The thing about the whole people-sense is that, like the language-sense, it kicks me in the brain at the weirdest times.

I sat down and watched a whole bunch of Mock the Week recently, because I love Dara Ó Briain. Also current events shows are way less anxiety-inducing when they're many years out of date, and I have the comfort of knowing that I will never wake up one morning and find that my country has handed control of part of the government to what appears to be a 400-year old Scottish man named "Ming". As a note that is completely tangential to what the rest of this post will be about, I'm always surprised at how much US news leaks into y'all's television programming, including the satire. (The Dubya years were such a goldmine, weren't they? The one American accent Brits appear to be able to get a reliable handle on is 'mentally-deficient Texan'.) We, on the other hand, kind of vaguely know that you still have a Queen, and that Prince Charles has funny ears. We paid attention to one of your Princes when he was naked in Vegas for about a minute, before realizing that he looks just like about a million other guys who decided to get their cocks out on the Strip, and went back to the all-important business of detailing what led up to Lindsay Lohan's latest arrest. You breathe new life into the all-important "commemorative plate" late-night infomercial industry every time you have a Royal Wedding, however.

Although I'm familiar with a lot of the guest panelists on MtW, like Ed Byrne and Michael Macintyre, I started out knowing basically nothing about any of the regulars. Russell Howard is fucking cockeyed awesome -- he cruises along for four or five minutes doing actual topical political humor and then BAM! joke involving a full-body impression of a penguin. One of these days I'll have to find out what his radio show is/was like. Hugh Dennis, I can't find a whole lot on, other than MtW; I assume he's done sketch comedy or radio that I'm not turning up on YouTube, because I can't imagine that kind of blasé strangeness being wasted on anything else.

I spent about three episodes thinking that Frankie Boyle was hilarious, and then the next three series wondering, in all seriousness, why I didn't think this man was a flaming asshole. It's not like when Russell Brand spits this stuff out -- Brand is an intelligent man who generally has no ill-intent, but who is fighting a pitched battle against a horrible impulse control problem. When he says something people are going to get angry over, I wince more for him than for anyone else. Half of what comes out of Boyle's mouth has been specifically ushered to the front of the queue because he knows that, while some of the audience may have in fact thought that, almost all of the audience decided it was inappropriate to let it escape in public. I generally don't like comedians whose entire act consists of running around poking bears with sticks -- it was really puzzling to realize I actually thought he was kind of charming.

When I assess people, probably a lot more than you guys realize, I rely on the opinions of others. Friendship itself, as the Geek Social Fallacies ur-article correctly states, is not transitive, but by watching new people interact with people whose reactions I already have a pretty good grip on, I can get a better idea of what goes on in the parts of life that I can't see because they're not on camera. There's bunch of stuff I can tell about Boyle just by watching, probably the most useful in this regard being that he's obviously (to me, anyhow) very much "on", performance-wise, when he's doing Mock the Week, which I get from the fact that he lets it slip a bit on occasion when he's standing in the background during someone else's stand-up segment. If there's an "on", then there is necessarily also an "off" that is somewhere between slightly and very different, that I don't get to see. Whatever "off" is, I have to get it from observing how other people react to his "on".

What I finally worked out is that I was getting a lot of cues about how to take his schtick off of the fact that Ó Briain likes him quite a lot -- I would guess that they actually know each other rather well. Boyle will cheerfully spork public figures over politics, religion, nationality, quotes, and general idiocy, but one thing he pointedly avoids doing is taking personal potshots at the other people on stage with him. The only person I saw him lob any at was Ó Briain, and Ó Briain thought he was funny. Ó Briain is also the only one who calls him on the carpet on the occasions when he steps over the actual line with something, rather than the theoretical line of good taste that he intentionally pole-vaults over all the damn time. It's one of the funny things about humans that we'll take all kinds of snark and criticism from our friends that would make us sorely tempted to punch strangers in the face.

(Also, I follow Ó Briain's Twitter feed. I cannot see this man putting up, quietly and patiently, with someone who was actually a complete cock in real life. For seven years. On his own show. Ó Briain does not let stupidity pass in silence. I dunno where in Ireland he's from, but I find one of the most charming parts of his accent to be the phrase, "fookin' eedjit", which now echoes in my head whenever someone mentions homeopathy.)

