Elton’s back – but is comedy a young man’s game?
Eight years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, I interviewed an American YouTube comedy sensation called Bo Burnham. He was only 20 and had a simple thesis – comedy, he told me, was a young person’s game. He asked me to kill him if he turned predictable. Sure enough, he has since switched to screenwriting and directing; his first feature film, Eighth Grade, came out to much acclaim this summer.
I thought of Bo on hearing the news last week that Ben Elton, aged 59, is set to go on tour next year. He was, you will recall, the Angry Young Man of British comedy back in the Eighties. He was the smart, smarmy motormouth who dominated Channel 4’s Saturday Live (compèring its successor Friday Night Live), which introduced the nation to the new “alternative comedy” scene that had emerged, leering and sneering, from London’s Comedy Store. In suit and tie, large specs and often terrible hair, he carped on about the so-called ills of Thatcher’s Britain. His catchphrase “A little bit of politics” secured the attention – if not exactly the affection – of the viewing masses at home.
Given his involvement with some of the best sitcoms of the decade
– The Young Ones and Blackadder – he stood somewhere between comedy god and obnoxious git. And his reputation has fluctuated ever since – those who reviled him as a pseudo working-class lefty got handed ammunition as he churned out bestselling populist fiction and trooped off to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Queen on musicals. Recent success with his Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow has boosted his stock. But isn’t that entirely the problem either way? Success itself smothers the edginess of stand-up.
If Elton and his contemporaries such as Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson aroused admiration, it was because they were flicking the finger at all the old-timers who had hogged the limelight in the Seventies. The sudden proliferation of comedy clubs that gave Elton and co a platform flowed from the perception that comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll.
The lo-tech nature of the form allows those without power and influence but with fizzy energy and puppyish fearlessness their own soapbox. But Elton now looks like the antithesis of the voice of antiestablishment “yoof ”. His reclamation of his old turf is equivalent to those wrinkly rocker tours. People may praise the Rolling Stones for keeping going, and for what they have achieved in the past, but no one thinks they’re relevant.
And if you’re not relevant in comedy, what are you? An obstruction? A nostalgia act?
Even those who never played on being young can’t escape the problem of the up-escalator of success making it harder for them to keep their feet on the ground. In recent shows, comedians such as John Bishop and Micky Flanagan have reflected on that difficult disconnect. It’s hard to credit anecdotes about someone doing the self-service supermarket checkout when you know they’re loaded. At this year’s Edinburgh Festival I watched Reginald D Hunter: once the epitome of controversial, he suddenly sounded complacent.
Some comedians – like the great Billy Connolly, who has only just announced his retirement – manage to keep going for decades, somehow staying young at heart even as they acquire wisdom and wealth. The late Ken Dodd’s cheery refusal to retire, or acknowledge his advancing years, in some ways became the running gag that fuelled his longevity.
For those who enjoy widespread affection, there’s no pressing need to quit. It was a shock when hyperactive Lee Evans did so, aged 50, in 2014, feeling that he had done all he could. Rather less of a surprise was French and Saunders’ decision to call it a day. On the wane as a comedy force, they ended on a high in their 2008 farewell tour.
We’ll see how Elton fares. Given that we’re going through a bit, if not a hell of a lot, of politics, he may have chosen the perfect moment to resurface. But he should heed what his grizzled former Comedy Store associate (also turned fiction-writer) Alexei Sayle said, ahead of his abortive return to stand-up: “My wife is very anti me doing this,” the former loudmouth joked. “She says I’m diluting the legacy. Her theory is that I’m so revered because nobody has ever seen me.” As they say, many a true word is spoken in jest.
Tickets for Ben Elton: Live 2019 are on sale from tomorrow at 10am (ticketmaster.co.uk).
Bit of politics: but can Ben Elton, left, hope to be as relevant in the age of Brexit as he was in the age of Thatcher? He is pictured during rehearsals in Sydney, Australia, in 2016, below
How tickled I am: Ken Dodd refused to retire and that became part of his act