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Robert Webb vs Russell Brand: why comedians are the last interesting people left

Comedians, uniquely, have nothing to sell but their opinions, and the way they package those opinions. They don’t say attention-grabbing things to publicise their other work: saying attention-grabbing things is their work.

Russell Brand, whose essay in the NS elicited a reply from Robert Webb.
Russell Brand, whose essay in the NS elicited a reply from Robert Webb.

When I first started at the New Statesman, we used to have a weekly interview slot, which I gratefully volunteered for on the basis a) it’s always nice to get out; b) I was excited to meet people off the telly.

Very quickly, I realised that celebrity interviews are, largely, less like a sexy tango - all blushing feints and cheekily taken liberties - and more like trying to excavate a diamond mine with a teaspoon. Occasionally, you might get lucky and hit a rich seam of anecdotal nuggets; more often you’d return home with nothing more than “some quotes of roughly the correct length”. Once, in a 20-minute slot in a hotel room, the actress I was interviewing calmly informed me the person before me had asked exactly the same question I had, in virtually the same words. From that moment on, I knew we were unlikely to recreate “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale”.

I feel sorry for actors, in particular. It sounds phenomenally reductive to say that acting largely involves standing on the right spot and saying the right words, because clearly some people can turn that into pure poetry and others just sound like, well, me in the school play. But try to explain that, and it goes a bit …

"I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play… Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian … YOU SHALL NOT PASS … Sir Ian, Sir Ian"

 

Under these circumstances, no wonder journalists ask celebrities so much about their private lives.

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Actors also suffer the same problem that politicians do: why be interesting, when you can interesting yourself right into a whole heap of trouble? Or even - like Godfrey Bloom - right out of a job? A high-profile political interview is now often as controlled and negotiated as one with a celebrity. First, the publication is chosen with care to reflect the audience that they want to talk to, with reach vs likely meanness carefully weighed against each other.

Outlets deemed insufficiently sympathetic won’t even get a look in: don’t hold your breath for David Cameron to give an interview to the Mirror, or Harriet Harman to sit down with the Daily Mail. In fact, print journalists have long grumbled that Number 10 press conferences often see them overlooked altogether: Cameron knows that the broadcasters’ commitment to impartiality means they have to tread carefully. (Remember how Eddie Mair turned Boris Johnson over when he filled in on the Marr show? And how did that work out for Eddie Mair’s career?)

This caution is one half of a vicious circle: the other half is the increasing appetite of a hungry news-beast. My colleague Raf once compared the effect of Twitter and 24-hour rolling news on politics with that of high-frequency trading on the economy. There is increased volatility, sure, but that’s mostly increased noise: it’s now possible to pop out for lunch and entirely miss a political “scandal”. No -gate has been left unturned.

So politicians deploy boredom as a defence mechanism. Danny Alexander is the master of this: you can send him out on any talk show you like, without having to worry that he will accidentally commit news. I bet it would impossible to get him to admit his calf was attached to his thigh if he suspected you were leading him into a trap about how legs have suffered under the coalition.

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Into this void strides the one type of interviewee that I have found consistently entertaining, informative and willing to plunge their hand into the fire of public debate.

Comedians.

I remember interviewing Reginald D Hunter, and asking him why he thought there were fewer female stand-ups than male. In my head, I winced as I thought how reluctant I would be to answer such a question. The pitfalls are obvious. The Internet Hordes (TM) would be swift and merciless. I was inviting him to walk into a trap.

And then he did something miraculous. He just answered the goddamn question.

Or take another memory: an ice-cold balcony outside a London restaurant where a celebrity packed party was being held a few years ago, when I still worked at the Daily Mail. Opposite me at the table, a little-known comedian I’d seen a couple of times on telly. Someone passed him an ingenious little bottle, which I was assured was full of the kind of powder that mysteriously makes you much chattier and more interesting, at least to yourself.

When I tentatively averred that maybe this wasn’t the best thing to ingest in front of a Mail journalist, he replied. “Please write about me. I need a good scandal. Look at Jason fucking Manford. His tour’s sold out.” (Mr Manford had recently been caught exchanging racy chat with a lady who was not Mrs Manford.)

