Amid the coronavirus crisis, grassroots comedy in Scotland faces potential ‘extinction’ without a lifeline from the government, writes Brian Ferguson.
Can you remember the first time you saw yourself reflected back from a television screen or at the cinema?
It’s quite vivid in my memory as an awkward, hapless schoolboy, watching Gregory’s Girl at home in the mid-1980s. I was agog at not how achingly funny it was, from almost the first frame to the last, but also how true to life it felt to the harsh realities of teenage years when almost everything feels like a total mystery.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Gregory’s Girl recently, partly because it is 40 years old next year. It is undoubtedly a touchstone for my generation, but is still seen as one of the greatest Scottish films of all-time. Director Bill Forsyth is revered as one of the nation’s leading filmmakers, not just for Gregory’s Girl, which was famously honoured in the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012, but for his two other best-known movies, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. All three comfortably fit into the category of comedy.
Yet 40 years on, the current crop of Scottish comics have had to go into battle to try to secure official recognition for their art form for the first time and a share of the £107m lifeline funding to secure the future of arts and culture north of the border. I’ve come across some bizarre scenarios, but the sight of Scottish stand-ups pleading for fair treatment from the government of a country of Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle, Still Game, Chewin’ the Fat, Elaine C Smith and Karen Dunbar is right up there.
Listening to Russell Brand and Ricky Gervais discuss everything from ‘The Office’ to God and atheism is exactly what your stay-at-home self needs right now.
It’s day 2,346 of staying home, and if you’re like me, you’ve streamed yourself into a coma. I actually watched the John Gotti biopic starring John Travolta the other day, that’s how bad it’s getting (It wasn’t as bad as you’d think).
If your brain and soul are hungry for something deeper, two surly, foul-mouthed British comedians are here to the rescue. In the most recent episode of his podcast “Under the Skin,” comedian Russell Brand interviews fellow British comedy luminary Ricky Gervais. I became a fan of Brand’s podcast after his two amazing conversations with Jordan Peterson, both of which also provide excellent intellectual calisthenics.
The hour-long episode covers everything from Gervais’s love for animals, their narcissism, and the nuances of God, spirituality, and religion. While you may not agree with either, seeing these two exceptionally bright, self-effacing, piss-and-vinegar comedians exchanging barbs and wisdom is just the mental stimulation you need today. Their own search for the truth might even prompt the sort of self-reflection we all could use at this time. Here’s a sneak preview.
On Class and (Dis)Respect for Authority
Brand and Gervais are millionaires many times over and enjoy even greater fame in Britain than in the United States. Still, neither came from wealth or acclaim. Brand was an only child raised by a single mom. Gervais’ signature edgy humor is inextricably tied to growing up in the working class. Knowing where they stand in society can be tricky.
As Gervais explains, “We’re court jesters — we have to be court jesters. We have to have low status. We’re in the mud with all the other peasants, teasing the king. … But we have to keep our low status somehow, I think. I feel I want to.”
On Narcissism and Reality TV Culture
Gervais is the creator of the original “The Office” series, and Brand talks about feeling sorry for his character, David Brent. The pair both see him as a sad figure, engaged in ever more absurd acts in order to reach a place of acceptance or worth. Compared to our reality TV culture nowadays, this character isn’t even absurd anymore.
s Gervais jokes, “Big Brother” contestants make deals with the producers to get on the show. “‘Let me in there, and I’ll start a fight and take my clothes off.’” It facilitates the emotional destruction of people who just want to be loved — and the public eats it up. As Brand puts it, “There’s been a glorification of idiocy in culture.”
Gervais laments the toll this takes on fame-seekers. “This obsession with seeing normal people destroy themselves. … These people keep going back to fame and going, ‘Do you love me yet?’ No, they don’t love you, they want you to fail!”
On God, Spirituality, and Atheism
Gervais is a well-known atheist. While both men have substantial criticism for organized religion, Brand’s travels through addiction and mental illness have given him a firm belief in some kind of god and a sense of interconnectedness. Continue reading →
The show is filled with squirm-inducing humiliation and VIP cameos.
In the early days of Netflix streaming, not so long after it graduated from mailbox DVD delivery (if you remember that, you old fossil, you), its catalog was largely a sparse and obscure hodgepodge of films and TV series either long out of date or raked in from somewhere English-speaking but without American mass-market licensing fees.
I guess that’s how my wife and I found “Extras,” British comedian Ricky Gervais’s bargain-basement BBC follow-up series to “The Office,” about a pair of failed actors in their 40s doing background work, their dreams of fame withered and limp. Filled with A-list cameos — Orlando Bloom, Samuel L. Jackson, Sir Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet, all playing themselves against Gervais and costar Ashley Jensen’s pathetic overtures — “Extras” is backstage comedy played as theater of the absurd. Just one season was available on Netflix when we watched it all those years ago, which was just as well given its squirm-inducing level of humiliation comedy. Just last week, newly shut in, we found there was another whole season and dived in. Continue reading →