Craig Brown’s A-Z of Humour
By SAMUEL GRAYDON
The Olivier Award-nominated actress, singer and comedian Dillie Keane took to the stage, to much applause, and began a set of “songs about [her] personal life” – “personal” meaning very personal indeed. “Those aren’t my handcuffs” and “I swear I’ve never seen those girls before / Nor that horse!” were some of the cleaner lines. Twenty minutes into the set, in her “Song for Sexual Re-Orientation”, Keane weighed the pros and cons of lesbianism.
I began to wonder if I was at the right event.
I had thought I was attending the satirist Craig Brown’s "A–Z of Humour” as part of the London Library’s “Words in the Square” celebration, which marks the 175th anniversary of its foundation in St James’s Square. As it turned out, Brown, accompanied by the actress Eleanor Bron, and the impressionist Lewis Macleod, came on after an interval. Among its other aims, The London Library wants to encourage “a delight in literature and the arts”, and it appeared that this meant that Keane and Brown needed no discernible overlap besides the fact that they were both funny. As with most literary festivals, comedy was merely an accessory, and not an independent contribution, to the conversations and debates about literature. Brown’s half of the evening was effectively a collection of his best parodies, organized under very loose categories (presented alphabetically) such as "Juxtaposition", with occasional hints at their use in comedy.
Brown knew his audience – M was for Malapropism, V for Verbiage and L for Literary Festival, no less. But, as a result, the event did on occasion feel a little exclusionary: at one point, Brown said: “I shan’t explain what a clerihew is, for we all know”. A woman sitting behind me spent a lot of her time explaining every other joke to her partner (who didn’t know what a clerihew was), which brought to my attention how much people were laughing at their own knowledge. But then, inclusion and exclusion are part and parcel of comedy, and if one does have the rare opportunity to laugh at a joke about Edith Sitwell, Beatrice Webb, or W. B. Yeats, one may as well revel in it. I laughed as hard as anyone when, in what Brown called “Harold Pinter’s Revised Book of English Verse”, the audience were treated to:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
Until the Yanks come and fuck the shit out of it.
More recent figures were ridiculed as well, however. Barack Obama, Tony Blair and John Prescott (imagined as having to pose for a portrait by Lucian Freud) all came under fire. But best of all was "D was for Donald" (a parody of Donald Trump’s Twitter account). Despite the occasional exaggeration of character, it was probably the closest to real life of any of the sketches, not least because of Macleod's spot-on performance. At that point everyone was laughing at Trump, rather than at an imitation of Trump – it was the only point in the night when there was any discomfort in the audience, as there should be in the best satire.
But then, I thought, this was perhaps not the point. Free prosecco, a marquee, sunshine and beautiful arrays of tulips are not conducive to Juvenalian satire – far better to laugh at sex and swearing and authors.