Comedy is the new rock n' roll. This isn't really the case of course, any more than Rupert Murdoch is the new 'all say awww', Clive Dunn-esque, loveable Grandad figure who'd slip you onto his knee and drop a Werthers' original into your mouth soon as look at you. It's a phrase that gets trotted out quite a lot though, and what it really means is that comedy has become incredibly popular; stand-up comedy in particular. Comedy has always been popular, but live comedy has really boomed over the past decade or so, such that it's not unusual to find comedians packing out huge stadia, when they used to be found in smoky dingy clubs, dealing with front row hecklers. Newman and Baddiel were the first comedians to play Wembley stadium, and whereas their show now looks remarkably dated, they were the 'comedians as rock n' rollers' trailblazers, to be followed by Peter Kay, and latterly, Michael McIntyre. Peter Kay seems to be universally popular, despite the obvious 'Northern-ness' of his humour, and punters and peers like him equally. It's difficult not to like Peter Kay.
Michael McIntyre has been in the news a lot this week, coming under fire (so he says) from others in his profession. He's clearly popular with the punters, but his peers don't seem to like him much, to the extent that his wife got a load of reflected stick at a recent awards ceremony, despite the fact she'd bought a new dress specifically for the occasion (this is the sad story, as recounted by Mr McIntyre on desert island discs this week). Stewart Lee was singled out as perpurtrating the greatest amount of anti-McIntrye bile, describing McIntyre's material as 'warm diahorrea', though he's since claimed that the material was taken out of context, and that he was in fact 'in character' when he wrote this line (a minor part of a 30,000 word show).
I'm sure that many will take McIntyre's side in this argument, and some will take Lee's. But is it an argument with any merit? Is it an argument that can lead to a conclusion?
The argument is very similar to that which tries to compare different types of popular music, and bearing in mind that comedy is the new rock n' roll, let's see how far we can get with this comparison. Arguments rage from the pub to the playground over which music is 'better', but rarely do two people agree on any definition for the word 'better', at least in this context. One can define better as meaning more popular or more influential or more original, but none of these definitions hold more universal sway than any other. One of the most obviously good things about comedy is that something with no comedic merit at all never even makes its way into the public eye (with the possible exception of Rotherham's finest, the Chuckle Brothers). This is certainly not true for music, where Jedward are able to sell millions. So that's a disappointing start.
Michael McIntyre is the Take That of the comedy world. Almost universally popular; pretty much everyone would admit to liking him (and them) at least a bit. Stewart Lee is the Elbow of the comedy world. He's someone that you know (if you consider yourself intelligent) you're supposed to like, but you can't get over the feeling that it's just a bit dreary, and takes itself a little too seriously. Michael McIntyre is trying to be as funny as he can, and is trying to make as many people laugh as he can. There's no great sophistication to his humour, just as there's no great sophistication to the music of Take That, but you'd probably feel in a better mood after listening to either of them for ten minutes. They are both unashamedly populist, and exist merely to create enjoyment for people, and by doing so, to fatten their own coffers. If McIntrye's comedy was so base and easy though, wouldn't it all have been done before? His brand of everyday observational comedy can't be that straightforward, can it? Similarly, Take That; how many other similar groups have tried and failed to recreate their success?
Stewart Lee (like Elbow) seems to be trying to do more with his comedy; he's trying to educate, to make people consider the everyday in greater depth, to debate our beliefs and prejudices. He's probably not as gag-heavy, but the humour certainly has an ulterior motive. This is a very obvious choice that he's made, and that's why he exists at the other end of the comedy spectrum from Michael McIntyre. I like listening to Stewart Lee, but only for a while. He's certainly original and thought provoking, and there's clearly plenty of worth in listening to him; just like Elbow though, it just gets a bit too whiny and repetitive after a while (in Lee's case, literally so, as he continues to pound the same phrase down your throat). After a bit of Lee, McIntyre comes as light relief. It's not long before one tires of him too, with his skippy smily fatty routines, and there's only so much of this one can stand. You're not likely to replace one Take That album with another straightaway, but I'd be amazed if anyone wanted to sit through more than 12 songs of Elbow.
The concept of 'better' is pointless in music just as much as it is in comedy. It's probably more important to be open to all different styles of music, comedy, art, theatre, film, food etc than it is to champion some things to the detriment of others. There's merit in all sorts of diverse culture, and we have the opportunity to dip in and out of all of them whenever we please.
Wouldn't it be dull if we all liked just one thing?