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  • 27 September 2007

Have you heard the one about...?

What makes the English laugh? Why is our humour still steeped in class distinctions? And does analysing comedy really ruin its pleasure?

In his new book, A National Joke, Andy Medhurst, Senior Lecturer in media, film and cultural studies at the University of Sussex, focuses on some of his favourite comedians, comedic genres and gags of the 20th century in an attempt to unravel how comedy and Englishness are related.

From the traditions of Victorian music hall through to The Royle Family, via Ken Dodd, Frankie Howerd, Victoria Wood and the controversial Roy "Chubby" Brown, Medhurst puts English comedy into its social and cultural context, and takes the risk of asking himself why it makes him laugh.

"One key index of the power of any comic text, performance or moment is its ability to withstand analysis and emerge not only still funny, but actually funnier for being better understood," he explains. "Weak comedy, lazy comedy, over-hyped and merely modish comedy may buckle and crumble under sustained study."

Things that still leave him helpless with mirth after closer analysis include the 1960s radio series Round the Horne, Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough's Cissie and Ada sketches, the comic acting of Maggie Smith and Kathy Burke, and Julian Clary's stickiest moments.

He devotes separate chapters to comedy institutions such as the male double act ("It's a way of heterosexual men proving they are not gay, but testing out how close they can be"), the enduring popularity of the Carry On films ("We keep coming back to them through cultural nostalgia"), and the essential Englishness of the work of Mike Leigh, Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett.

In a chapter on the great English tradition of camp comedy, Medhurst recalls Julian Clary's ill-judged moment during the live screening of the 1993 British Comedy Awards, when he jokingly said he'd been taking part in a sexual act with the MP Norman Lamont. It was still too much for the British public at the time and Clary found himself off the small screen for a while. As Medhurst writes: "The Lamont joke showed, graphically, the limits of what a queen, even a carnivalesque queer queen, could actually get away with - making fun of everyday straight folk was one thing, but asserting a queer's right to ridicule those in positions of real and not just symbolic power was going too far."

Most controversially, Medhurst writes in defence of our tradition of offensiveness, particularly the foul-mouthed comedy of Roy "Chubby" Brown. "He is the most important comedian of the past 25 years," asserts Medhurst. "He speaks for people who don't get much of a public voice - the people that the Government wish would go away." Brown is derided by many as racist and sexist, but Medhurst insists that he is other things besides, using his humour to become a figurehead for that most unfashionable of minorities, the white Northern English working class.

In realising that the subject area was vast, Medhurst has selected some of the less-well analysed strains of comedy - and avoided the things he doesn't like. These include the surrealism of Monty Python and the Eighties period of alternative comedians, "who believed that all comedians before them were rubbish."

There is also a serious academic element to the book: "Comedy is a barometer of social change. What we choose to laugh at, and who we feel able to make fun of, reveals an enormous amount about social status and cultural power. Jokes are miniature manifestoes."

Notes for editors

A National Joke: Popular comedy and English cultural identities, by Andy Medhurst, is published by Routledge, price £17.99


University of Sussex Press office contacts: Jacqui Bealing or Maggie Clune. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email

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