Comprised in varying proportions of biography, technical analysis, personal recollection and social commentary, Different Times is ambitious in its scope – a century-plus of Britain’s comedy output, from the silent movie boom to the present day – and a little misshapen, but made successful via persuasive arguments and a well-turned prose style. Its author, David Stubbs, is better known for writing about music (several muso-ish references betray this, as well as a section about music and comedy’s awkward relationship) but no fish out of water when it comes to his chosen topic here.
At least, that’s the impression given if you think of comedy as something you watch at home, or maybe at the cinema. Standup as a vocation is very much marginalised in Different Times: a laudatory precis of a set by contemporary comic Bethany Black shows Stubbs respects the craft, but in this book live comedy is mostly done before a performer breaks into TV.
While we’re picking bones with the subtitle, excepting Rab C. Nesbitt and a couple of edge cases like Gavin & Stacey and Frankie Boyle the entirety of the British comedy discussed specifically hails from England. (The dominance of the London media ecosystem makes this basically unavoidable, but I feel like an acknowledgement of by-Scots-for-Scots shows like Still Game would have been worthwhile.)
One of Stubbs’ real strengths is his detailing of what makes, for example, Tommy Cooper funny – a happy medium between surface-level received wisdom and deconstructing to death. Similarly, and as hinted at by its title, Different Times is fastidious about addressing what modern sensibilities now deem to be Problematic Elements in the comedy of past generations. The author and I have much the same stance on these things, I think – viewing historical offence in the context of the era need not amount to making excuses for it – though I suspect there’ll be readers on either side of that centre ground who’ll be less impressed by Stubbs’ equivocation.
There’s plenty of the writer’s own personality injected, and if his tastes in comedy don’t especially go against the canon (Steptoe, Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show and Chris Morris are each singled out for particular praise), fans of Spike Milligan had best prepare to have their fave insulted, and Different Times also contains one of the few even conditional defences of Little Britain I can recall reading in the last decade.
Different Times: A History Of British Comedy, David Stubbs (Faber)
Price: £20. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER