Comedy, comedy, wherefore art though, comedy? There are more comedians and comedy writers than ever. But it seems to me that the increase in performers and scribes has brought with it a corresponding decrease in laughs. Most of the comedy I experience in sitcoms, on stage, on panel games, quizzes and chat shows more often than not lack that vital ingredient – the ability to be funny. I will not name them but I have three comedians in mind and, recently, I sat through their one-hour DVDs without a titter. They are what are known as “observational” comedians, a tidy way of telling us up front that they either don’t or can’t tell jokes. Even that bastion of quality, BBC Radio 4, has in recent years commissioned some very poor comedy shows. Call me old-fashioned, but when I think comedian and comedy, I think laughter. Silly me.
It is always easy when you are a certain age to remember the good old days fondly, but sometimes the good old days were as bad as bad could be in comedic terms. As a youngster in the early 1960s, my mother discouraged me from watching too much James Young because he was “a bit odd” and “a wee bit coarse”. In the 1970s, Frank Carson, Mike Reid, Bernard Manning et al did some old-school joke-telling and sometimes, in Manning’s case, some highly dodgy racist and sexist gags on TV’s “The Comedians. The show was very successful but also very patchy. Apart from a select few, most sitcoms were (and still are) dire in the laughs department. Radio comedy has gradually declined over the years, and comedy writing generally is just not funny enough. But, where TV and radio failed to deliver most times, my young teenage self stumbled upon great comedy in the pages of local newspapers.
I had three heroes – columnists John Pepper and Billy Simpson, and cartoonist Rowel Friers. In my depression at the state of modern comedy, I dug out some of their work and reminded myself what being funny is all about. These three local heroes gave me an appetite for clever humour. Perhaps, in their genius, they are responsible for my impatience with much of today’s average to dire comedy output. They set the standard and they set it high.
Rowel Friers, in a class by himself as a brilliant cartoonist, illustrated two of the books on my desk as I write this – John Pepper’s “Catch Yerself On!” (1980) and “The Best of Billy Simpson” (1979). He had a wonderful knack for capturing facial expressions and body language, drawing both beautifully. Even without captions, his drawings are hilarious. His work featured widely across the media. He was a gifted man, not only a cartoonist but also a painter and lithographer. He was well-respected in Ulster’s arts and drama circles, but especially revered for his wit and enjoyed by people regardless of affiliation and background. Gerry Fitt and Ian Paisley attended his funeral in 1998, an illustration of his artistic reputation to not only draw funny things but also to draw enemies together. He relished making fun of political and sectarian madness, preferring a gentle rather than a cruel approach to satire.
In the occasional misery of 1970s Belfast, these laughter ambassadors were shining lights on some dark days.
John Pepper, pseudonym of Freddie Gamble, a former deputy editor of the Belfast Telegraph, became Ulster’s dialect chronicler in a series of columns and books. He showed us how we really spoke. A browse through the chapters of “Catch Yerself On” gives a flavour: A fringe snookers ye for wearin’ a hat; Just folly the telegraft poles; Ar grocer hasn’t an ounce; I just stayed in bed till I got up; These oul boots are on their last legs; the opposite of “sober” is “full”. Pepper offered glossaries of words and phrases spelled out exactly how they fell out of Ulster mouths: Anorn (The same again); Jinnomabror (Do you know my brother?); Mushere lukin? (How much do you want?); Parritch (Porridge); Shizzent (She is not); Weeshire (It’s only raining a little). Pepper wrote: “If I leave myself open to the charge that I am only going over well-tilled ground, my answer is that it is fruitful ground. In Ulster, it is not what you say but how you say it.” I would add that it’s not only how you say it but also how you write it down. John Pepper carved a niche showing how Northern Irish people can be funny intentionally and unintentionally. If you can find his “Norn Iron Haunbook”, get your ribs ready for a good tickle.
Billy Simpson was a more straightforward but nonetheless exceptional writer. His column appeared on Mondays in the Belfast Telegraph and it was impossible not to crack a smile as he developed a story, launched a flight of fancy, stretched an observation and did what he was hired to do – be funny, and funny was guaranteed. You never knew what to expect. On one occasion he retold Custer’s last stand (“The Scalps My Father Wore”) with an Irish influence in the shape of Native Americans talking in Oirish accents and passing round the war shillelagh. In “The Barley That Shook The Wind” he described the Poteen Taster of the Year contest; in “Zer Boink Tapes” he exposed a scam of someone trying to sell tape recordings of conversations between William of Orange and Pope Alexander; in “Brief Encounter at the Customs” he imagined the scenario of a man trying to smuggle pythons in his underpants; “The French Concoction” had this introduction: “There are several things in life that a man should approach with caution. Matrimony. Unattended parcels. And home-made liquor.” Classic humour that hit the spot back in the 1970s and, after a re-read, just as funny today.
I am not churlish enough to damn all modern comedians and writers. Thank God we still have some class and skill around. Far too few are good, most are average and too many are rubbish. Comedy, comedy, wherefore art though comedy? I can find some gems in the newspaper archives and books featuring Pepper, Simpson and Friers, and others of their ilk. I am a little out of touch with their modern equivalents, the ones who can take an idea and let it run into a world of craziness and fun, without being obnoxious or cruel, but if anyone can point me in the direction of current Belfast humour columnists, I'll give them a go.