STAND-UP comedy is a dirty business. It is said that professional comics would bump off their grannies if it would get them a laugh. On Archive on 4 (Radio 4, Saturday), we heard that Russell Kane is prepared to keep his long-deceased father fictionally alive so that he can continue to make fun of him. “Dead dad” routines are a stock-in-trade of the jobbing comedian, and it matters little whether the parent being abused is in the house.
All of this serves to reinforce the message of the presenter, Stewart Lee, that you cannot trust anyone who tells you anything. Being an unreliable narrator is presumably a characteristic of our species, although Lee picks up his narrative in the 12th century with Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose account of the kings of Britain did not convince even his contemporaries. “Everything this man said was made up . . . from an inordinate love of lying,” was one contemporary assessment.
Lee moves swiftly on, through Chaucer to Bob Dylan and Ivor Cutler, all the while encouraging us to doubt his own credibility; for Lee is himself a self-undermining presenter, his own stand-up routines on television intercut with commentary on the material and dour reflections on his lack of mass appeal.
This radio essay came to sound like the undergraduate paper that he admits having written on the subject at university. The proper aspiration for a documentary, the filmmaker Werner Herzog said, is to achieve not the “accountants’ truth”, but the “ecstatic truth”. This one fell somewhere in between.
In Girl Stuck in Basketball Hoop (R4 FM, Thursday of last week; repeated from 24 May), we have another example of a comedian in search of some form of truth; in this case, the truth behind multiple reports from Goole, in Yorkshire, of teenage girls’ having to be extricated from basketball hoops. Ian Smith went about his investigative task with engaging good humour, and it was refreshing to hear local politicians entering into the mock-serious spirit.
The first truth to uncover was whether there had been a spate of hoop-related incidents in the area. The local fire brigade refused to be drawn, but an ex-fire-fighter who had attended on two such occasions was able to offer an anthropological perspective on the phenomenon: we, as a species, like to see whether we can fit into things.
You can guarantee that there will be a neuroscientist with a theory; and in this case it involved the structure of the teenage brain, whose adventurous lobe is fully developed while the cautionary cortex is still immature. But the most convincing insight was provided by a Norwegian contortionist, Captain Frodo, who, in his early career, successfully achieved passage through a hoop before moving on to even more spectacular spaces. The human spirit, he says, craves these challenges, and they should not be passed over. “There is a hoop out there for everyone!”