The next step, of course, is to go investigate Boyle and other people. The first of which is Graham Norton, who has at this point interviewed basically everyone in the entire British Isles, and even a few people from outside them. A bit interesting, actually; Boyle, not quite having the security of knowing exactly when he is and isn't the focus of attention -- Norton has his guests come out one at a time and all of them are on the sofa by the end of the show, plus assorted other madness -- is rather less cocky, although no less mouthy. He does, in fact, pay a lot of attention to other people. He and Hugh Dennis basically compete to see who can get the mic first on MtW when they do "Scenes We'd Like To See", but he is a bit more polite about letting other people talk when he comes face to face with them for the first time.

Speaking of things that have at some point involved nearly every Commonwealth citizen they could raise on the phone, Boyle has also hosted Never Mind The Buzzcocks. (Couple of times, actually.) I have this sneaking suspicion that his stints were heavily edited for broadcast -- on the clips shows for MtW, Ó Briain is invariably asked to pass along a request from the production crew shouting in his ear that Boyle please do a few bits they can actually air -- but he lacked either the heart or the inclination to be mean to Noel Fielding, both times. (Very few people have managed this, honestly. It would be like kicking a puppy. A friendly puppy with unsupervised access to hair care products, who frequently turns up to work in costume as the lead singer from a Joan Jett tribute band.) Boyle was quite nice the first time, in fact; there was an entire dialogue about Fielding's cape, which was indeed magnificent, and it contained several compliments and not the slightest trace of pointiness. The second time, he resorts about twenty minutes in to being remarkably kind to the clueless American lady, and picking on the people who wrote his cards instead. Fielding spends a fair amount of time dying of laughter. He's not great with mean but perfectly fine with rampant profanity, which suggests that Boyle's more wedded to being dry and sarcastic than actually being insulting. Or at least that he's adaptable.

The crowning moment was pretty much this. Jonathan Ross, I consider to be a very sharp dealer-with-people. For all that he's a seventeen-year-old nerdboy at heart, and his mouth gets him into trouble from time to time, he is one the reigning kings of chat-show TV in the UK for a very good reason. If someone has decided to behave like a lout on his show, they get shut down very quickly, but what impresses me more is that I have seen him get some very famously reticent people to speak very freely. The Boosh boys were nervous as fuck the first time he had them on; by the second time they were on his couch, Julian Barratt was actually talking, which happens very seldom unless there's alcohol involved, and it's not guaranteed even then.

That's an almost completely different Boyle than you see when he's performing -- that's "off" to the point where I'm kind of surprised he was able to do that on camera. (People who have on/off switches for social performance mode generally internalize them to the point where it's kind of unconscious. A lot of them find it much more difficult to switch it off on purpose than to switch it on.) He's just been through a court case with a tabloid who decided to accuse him, personally, of being a racist twat, more or less. And he is very rattled by having had to explain to other adult human beings the difference between stage and life, and the difference between sarcastic and serious.

I did go scare up some of his proper solo work, and for the record, he mentions race in many contexts where politically-correct people fear to tread, and he incorporates a lot of recreational anger and dramatic exaggeration into his routine. I would classify it as more akin to George Carlin or Lewis Black, whose rants get outrageous very much on purpose, as a way of highlighting the arbitrariness of many of our standards and the hypocritical nature of a lot of our societal values, than to comedians like Andrew Dice Clay, whose defense of the First Amendment I admire greatly but whose act does not amuse me very much at all. (Or, if you prefer a more conventionally literary reference, the technique was used to great effect in A Modest Proposal. Which some idiots did, at the time, take completely seriously.) I think Buzzcocks was the only thing I ran into that was even remotely work-safe in any way, but underneath all the profanity and rude references, the main undercurrent was something very like, "Why the fuck are human beings so stupid to each other?"

Boyle was quite disturbed by the implication of the article he was suing over, that there are actually some people out there listening to his hyperbolic ravings and shouting HELL YEEEAH! while waving their beer at the TV, the point having passed them by as completely as the content of their secondary education. So the people-alert was apparently right the first time -- he's a lot more bark than bite.


  1. Re: Hugh Dennis. He used to be in a sketch show called The Mary Whitehouse Experience back in the early 90s, which my schoolfriends and I all thought was HILARIOUS. Haven't seen it for years so I can't say how well it's aged. He also does a lot of radio such as The Now Show and at the moment he's in a very popular tv sitcom called Outnumbered although I'm not a fan of that one.
    From one of your British readers

  2. Ahh, but Outnumbered is fantastic! Even better because the kids roles aren't scripted AT ALL. They're told things like 'go play in the garden' and Ben doses things like having a lightsabre battle with himself. Ramona Marquez is a little genius - her innocently pointed questions have the adults squirming in their pants. The Wedding episode from Season 2 is genius!

