The Sound of No Hands Clapping

I was amazed by the first episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle last night, not just by the quality, but by the fact that the BBC had actually thought to commission it.  I was under the impression they had a strict ‘No Quality’ policy when it came to comedy (with even talented performers such as David Mitchell shoved into sketch-show formats that do them no favours) so it was with some surprise that I found a show so unashamedly daring and intelligent had washed up on my TV screen.

In one particular segment, Lee went into a long, rambling, strange and disorienting non-description of the nature of rappers, who apparently can be distinguished by their appearing on ‘the Top of the Pops’ and propensity to jump up on bins.  It was obviously an homage to the work of the legendary Ted Chippington, a comedian who appeared on the circuit in the Eighties, telling jokes that were barely jokes, engaging in rambling monologues with obsessive repetition of details, and reciting and subverting the lyrics of songs in a deadening monotone.  Lee is a huge fan of Chippington, as can be seen in this item from the Culture Show, which also serves as an introduction to the great man’s work:

The thing I like about Chippington is that, like Andy Kaufman, he wasn’t afraid to end up with an entire roomful of people hating him. In fact, if he got that much more of a favourable reaction, it was a disappointment to him, and he retired for some years as too many people were getting the joke (He has since come out of retirement. I saw him last year and he still has the power to divide a room. I found it hilarious, but realised on the way home that I’d forgotten practically everything he said. It was as if I’d been hypnotised).

All too often these days, being creative in any field seems like a popularity contest, with work only gaining any validity in the mind of the consuming public (and sometimes the artist themselves) when enough other people can be seen thinking of it as worthwhile. We’ve come a long way, it seems, from the idea of Van Gogh painting masterpieces for no one but his brother and his postman. I once stumbled on a former Britpop star of yesteryear giving a seminar to a handful of young hopefuls, telling them that unless their band had a following after five gigs, then it meant they were no good. That’s it. No room for manoeuvre. No extenuating circumstances. Five gigs and you’re out. No point doing it because no one likes you. Fail (I encountered said former Britpop star of yesteryear later on at a pub quiz. He suggested that we merge teams the following week. He didn’t turn up. Cock).

As Adam Ant said, ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’, and never was a truer word spoken in the history of pop music. If you feel something needs to be done, in a particular way, and cannot be convinced otherwise, then you should do it (In art anyway. Annexing the Rhineland and invading Poland, not so much. Unless that is your art, in which case, carry on). Just as long as you believe in it. Ted Chippington knows that, I think.

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