Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Al Murray is a genius, but...

I am currently reading Think Yourself British, a spoof self-help book by the Pub Landlord, aka Al Murray. I'm a bit late coming to his comedy, never having got into it before but on TV a couple of months back I saw a replay of what I imagine was his breakthrough performance from about ten years ago. What really impressed me what the extent to which the performance was improvised and it was clear to me as a result of this that he'd really developed the character of the Pub Landlord to make improvisation as apparently effortless (I'm sure it wasn't in reality) as he did. But it was also a performance brimfull of learning, albeit eclectic surface learning and I recall thinking to myself that, like Sacha Baron Cohen, he must be a product of Oxbridge rather than a run-of-the-mill university ... and indeed I gather that he was indeed at Oxford; Murray's crass alter ego is a product of strong intellect and a good education.

In short, he is IMHO a genius. The essence of his comedy is having us laugh gently at a certain type of Britishness and the pill is further sweetened by jokes, mostly about foreigners and especially the French and Germans, which would be dull or only slightly funny in the hands of a real saloon bar bore but which are riotous in the hands of the satiric Landlord; we're laughing at ourselves for laughing at others, and everso slightly enjoying laughing at others in the process ... it's not a guilty pleasure but a self-conscious riff and the audience is in on the joke.

And it's in this vein that I'm reading Think Yourself British, with its constant footnoted reminders against any mention of the phrase (copyrighted to Murray, natch) "Help Yourself" of the scores of MPs found last year with their hands in the till. In short, like his comedy, there is seriousness here as well as larkiness. But although in these footnotes he allows himself a prod at these MPs by naming them and their misdeeds in conjunction with his copywrited (sic?) phrase, there is for the most part no use in asking what Murray's own opinions are, his comedy is too deft and gentle for that. He may be a clever and well-educated man poking fun at Little Britishness but, as I say, it's never shrill and it's always leavened with enough insight and learning for the coin of his jokes to have another side. Take this for example:

"Thumping Somebody

"I'm not allowed to actually advocate this as a coping strategy for legal reasons, but we all know, don't we, that there are times when only thumping somebody will do...Whatever the trigger is, you know that belting the living daylights out of him is the only thing that will make you feel better.

"But the there's the whole business of explaing yourself to the police, or to the wife...and the thing is, I actually have a really good strategy for coping with this bit. I do! It's to start weeping and banging on and on about how you have unresolved issues, and how what you really need is therapy, and a shoulder to cry on. Try it - it's absolutely amazing what you can get away with. This country's fucked."

It starts out brutish, somewhat sinister, amusing only because it's the Pub Landlord talking, but then raises the thorny question of what the thug does when he meets reality. Boorishness confronts the law. And then wins again! But also, no matter how in on the joke we are, who seriously maintains that weeping and talking about unresolved "issues" and what you really need is therapy doesn't get you anywhere? He may be an oaf (that is his character), but he speaks sooth.

Then there's this, on Darwin and Evolution:

"Charles Darwin's big idea was called Evolution...It depends on a process he described as Survival of the Fittest, whereby the Fittest would be the ones who ensured that their extremely fit DNA was passed on to future generations, whilst the feebler and stupider specimens...would not succeed...thus gradually weeding themselves out.

"Charles lived in the nineteenth century, before the invention of the housing estate, which was to knock his precious theory into a cocked hat. Nowadays your average housing estate inhabitant has maybe nine children by ten different fathers (there's always one she's not a hundred per cent sure about), and what's more she has begun this process at the age of about sixteen. This means she's more than likely a grandmother by about thirty-three or thirty four, and a great-grandmother by about fifty. As a result the DNA (and of course the DSS) has been spread across four generations inside half a century, to a pool of maybe eighty individuals, all of whom are hell bent on carrying on the same process as hard and as fast as possible. After all, there'll all want council flats too."

Now you could argue that this is funny purely because it's classic saloon bar bore material and we all know that saloon bar bores, when we don't have to listen to them, are amusing because they're pitiable. Right? And yet.... factually what's wrong with this saloon bar bore's analysis or description? Looks pretty accurate to me.

Now maybe Murray had no particular ambition when he wrote this. Maybe he was just riffing on his character. Or maybe he's a fully paid-up Guardianista who finds this funny only because he thinks it's appalling that some people think like this, and the amusment is one of contempt. I don't know. I'm aware in writing all of the above that I've attempted to analyse comedy and jokes, which is rarely wise. But I ask again: what, factually, is wrong with his criticism of council estate denizens and the extent to which they turn the theory of evolution on its head? Indeed one might argue that the whole point of the welfare safety net is to turn Evolution on its head, to ensure that people do not survive "merely" because they are the fittest.

Al Murray's a genius, and I've no idea what he truly thinks. But no matter how essential it is to his comedy that we the audience are on board with its basic assumptions and frames of reference, there is - irrespective of his intentions, and he may as I say be horrified by what I've written - something deeper in his meaning and I suspect we're not supposed to recognise it, because then it might not be funny. Or, perhaps more accurately, to do so would leave us less sure of what we are laughing at and about.


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