    The other place to watch Hugh Dennis is in the show My Hero. Both My Hero and Outnumbered are BBC shows, btw, making it worth paying for the BBC IMO.

    As for Boyle, he's always rubbed me up the wrong way. His angry Glaswegian act is entraining the first couple of times but then blah, he is so OVER the line I just don't like him. However, as you point out, O'Brian likes him a lot, so maybe he's not all bad once you get him off stage.

    And if you ever get the chance, do see Russel Howard live. I had a fantastic time at his Right Here, Right Now tour.

    Finally, yeah, there's no escaping American news in the UK. The joke about Blair being Bush's lapdog was no joke. A lot of our TV is our own, but with Sky, Virgin, the digital switch-over and good broadband the big shows like Game of Thrones and Suits get a lot more air time than they did five or seven years ago. Our decent newspapers generally do a good job of keeping our eyes on the outside world too.

    1. Boyle also gets major points from me because Noel Fielding and Jonathan Ross seem to like him. Fielding is not good with genuine meanness in any form. I've seen him react to other hosts who were being really pointy by getting visibly unhappy and indignant. He actually got ticked enough at Simon Amstell a couple of times to be rude right back. He thinks Boyle is quite funny, and I'm guessing he wouldn't if there were any genuinely cruel intent behind all the sarcasm.

      Jonathan Ross specifically mentions that he was prepared for Boyle to show up and be all belligerent and prickly, only to find that, aside from the mouth, he's actually a perfectly decent and reasonable human being to deal with. Ross also has quite a mouth on him and is apt to deal with unreasonable people by pointing out, loudly and in public, how exactly they are being total muppets, even if they are the BBC. That he decides to share his observation that Boyle is not actually a giant black hole of seething Scottish rage says that one, he thinks this might not be as obvious to other people as it ought to be, and two, he thinks it's something said other people ought to be made aware of.

      I can certainly see why other people don't really dig his act, if only on purely aesthetic grounds. I have a high tolerance for yelling and hyperbole, if I'm in the right mood to scare up that sort of comedy. Lewis Black gets a lot of mileage out of a similar "angry New York Jew" routine.

    2. I watched the Ross link, and yep, that's a completely different Boyle to the one on MtW. Ross, I don't know anything about other than that he got in trouble with the BBC for something or other a while back, but your observations make sense and are obvious in hindsight. I'll take your word for it about Fielding liking him too. (NMtB is another show I don't really get on with.)

      Finally, I'd say I'll watch Boyle more carefully on MtW and see if/how my opinion changes much but he's left the show and I don't really watch it unless I'm in front of a TV, which doesn't happen that often! :)

    3. I find NMTB handy because I know both of the permanent captains fairly well at this point, and a lot of it's unscripted. The guests are completely so, and the host has an autocue and some info cards but is otherwise mostly turned loose to do whatever. Boyle's second stint as host is particularly notable in that when one of the panelists (an American who obviously had no idea what she was getting into) starts showing genuine distress at some of his lines, it prompts him to stop, rather than to needle harder. He uses the least pointy line he's got, she still doesn't like it, and he chucks the lot of them, refusing to use any more of his info cards on her. She asks to read them and he tells her she really doesn't want to. It's not necessarily obvious what he's doing, because he deflects by blaming the card-writing crew for being filthy-minded and prickly instead, but he is specifically aiming to not upset her further.

    4. Huh, wow, so he can actually be a decent human being! Which episode was that?

    5. It's the second one I linked to in the entry.

      He's that mean on MtW and Tramadol Nights mostly because everyone else is consciously in on the game. I don't think it's fun for him if anyone's sincerely upset -- he cracks up laughing when other people crack up laughing, not when other people look really nettled.

  3. Russel Howard has his own show on BBC 3 called Russel Howard's Good News, running at the moment, actually, which is definitely worth a watch. It's basically him doing standup about some of the big stories and more obscure stuff in the week's news. He's been doing it a few years, now, so there should be plenty out there to get your teeth into, if you feel so inclined. I love the show, as he tends to go for the more optimistic end of the spectrum (hence the name, obvs ).


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