According to Dame Maureen Lipman, comedy is in a terrible state. “It’s in the balance whether we’re ever going to be funny again,” she told the Vandag programme on Radio 4, in a segment tied to a YouGov poll that found that many people censor their beliefs when meeting strangers. (Shocking that more people don’t introduce themselves with their full voting history and a row about immigration.) Lipman gravely asserted that “we’re on the cusp of wiping out comedy”. Poor old comedy, now consigned to reclining permanently on a chaise longue, having swooned at the thought of causing offence one too many times. Poor old comedy, hooked up to the life-support machine, fighting off the virus of cancel culture. Dit is 50/50: will we ever laugh again?
There are plenty of arguments that continue to be made about cancel culture and whether it is real or imagined, by plenty of people who are smarter than I am, though it’s worth noting that many of the most successful comedians seem to grumble about it from their thrones of solid gold.
The right to cause offence is, in some ways, a separate issue, one that balances finely on questions of power and taste. But the idea that comedy could disappear as a result of comedians being afraid to say whatever they want to say is a strange one for anyone who watches much comedy, particularly in a live setting.
The live comedy spirit, more outrageous, more provocative, may not be making its way on to our screens in swaths, but that has always been the case. Television is often less risky than the live arena, because audiences are bigger and broader and that must be factored in. Perhaps it’s falling into the trap, nevertheless, to list TV comedies that are clever and witty and leave you with the sense of a boundary pushed or a line crossed, but when I watch Alma’s Not Normal of Ladhood of PEN15 of En tog Kanaal 4 se huidige programdirekteur, I never get the impression that they are holding much back.
The bedfellow to poor comedy is the “it wouldn’t get made now” line, the equivalent of “it was better in my day”, usually used to complain about one trend in modern comedy, to punch up rather than punch down. I suspect many older shows I love would not be made now, but many shows that I love now would not have been made 20 jare terug. Comedy evolves, changes, adapts, follows trends until it bucks them. Someone discharge comedy and free up the bed: the prognosis is that it’s absolutely fine.
While I do love an end-of-year list, deadlines mean that most of them are compiled in late November and so anything with a December-ish release date is probably going to miss out on the accolades. One such show is Dopesick, which came to an end on Disney+ last week and went straight into my own belated personal top 10. This harrowing drama series, starring Michael Keaton as a doctor in an Appalachian community that is all but wiped out by oxycontin abuse, has been outstanding, a furious and infuriating indictment of Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family and the repulsive profiteering of huge corporations, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Keaton, who is having a fine late career, is wonderful, and though it is not an easy watch, I would recommend it for those with a strong constitution and a few hours to spare.
I tend to use end-of-year lists as a catch-up guide for what I should watch during the Christmas holidays, so in case you do the same and any of the following may have dropped off your radar, I can also recommend this lot. In My Skin, on iPlayer, is a brilliant, funny, heartbreaking drama about a teenage girl, her tough family life and mental illness, which might not sound like a festive joy, but is utterly beautiful. Landscapers, starring Olivia Colman (you may have heard of her), is an inventive drama quite unlike anything else around, and also on Sky is Yellowjackets, a dream for fans of 90s film stars and horror and survival series. Too late for the lists, but well worth a look.
I did not know that I was an Alt-J fan until recently, but their single U&ME has been one of my favourites of the year. A news story about the band’s drummer, Thom Sonny Green, then caught my eye, as he has spent a lot of the pandemic shielding, but has said that he has decided he will be rejoining the band on tour from February. “Who knows what will happen if I catch Covid again? But anything I have to do to get back out on stage, I’ll do it,” he told the BBC.
One of my unexpected highlights of 2021 was going to see DC Fonteine on a whim, in Manchester, finding myself in a room filled with 3,000 people for the first time since early 2020.
As the band powered through their opening song, shouting “life ain’t always empty” on repeat, you could feel the crackle of energy rippling through the room.
Music has been treated appallingly by this government during the pandemic and live music is once again on a precipice, but when it’s back, music reminds you of its sheer vitality and power. I had not known just how much I’d missed it. Green’s urgent need to be with the band on tour is completely human.