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Graham Linehan in Exile
A review of 'Tough Crowd: How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy'
It was Welsh comedy producer Griff Rhys Jones who sentenced Father Ted to Purgatory on Craggy Isle during a creative session with Graham Linehan.
“‘Every sitcom needs to have a trap,’ he told us. ‘Some reason that these incompatible characters don’t just stay as far away from each other as possible.’” Sustaining the unique chemistry of the show required laboratory conditions and perfect luck in casting. Dermot Morgan played the titular character for three seasons and 24 episodes before his untimely passing, one of many tragedies related in this memoir.
Now trapped in a dark sitcom — of his own making, perhaps, but seemingly scripted by mad priests wearing drag — today Linehan is an entertainment industry exile. Tough Crowd: How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy has the whole tale in its title.
The Irish are known for being painfully funny, especially in painful times. However, Linehan was shaped by American humor. “I was made of Mad Magazine, Matt Groening’s Life in Hell, The Young Ones, Woody Allen, Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons and a million other influences, none of them Irish.” He writes fondly of the early years of The Simpsons, sadly of that show’s long decline. No Tory, he still found most of the anti-establishment satire of the 1990s too politically correct and unwatchable.
“When people say ‘comedy should punch up’, they actually mean that it should operate along tribal lines, and they specifically mean along the lines that their tribe decrees,” Linehan writes. “But comedy isn’t tribal. Comedy is a mirror in which the whole of humanity is supposed to see itself. If you remove certain groups from comedy and criticism, you remove their humanity.”
Linehan fretted over the set of Father Ted to make sure it was not dressed in Irish stereotypes, but his show still played on comic tropes from the culture he knew. “Were the Irish not allowed to be dumb, to be human, to take part in comedy? Because we were the butt of jokes, we’re not allowed to be funny ourselves?” He asks.
Self-effacing, Linehan writes of his odd face, his testicular cancer, his failed projects. Anyone who hates Graham Linehan will find everything they were looking for, with nothing left to pick over. But they will still have to laugh while they read it because this is a funny book.
The funniest book I have ever read was Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I was in the US Army at the time and sitting overnight barracks duty at one end of a long office hallway as I read it. Every single page was so funny that I chuckled, guffawed, cackled, howled.
“What are you reading?” The sergeant on duty at the other end of the hall asked me after a few dozen pages.
I struggled for a moment, but then came up with the perfect descriptor. “It’s like an episode of Seinfeld set in New Orleans.”
Indeed it was, for as Linehan explains, the art of the farce is the buildup, one perfectly believable set-piece at a time, to construct an absurd set of circumstances for the payoff.
Seinfeld and Larry David count among his strongest influences and it shows. The first two-thirds of this book are Toole-funny. Every page made me laugh.
As with all the best ‘issue’ stand-up acts, however, during the final third of this book the comedian gets serious. Here comes the message.
Kids are being harmed. Women are being harmed. People who speak out about the harms are being harmed. Witch-burning is back in fashion and ‘gender identity’ is a humorless, rage-filled monk setting fire to comedy.
Still, Linehan is engaging and funny as he can be while telling the truth about such a serious topic. Not Toole-funny, but Bill Hicks funny. Seriously funny.
Laughter is Linehan’s crack cocaine. Making an audience laugh is the greatest endorphin hit he knows. It is also his greatest struggle.
“Every time you write a joke, you’re essentially working off a hunch that something might be funny.” Getting the joke exactly right is a painstaking process. “There are so many impediments to a joke landing that every laugh feels like a triumph,” he writes.
He complains of “sub-editors changing my copy and sometimes torpedoing a joke” at a magazine that prohibited him from using the first person. “Without my beloved preferred pronoun, it took even more work to land a gag, and required much more precision with language.” he writes.
“A comma in the wrong place and the laugh disappears like that terrible thing, a necessary yawn that doesn’t get there, or a sneeze that turns into a pain in your groin.” The editors killed his jokes, yet “the sentences remained, pointless, orphaned from their meaning, the ghosts of jokes.”
As a result, Linehan emphasizes the editing process in his own work. “I can’t bear lazy writers” who don’t fine-tune their words, he writes. “The idea that the first thing out of your pen, everyone has to kiss its arse, is ludicrous. Writing is rewriting, and writers who don’t rewrite are a liability.”
He recalls this sketch with Simon Pegg as an example of perfect planning around a simple premise.
Linehan’s work ethic is sorely missing from too many writers’ rooms today. This is evidenced by the collapse of entertainment franchises.
“The reason so much ‘content’ is so bad at the moment is because the audience is being edged out of the relationship,” he writes. “Writers no longer know who they’re writing for.” Audiences cannot relate to stories made for a fictional ‘modern audience.’ Normies increasingly tune out an increasingly dead pop culture.
Memories of show business fill these pages, and writing advice, but the parts that stand out are the most tragic. A son, Linehan mourns his father. A husband, Linehan mourns his marriage. A former music critic, Linehan mourns the loss of music culture to the internet.
Likewise, social media ‘activism’ has destroyed fan culture. “One of the most painful aspects of my eventual exile from polite society was not being able to share things any more,” Linehan writes. “I could no longer recommend a band or a comic or a game or any piece of art — which is essentially sixty percent of what I used Twitter for, to share the things I found exciting and valuable and life-enhancing, to continue doing even in a tiny way the thing I loved doing, most of all, in my years as a critic — without trans activists immediately contacting the artists, who were also on Twitter, and demanding their official position on my legendary bigotry.”
Parker Molloy of Media Matters For America, which perfected these pressure tactics a decade ago, “went around to people in his real-life, actual physical offices, and stood over them until they unfollowed me on Twitter.”
Most ‘friends’ ghosted him. Those who stood by Linehan, such as actor James Dreyfus, were subjected to the same career cancellation. One by one, every project on hand or on offer was withdrawn. No one could say what Linehan had said that was wrong, but they were all sure he had said something to deserve ostracism. This theme would repeat with the cancellation of J.K Rowling.
Linehan names names. He tells how the people at Hat Trick froze him out when he wouldn’t be quiet. The child actors from the Harry Potter films earn his scorn. Of all the ‘woke’ entertainment professionals cancelling people, however, Linehan is hardest on comedians. Many people are simply going along with the crowd, but “them I can’t forgive.”
“What we have in the jester is a tradition stretching across history, across cultures,” he writes. Comedy has been disempowered by all the good intentions. “It may now have met its match in a group of privileged, authoritarian, middle-class theatre kids telling us what we can and cannot think.”
Seriously funny. Like Father Ted, Graham Linehan will never stop scheming to escape his exile, and we laugh because it hurts.
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