Comics in a sterile landscape: Newman and Baddiel couldn't have happened in the Sixties: they are simply too bad

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The Independent Online
'TWO cynical young men on the make,' concluded Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph. 'Charmless,' said Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail, 'and unprepossessing.' 'I,' runs the standard chattering classes' line, 'just don't get it. These guys are talentless and unfunny. What's the point?'

The bizarre and probably fleeting cultural phenomenon of Rob Newman and David Baddiel achieved a climax on Friday night with a first-ever comedy show at the Wembley Arena. Critical dismay was widespread and frequently verged on the deranged. Having been panned, scorned and lampooned for their television work, Newman and Baddiel had bounced back regardless, to play to 12,000 adoring adolescents. They must be stopped, was the barely concealed message of the reviews.

It should be said at once that the critics were - insofar as their judgements have any function or sense in such a context - right. Newman and Baddiel are profoundly unfunny and may well be untalented. It is difficult to be sure about the latter since their act, as seen on television, appears deliberately designed to suppress anything conventionally classifiable as talent. But the general point is clear: here is an outrageously successful expression of youth culture with absolutely no detectable redeeming feature upon which a would-be sympathetic adult can smile indulgently.

In fairness, the defence should at once be stated. William Cook in the Guardian gave them more than the benefit of the doubt by insisting that they were 'the first UK comics whose emotional commitment to pop culture matches that of their teenage and twentysomething devotees'. Cook went on: 'They share a wealth of interests with their adolescent audience, and in this they owe more to black US comics, like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, for whom laughter is mainly a medium for the meeting of like minds. It's post-alternative populism which led Newman and Baddiel and their thousands of disciples to Wembley.'

Cook is surely right. The preceding generation of 'alternative' comics all bore a heavy load of significance. Either there was an obvious aspiration to high culture or there was a deadening burden of political correctness. One way or another, the comic delivered his gags de haut en bas. The 'alternative' label signified the elitism of a taste to be acquired or a conviction to be shared.

Newman and Baddiel's reaction to this elitism involves the direct employment of the silly, giggly stuff of the audience's lives - drugs, masturbation, pornography and so on. Unfortunately, this instantly relieves them of the obligation to be funny. Merely referring to any of the minor secrets of the druggy- poppy world or to the clammy insecurities of adolescence appears to be enough to produce laughter and applause from a young audience under the illusion that these things really are secret or unmentionable.

All of that is clear enough. But what makes the whole issue of Newman and Baddiel unusually interesting is the level of anguish and anxiety in the minds of their critics. For they are not merely suffering the pain of incomprehension, they are enduring the pangs of betrayal.

These critics - at dinner tables or in newspapers - were young in the Sixties and Seventies. They saw, and fondly remember, the golden years of a separate, young, 'alternative' culture. The old once poured scorn on their idols, but, in middle age, they feel vindicated. The Stones are still around, Dylan is a fully accredited genius and Monty Python is a classic. Never, thought the first pop generation, will we be as blind as our elders were to the new and the innovative. Laughing at Dylan's whine has turned out to be as ignorant and short-sighted as mocking Cezanne's daubs.

This 'Cezanne syndrome' of indulging, and even taking seriously, anything embraced by the young has been fundamental to polite, bien-pensant discourse ever since. It is based on the conviction, acquired sometime between 1965 and 1975, that elderly incomprehension or disgust at youth culture is inevitable and healthy. The young got it right once and, even though we cannot make sense of what they are doing, they must, therefore, be getting it right again. Our public duty is to encourage them to get on with it. New Dylans are even now emerging from the apparently indecipherable swamp of youth culture.

This indulgence is misguided because it assumes that youth culture will always be at the same level of quality and seriousness and that it will always derive energy from its adversarial, 'alternative' posture. It assumes that the sort of youth culture that emerged in the Sixties and Seventies was not a temporary phenomenon but rather the birth of an enduring fact of modern life. What it fails to take into account is the obvious truth that what passes for youth culture now is utterly different and much, much worse.

The main change was the institutionalisation and industrialisation of the 'alternative' culture so that it became, in effect, its own mainstream. Youth culture used to imply a certain difficulty. Records had to be sought out from seedy, specialised shops, and nobody would ever expect to see their obscure and eccentric heroes on television, at the cinema or even hear them on the radio. In addition, the fashionable requirement of what to like and how to like it created a distinct and hermetic critical vocabulary, a Leavisite hierarchy with Captain Beefheart instead of George Eliot, Frank Zappa instead of Joseph Conrad.

All that has gone. The record shops have become HMV or Virgin Megastores which cover every conceivable twist and turn of undergraduate taste. MTV provides 24- hour televised pop and rock. Specialised radio stations pander to the interminably sectarian demands of the young tribes. It is scarcely possible to be obscure or recherche any more. Youth culture is now served on a plate, as controlled, as accessible, as easy and as bland as Jeremy Beadle or Cilla Black. The politics of dissent and protest that once inflamed young passions have become a neutralised and meaningless norm, and the avant-garde aspirations have been condensed into the expensive, smart, oppressive artiness of the pop video.

The primary effect of this change has been to pacify youth culture. It is now simply a matter of passive consumption in which all possibility of imaginative intervention has been excluded. Where once a song might have conjured images in your stoned mind, now the images are provided for you on video. Reacting in any critical sense to music is now actively suppressed by the industry as a threat to the smooth flow of its marketing and image-making functions. All the customer is expected to do is consume the endlessly recycled emotional cues provided by the endlessly recycled stock of images and sounds.

Italo Calvino was worrying about this just before his death. He wondered whether the mass culture of the image would leave anything for the individual imagination to do. 'Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there,' he asked, 'continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?' In other words: if everything, dreaming included, is done for you, will you bother to dream for yourself?

Contemporary pop, youth or 'alternative' culture is aspiring to do what Calvino feared - replace the random, free play of the imagination with a series of packaged stimuli to goad the passive audience into the one act still required of them, consumption. And, to return to Wembley Arena, it is this nightmarish passivity which the saddened, appalled alumni of the Sixties and Seventies have glimpsed in Newman and Baddiel.

The whole point of this double act is to perpetuate the new passivity by holding a dumbly reflecting glass up to the lives and attitudes of their audience. They apply the barest minimum of expressive intervention to their material, just enough to say: yes, we know about that, too. Then they hand back the supposedly private images, the twee tribal references to bands and stars, the interminably dull joke of intoxication and discontent as if that was all that could possibly be required of them. And, of course, it is. Consoled by these barely mediated echoes and reflections, the passive fans feel that, yes, they too belong in the happy, vapid, sterile, controlled landscape that youth culture has become.

Their 40-plus critics are in shock, contemplating what they should have known for years - the complete impossibility of an enduring, autonomous youth culture. Newman and Baddiel are not trivial like the Bay City Rollers or Take That] nor are they vicious like the worst of the US rap bands. They are simply a mirror in which even the old crushed-velvet ravers can no longer mistake the reflection - that of Caliban, asleep and snoring horribly.