Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Know Your Enemy: Ben Elton

Know Your Enemy: In which we take a closer look at the disgust we hold for someone or something, a distrust so deeply ingrained into our very being that we never stop to question; exactly why do I hate that so much? Where did that come from? And is it justified?


Complete sellout. (Co) Writer of some brilliant comedies, The Young Ones, Blackadder etc and political stand up who stuck it to Thatcher in the 80's before turning completely shit, becoming the safest most 'establishment' figure of his generation, writing indefensible musical 'We Will Rock You' and betraying everything he (allegedly) ever stood for. He also became, briefly, a massive selling author, with his book ‘Popcorn’. I read one of his later novels 'Dead Famous' which was a weak riff on what was then the new phenomena of 'Big Brother' and thought it was poorly written, quickly knocked off rubbish with terrible dialogue and characters. As a man, a blueprint for selling your soul.

Last Seen:

I last recall seeing him co host a 'comedy' show called 'Get a Grip' in which he bemoaned the state of the 'modern world' with such foax enragement that it would likely be described by Elton himself as 'Saaaaad maaaaan' with an unclear amount of irony and even less relevance.

The Question:

Is hatred of Ben Elton simply a facet of modern life, a shared joke amongst the nation and a measure of ones comedic appreciation, or is he actually, beyond some dodgy associations, a decent and important comedian?

The Investigation:

'One Night Stand' is a series of Comedy Roadshow type events which feature a big name performing and then introducing the lesser known acts. The first was headlined by non other than Mr Ben Elton himself. His quick intro concludes with a 'turning around and walking into the door - Ow! – I’ve hurt my nose' gag. Like a lot of his work tonight, it’s kind of ironic without the irony. Like he is making a relation to a tired and formulaic style, but without expanding or explaining it... so just 'doing it'. Am I reading too much into this? As the credits roll and I see this man described as the 'Godfather of Alternative Comedy' and my toes curl.

Instead of jumping straight to the gig, we bear witness to the pointless exercise of Ben Elton going back to his childhood home. 'Oh look they've paved the garden' he quips. Whilst snooping round his old school he comments that in his day the only choice they had was orange or lime squash, whilst 'nowadays' (a favourite prefix of his) they have 'Lilt injected intravenous into their veins'. What kind of in depth social commentary is this? Pleasingly a teacher confirms its still orange squash for her kids.

So what’s this all about? Well, the venue for the gig tonight is in his old stomping ground, so it’s clearly to add a bit of local flavour and interest. Not because this is produced by DAVE and they can’t afford the likes of BBC’s Apollo. No, local flavour, don’t forget that. And don’t forget its DAVE either. It’s unlikely since Elton mentions it every few seconds, though its clearly in the contract. One day it'll be really old fashioned to moan about sponsorship like this, but it really sucks some of the fun out of it. It’s the kinda thing you imagine Elton would like to be perceived to be against, yet once again, doesn’t manage to pull it off in reality.

His material follows a similar vein, a mix between old school audience pleasing and attempting to be seen as tackling 'edgy' topics without ever making any kind of point. He doesn’t avoid getting a cheap audience 'Woo!' out of mentioning 'Catford', though that'll pass since its his home town. He delivers a simple exploration of town names and their meaning before astounding us with the revelation that 'I’m feigning ignorance for comic effect because that’s what comedians do'. It’s a typical Elton premise, somehow suggesting, in post modern style, he is well versed in the comedic language (which he undoubtedly is) without actually elaborating or subverting it. Just stating it. It allows him to delve forth with an historical lesson in the town names true origin that just makes him come across like an office bore, overly pleased with the sound of his own voice.

'Marketing is the modern disease' he rants 'everyone thinks rebranding is the substance - its not – it’s meaningless'. He is fond of these sweeping truths. He sounds like he is putting a mad world to rights, but is not saying anything at all. How does he back up this audacious claim? 'KFC is Shit'. Great point there. Another ridiculous modern thing?! 'What a piece of wank that is'. You tell em Ben! Its well wank, that thing you mentioned! Lazy. He also 'tackles' creationism, which is to say he makes some very old and tired points. It’s like he wants to be the kind of comedian that tackles high concepts, but has nothing of real substance to say.

The first genuine moment comes as he lists with mock contempt the names people give their children 'these days'. Same old crap, 'Brooklyn', 'Chardonnay'; laughing at celebrities children names. But then he reminds us that nowadays people even name TV Channels 'Dave'. Its not a throwaway gag, there's a real suggestion of spite in there somewhere. Maybe its call back to his earlier over mention of it, but whatever, it gets the biggest cheer of the evening.

After the other two comedians, he returns with the horrifying line 'Given my reputation, I guess I should touch on politics'. Reputation? He's not clueless, he know people hate him, in televised interviews he has put this down to one thing: jealousy. What crazy reality is this, where he is known for his presumably insightful and perhaps incendiary political statements? We were about to find out.

Well, turns out that he thinks the Cameron’s seem like nice people 'just a shame they're fucking Tories'. His political insights themselves consist of a really really laboured Pull and Reveal joke about Nick Clegg being like a baby. And that’s it. In a terrible link he moves to the amount of ladies toilets in theatre venues across the country, BECAUSE THATS A POLITCAL ISSUE. And, coincidentally, whether he realises it or not, the toilet is firmly where his 'political reputation' belongs.

His 'fact' stating ('everyone is obsessed with themselves', 'no-one knows how to grow old gracefully these days') followed by lame observation / justification formula quickly become tired and only really offers an insight into his own fractured view on himself, more than the world. He says, come February, he will have been in the business for 30 years, which receives applause. But he hasn’t gigged for 5 years. And how much in the last 15 years? So it’s not 30 years. I haven’t ridden a Skateboard for ten years, but if I jumped on one now does that mean I’ve been in the skateboarding scene for ten years. Why mention it? Rather self obsessed Ben? Well, that’s people these days int it.

I could say it’s hard to judge - would he really have the incentive to work hard and produce great work for a Dave comeback? But if not, why bother? I really don’t think he needs the cash. I think reputation, as mentioned, may be a key reason. He hasn’t 'sold out' here, to do that he could have easily mined his illustrious career, especially his time in the 80's for some well received nostalgia. Instead, he attempts to emulate the part of him that he wants people to remember; the man tackling awkward issues with a 'right on' attitude, sticking it to 'the man' and all that. But it’s completely empty of meaning and sadly I think that sums up the man pretty well. His delivery in this show was not of a man repeating the same old schtick - he was pacey and energetic and animated - but it did stink of going through the motions. He's not a comedian that likes to involve the audience. You feel that whether there are laughs or not, he would continue in the same way, the same relentless, exasperated manner, suggesting that the pleasure is all his, the enjoyment in showing people how clever he is. It wasn’t as awful as I had expected, and the passion and energy pulled him through, but any closer inspection reveals that those features are just another element of how he wants to be perceived and nothing to do with the true man himself. Approaching comedy in that manner is never going to result in anything great and as such I still regard Ben Elton as an enemy of art, expression, creativity and honesty. I KNOW YOU BEN ELTON!

Dean Freeman

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