Comedians should stop trying to be funny

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The Independent Online

I once saw Billy Connolly on TV talking about Charles Rennie Macintosh's home in France. The place looked so ravishing, my wife and I went on holiday there several times. So I owe him a debt, and am repaying it pretty badly by wondering why his New Zealand travelogue on BBC 1 on Saturday was so desperately unsatisfactory. I like Billy Connolly. New Zealand is a place I'd like to go to. So why was it such a wretchedly empty programme?

I once saw Billy Connolly on TV talking about Charles Rennie Macintosh's home in France. The place looked so ravishing, my wife and I went on holiday there several times. So I owe him a debt, and am repaying it pretty badly by wondering why his New Zealand travelogue on BBC 1 on Saturday was so desperately unsatisfactory. I like Billy Connolly. New Zealand is a place I'd like to go to. So why was it such a wretchedly empty programme?

Well, partly because we saw far too much of Connolly trundling along on a silly motor vehicle, half Hell's Angel, half Zimmer frame, partly because the chosen extracts from his live shows were not very funny (what can the unchosen extracts have been like?), and partly because we didn't learn much about New Zealand. But I think the real reason was that he felt he had to go for laughs too often, breaking the great rule of the comedian-as-presenter, which is to forget you are a comedian.

Years ago you would never find comedians presenting programmes at all, whether on Scottish painting (as Connolly has) or the human face (as John Cleese did). But then producers realised that comedians were good on radio and TV because they were not nervous, could handle an audience, were never at a loss for a line, and had lots of material tucked away.

So comedians started being guests on chat programmes and then got their own programmes. Soon we were not surprised when Terry Jones popped up doing programmes on the Crusades, or Woody Allen got a series on Radio 3 about jazz clarinettists. But Jones and Allen were, crucially, not hired as comedians. They were hired because they were good communicators and knew their subject intimately. Jones has been obsessed with Chaucer and the Middle Ages from university days. Allen is mad about jazz, plays it, and hires the jazz pianist Dick Hyman to do all his film scores.

And if you listen to Woody Allen talking about the art of jazz clarinet, you don't hear any jokes. If you listen to Terry waxing lyrical on the death of Chaucer, you hear a very serious man at work. The same with Bill Oddie on birds, and even Michael Palin wherever he happens to be. Radio 3 once hired Robert Crumb, the American cartoonist, to present a series called Sweet Shellac, about ancient 78 rpm records of jazz, blues, French folk music and bal musette. Why? Because Robert Crumb is mad about all those kinds of music, and has a vast collection of old 78 rpm records. They were great programmes, and I can't remember him making more than one joke per programme.

Where it starts going wrong is when comedians are hired simply because they are comedians, not because they have any connection with the subject. Sometimes it works. I don't know why Sandi Toksvig was chosen to present Radio 4's Saturday morning travel programme Excess Baggage, but she does a great job because she is always interested in the travellers she interviews, and doesn't bother about going for jokes unless they happen naturally. If you had never heard of her before, you probably wouldn't guess she also worked as a comedian.

(In contrast, Arthur Smith once had a Radio 4 series, Sentimental Journeys, in which he took famous people back to old haunts - Arthur Scargill to Cuba, Ronnie Scott to New York - and wasted too much time being facetious. Not bad programmes, but they would have been so much better if only he had been serious.)

And so back to Billy Connolly. Well, put it this way. I happen to be reading a travel book on New Zealand called A Land of Two Halves, by the expatriate Englishman Joe Bennett. I am getting much more about New Zealand from it then I did from Connolly's programme. I am also, oddly, getting rather more laughs out of it.

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