Charlie Higson: “If you want to make effective comedy you have to stick two fingers up at everyone”

Outrage on Twitter is ruining the punchline, says the Fast Show co-creator

Charlie Higson, Getty, SL

I’m glad that we didn’t have social media when we were making The Fast Show in the mid-1990s. We were spared the torture of neurotically checking Twitter every five minutes and contending with instant judgements, knee-jerk reactions and a bottomless swamp of opinion. Yes, we used to get the odd letter that we would diligently reply to, as per BBC guidelines, but in the end we could get on with making the show we wanted and not be influenced by what anyone else thought.

Actually, let me rephrase that – what everyone else thought. Twitter is like sitting in a pub as big as the world and listening to everyone’s conversations. It hasn’t changed how people think; we’ve always been a bunch of idiots. The only difference now is that we can clearly see just what idiots we are.

The mainstream media tend to give the likes of Twitter too much weight. In the end it’s just so much chatter. If Donald Trump has done one good thing, it’s been to demonstrate that if you don’t give a toss what people say about you on social media, it can’t touch you in any way.

Look at the stupid hoo-ha recently over an innocuous sketch on Tracey Breaks the News where Tracey Ullman gently poked fun at Jeremy Corbyn. Some of his supporters even had a “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”-style fit. One bright spark even threatened to sue the producers, or the BBC, or just satire in general, I’m not quite sure which. It all congealed into a massive and massively stupid, conspiracy theory.

The BBC has remained admirably quiet about the “online storm” and let’s hope that’s the last we hear of it. You can’t write comedy based on not upsetting some berk on Twitter, and neither can you commission comedy based on it.

Way back in the 19th century, Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett wrote, “Never apologise, never explain.” And added, “Get it over with and let them howl.”

If you’re making comedy, you’re always going to upset someone. They’ll be laughing one moment and then outraged the next, when a joke lands a little too close to home… “Ha, ha, ha, oh that’s funny that is, they’re making fun of gingers. They deserve all they get. WHAT?!?!?!?! They’re laughing at bald men! That’s racist?”

People sometimes ask whether I think the BBC would make a show like The Fast Show today. And I like to think they would. I hate those old has-beens who say, “Of course they’d never be brave enough to commission a show like mine today…” When what they actually mean is, “I’m an old drunk who’s too raddled and bitter to get anything made these days.”

In the end, if you want to make effective comedy you have to stick two fingers up at everyone, and blow a raspberry (do people still blow raspberries?). Comedy needs to be transgressive, and yes, it occasionally needs to be offensive to get its point across, just so long as it always speaks the truth.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need a good laugh. What I’d love to see is a big, bold new sketch show that comes out with all guns blazing. A show that lays it on the line and says: “This is the world, and this is what’s funny about it.” Something adult and fearless and fiercely intelligent. A show that treats social media as what it is – a grand, universal joke. I’d watch that.

Charlie Higson’s latest book The Gates of Death, for younger readers, is out now

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