COMEDY / Dishing the dirt: Stand-up Frank Skinner is filthy and on television. How does he get away with it? Tristan Davies reports

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The Independent Culture
Four years ago Frank Skinner was teaching a class of mechanics, salesmen, pensioners and dropouts how to be funny, and frankly he had a bit of a cheek. If you detected, as I did, covering it for the Independent, a slight note of desperation in his voice as he passed on the tricks of the trade - 'If you get on to the stage quickly enough,' he told his gaping students, 'you can pick up some of the previous act's applause' - then you might have put it down to Skinner's lack of credentials. A teacher by day at a West Midlands adult education centre (and an unqualified one at that), he'd had some experience of stealing applause by moonlighting on the London comedy circuit, but little in the way of earning it. As he waved a stick at his trainee comedians, you had the distinct impression of the blind leading the blind.

Yet there he is, plugging his comedy showcase, Packing Them In, on Wogan, his video on Pebble Mill, his sitcom, Blue Heaven, on The Big Breakfast and his UK tour on The Des O'Connor Show. There he is again, pitting his wit against Paul Merton and Angus Deayton on Have I Got News For You, the hottest ticket on television for a comedian. Either Tony Slattery has affected a greasy quiff and a Brummie accent, or suddenly you can't turn on the TV without Frank Skinner popping up with his lewd banter and his ludicrous double-thumbs-up trademark.

And here he is, the returning hero, preparing to face his home-town audience at Birmingham Town Hall. OK, so you have to look pretty hard to find his poster on the box-office noticeboard, but there he is again, stuck between Chubby Brown and the CBSO, decked out like a boxer under the headline 'Comedy Heavyweight, The Guardian'. Skinner has moved out of the Mexican roadsweeper class of comedy to become a real contender. Representatives from Avalon, his promoters, fuss around him in his dressing-room; two managers, a video-cameraman, PR and several mobile phones attending to his every need. So his needs only extend to a couple of rounds of ham and tuna sandwiches and a trayful of Diet Pepsi and Perrier, but hey, Chivas Regal and red smarties went out with the dinosaurs.

Skinner has always been a pathological joke teller, but it took a while to dawn on him that he should try to make a living from it. He had been expelled from school (lunch-ticket fraud), done two years in a hot metal factory, three and a half years on the dole, retaken his O- and A-levels, passed an English degree and failed his teacher training before he told his first professional joke at the age of 25. His comic potential was realised in the pub, not the playground.

'People would go silent and wait for me to perform. One thing I used to do, if anyone had a roll with clingfilm on it, I used to take the clingfilm, dip it in beer and stuff it up my nose and pretend I'd sneezed. They'd fall about. One of the nice things about becoming a stand-up, one of the great things about becoming a stand-up, is you realise you haven't been wasting all those years you thought you'd been wasting.'

Now, to you or me, passing off snap- wrap as a trail of snot may be a few notches down the evolutionary scale of pub entertainment from crushing cans of lager against your forehead. But - little though he knew it then - Skinner had the sniff of an act here. (If you still doubt the quality of the snot gag, it has since been recorded for posterity on Packing Them In.) To cut a long story short, after watching Jasper Carrot at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival, Skinner found himself heading for a talent contest in a working men's club as The Rockabilly Charles Hawtrey. 'It was me and a whole load of fat women in chiffon singing 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina'. The compere was called Marty Miller The Man With The Golden Voice. He told me 'You've got something, kid. I don't know what it is, but it's there. You'll come second tonight.' So I won't win, then? 'Oh, no. We've got a ringer: we always get a pro in 'cos we have to give them someone half decent.' ' Skinner came second, vowed he'd never do another working men's club, and headed for London.

Born again as Frank Skinner, the former Rockabilly Charles Hawtrey began to find his level. All around him raged the comedy of Thatcherism and political correctness. Skinner, however, decided to play to his strengths. 'I don't know anything about politics, so I don't do political material. But I find myself drawn to masturbation as a subject. I have sat down and thought, I'm not going to write any dirty jokes at all today, but four jokes down the page and I think of a really good knob joke.' His television debut in 1988, on LWT's First Exposure, earned him 131 calls of complaint, including one from Edwina Currie. Thus encouraged, he began to creep up the bill at the make-or-break comedy clubs. By 1990 he was compering his own club in Birmingham, playing Jongleurs and the Comedy Store in London and was able to give up teaching. By the time he went to the Edinburgh Festival in 1991, he had developed what turned out to be an award- winning 90-minute routine.

The Perrier Award was Skinner's passport to television. The medium that has so emasculated ballsy comics in the past has been curiously kind to a comedian who works so exclusively below the belt. Call me old-fashioned, but even in these post-PC days it's a shock to hear Skinner's post-coital pillow talk barely an hour past the watershed. 'I hate that moment when you look down and there's that pink, wrinkled condom lying there . . . especially when you weren't wearing one in the first place.'

And if you thought that was bad, you should see him live. The posters for his tour warn off the easily offended. A good night-out for the lads, it suggests, but a no-go area for families and couples. Yet, sitting to my left in Birmingham Town Hall is a middle-aged man, his wife and their teenage children; directly in front of me is a neat couple in their early forties; to their left some young double-daters. They would not look out of place at a Cliff Richard concert; surely they'd made a mistake?

Too late. Skinner skipped on to the stage. 'I went down the doctors the other day to buy a packet of suppositories. It said on the back: 'To be inserted four inches up the rectum. Keep out of the reach of children.' ' He feigns puzzlement just long enough to allow the penny to drop. 'I was doing a gig for some Alzheimer patients and I told them this joke and it went down a storm, so I thought, 'Oh sod it, I'll tell it again.' 27 times I told that joke.' Then he's off: floaters, constipation, blow jobs, and of course, lots of masturbation - who does it, why they do it, when they do it and every conceivable way they do it.

Shocked? Outraged? Disgusted? What's your problem? Just take a look around you. The family to your left are being careful not to catch each other's eye, but it's their shoulders, not their stomachs that are heaving. The man in front has his hand to his mouth, but he drops it to reveal his embarrassed grin when his wife nudges him and collapses in uncontrollable laughter. And the girl to their left has her head on her boyfriend's shoulder, dreamily smiling up at him as if sharing some secret joke.

They love this guy, with his dirty mouth, his filthy jokes and his schoolboy Brummie charm. Were they shocked? Yes. Outraged? Of course. Disgusted? Are you kidding? What do you think they pay him for? In the U-bend of British comedy, they don't come much bigger or better than Frank Skinner.

(Photograph omitted)