could try Rhydian or any up and coming star .

  • Comment number 36.

    The PC brigade killed off comics like Benny Hill. Always funny, witty, and perfectly timed. Never heard him swear once. I have several DVDs of him.

    As for swearing, I very, very, rarely did as a teenager, and do not now. The likes of Ross and Brand deserve to be where their humour is, in the toilet. Just not funny. More often hurtful.

    At least I have the consolation that I do not pay a licence fee.

  • Comment number 37.

    Our survey says....NN viewers not keen on satirical humour

    so, no chance of me finding solace from the depression here....

    not to worry - Shameless starts again next week!!!

  • Comment number 38.

    If you want to see and listen to a true comedian go and attend a Ken Dodd show and be prepared to get home at 1am. No swear words nor hurtful jokes bu usually 2 hours of solid laughter.
    Go on I defy you not to laugh!

  • Comment number 39.

    "..the right notes but not necessarily in the right order".
    "I look up to him and down on him"
    "Four candles"
    "A pint? That's nearly a whole armful!"
    "Infamy. Infamy. They've all got it in for me".

    BBC comedy no longer gives us memorable quotes that can still raise a laugh 30 years later after the umpteenth telling. And today's BBC presenters and comedians will not be held in affection in 30 years time.

  • Comment number 40.

    doctormisswest (#37) "NN viewers not keen on satirical humour .. so, no chance of me finding solace from the depression here"

    Perhaps because alternative, 'de-constructive', humour is one of the political elements of [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] which has brought about 'the depression'?

  • Comment number 41.

    Victimising an old man such as Andrew Sachs is supposed to be funny in its own right, the fact that he is innocent of anything only adds to the ‘humour’. Only an emotional retard could find it funny, but there are many, far too many, of these among British audiences these days.

  • Comment number 42.

    tonywenman wrote:

    Fortunately receivers of broadcasts have switches. If you don't like what comes out of the screen or loudspeaker, you can turn it off.


    Yes, but we still have to pay for it every year or get fined and get a criminal record.

    It is not the duty of the paying listener to make the choice, it is the duty of the producer to think about the audience of the channel his or her programme is going out on.

    You cant have one channel switching between Adult Material (for that read zitty fourteen year old material), and family dramas. It is not about time of night, it is about audience. If you want to produce a sick, badly written piece of trash, fine - go and shove it on an out-of-the-way cable channel, but leave the BBC out of it.

    I once had a producer in my studio giggling madly because in one sequence of his programme, if you slowed the film right down you could see a moment of nipple.

    He thought he was so clever to get that he got that past without people noticing.

    THAT, unfortunately, is the production level of many (not all, to be fair) in the industry.

    They don't care about you - they care about what they can get away with an write on their CV.

  • Comment number 43.

    BernardW wrote:

    The PC brigade killed off comics like Benny Hill


    Actually, they didn't. The TV heads killed it off because it was dated and tired and some of the advertisers did like being around it.

    PC just got blamed for it.

  • Comment number 44.

    Comedy reflects the society that it is in, a bit like football crowds. The Boulting Brothers were a very good barometer of English comedy with classics like Private's Progress, Brothers in Law, I'm all right Jack etc., we have lost that beautiful way of looking at the stuffy, class-ridden way of laughing at ourselves and we have replaced it by the harsh, thug mentality that many of our cities represent on a Saturday night. We are a more violent society and we have the appalling Ross with his tatty, money obsessed attitude that gives us the appalling rant that got him off our screens for three months. He represents all that culturally devoid in today's climate. I yearn for the days where good comedy that does not have a 'victim' but a good well thought out narrative that results in laugh. The nearest we have is Stephen Fry and he has to resort to appearing with Ross to get airtime...that just about sums us up....


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