I don’t think he was joking - like I said, he was not a terribly successful comedian - but it did make me think that comedians are perhaps the most free of anyone who enjoys a big platform. It used to be that rock stars could get away with being hellraisers: now, a singer or band is just the tiny cog in a vast machine, and you’d have to be selling a hell of a lot of records to make your management team happy that you were a loose cannon.

Look at Miley Cyrus, supposedly the current “wild child of pop”. Boggle as she poses for sexy photos that will drive huge amounts of media attention to her records - how rebellious! Marvel as she wears small shorts while turning up on time for performances and turns out impeccably produced videos where she licks ironmongery!

Sorry, everyone. Someone decided that this is what sexy is now.

 

Contrast the constraints on the utterances of the singer, the actor and the politician with the unique position of the comedian. The Daily Mail's editor, Paul Dacre, is fond of saying that he is kept in check because he “faces an election every day”. Well, Russell Brand faces an election every night, as he sells out another date on his tour. Dara O Briain faces an election every week as he fronts his latest show. They need to be interesting to survive.

With many comedians making a decent chunk of their revenue from tours, they are far less easily dented by a media-stoked scandal. In some cases, it might even help: do you think the fans who buy tickets to see Frankie Boyle perform live care what the Mail thinks of his jokes? If they do, it’s only to pride themselves on liking something that’s anathema to what they no doubt see as the curtain-twitching moral majority. And that means that even if they cock up - as Boyle undoubtedly did with his jokes about Katie Price’s son - their sheer popularity demands their rehabilitation. Even after Boyle became too hot for Channel 4, he had a Sun column.

Comedians, uniquely, have nothing to sell but their opinions, and the way they package those opinions. They don’t say attention-grabbing things to publicise their other work: saying attention-grabbing things is their work. They are, too, less afraid of Twitterstorms and media bunfights than mere mortals: they are used to their words having an effect. Once you’ve faced down a hail of piss-filled bottles, the ire of the feminist blogosphere probably loses much of its terror. They’re also used to failing, whether it’s the joke that dies or the one that provokes thumb-sucking comment pieces in the Guardian.

In fact, the only comparable occupation to the comedian in our media landscape is that of the columnist. No wonder columnists are generally so resistant to comedians encroaching on their pontificating turf. Worse, comedians have a couple of notable advantages: for one, they are funny. That might sound like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but when you’re trying to engage people with politics, a few laughs don’t half help the medicine (read: opinions on disability benefits) go down.

Secondly, comedians are the ultimate freelancers: they might sell out by doing voiceovers for Money Supermarket or corporate gigs for UBS Warburg, but otherwise they are answerable to no one except their audiences. Quite a lot of them get paid very handsomely by the BBC. “Aha, so you’re in the pay of Big Licence Fee Payer, are you?” is not a killer line. That kind of freedom is invaluable should you need to mount a high horse: with great power comes great openness to charges of hypocrisy over that compromise you made to get your power in the first place.

Finally, comedians have a ready-made audience. We were once told that social media would democratise the dissemination of opinion: in fact, with Twitter at least, what mostly seems to have happened is that Big Beasts elsewhere have converted those fanbases into followers.

That’s worked hugely in comedians’ favour, particularly as topical panel shows are not only cheaper than other kinds of comedy, but they’re faster. That means they have become one of the prime forums for news to be digested and debated in a way that’s accessible to a mass audience. As a journalist, you know your story has really broken through when they’re taking the piss out of it on Mock the Week or Have I Got News for You. That translates to vast numbers of fans, and to a vast potential audience for anything else they might like to say. A couple of examples: Dara O Briain has 1.5 million Twitter followers; Russell Brand more than 7 million; David Mitchell 1.2 million. (For comparison, Ed Miliband has about 250,000 and David Cameron nearly 500,000.)

In the wake of Russell Brand’s New Statesman essay, and Robert Webb’s response to it - not to mention David Mitchell and Steve Coogan squaring off over press regulation - I’ve seen a lot of wry tweets along the lines of “ho ho ho, is our entire political discourse going to be dominated by comedians?”.

Well, wake up and smell the laugh track: it’s already happened.