Saturday, February 24

No laughing matter: A review of Graham Linehan’s “Tough Crowd”.

Comedy writer Graham Linehan’s new memoir ‘Tough Crowd’ is a tale of two halves. A categorical comedy great – the co-creator of ‘Father Ted’, ‘Black Books’, and ‘The IT Crowd’ – it is no overstatement to position Linehan as the most important voice in comedy in the UK post Ben Elton (The Young Ones).

We learn just why too with plenty of insights into his comedy craft and productions. But this is only half of Linehan’s story. The second part is a report written from the inside of an F4 tornado of McCarthyist misery. Canceled for gender-critical activism, Linehan’s was a most spectacular fall and one that may have only played out quite the way it did in the UK, where questioning the sexuality of a horse can get one arrested, a premise arguably too surreal for even a Linehan comedy.

After a brisk stroll through his childhood in Dublin (Surprise, surprise! He was bookish and bullied) we’re quickly into his writing career starting as a rock journalist. Linehan’s observation that music was a far better channel for our tribal instincts is one I’ve frequently made myself. A static music industry could even be what’s fuelling the reactionary politics we see the kids embracing today (with the help of the CCCP on platforms such as TikTok) purely through the absence of original content and new forms to be intoxicated by. I’d wage a Port Royal-reeking, long streak of duck shit in a Motorhead T-shirt you’d encounter in the late 80s would’ve been a truckload happier than any kid fused to a phone today, waiting for the latest outrage.

The detail around the creation of Linehan’s shows was certainly welcomed by me, a fellow comedy writer. This section demands multiple readings for any hopeful and even established practitioner because the lessons are numerous and come thick and fast, including some good stuff around the management of writing partnerships.

But we’re almost being offered a handbook, and I did wonder if the inside baseball may have left readers without such aspirations behind. I was reminded of another recent read, a wonderful, exhaustive biography of legendary pianist and songwriter Leon Russell by Bill Janovitz, whose ability to reconstruct, often down to the finest detail, Russell’s early session work with acts like ‘Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ (This Diamond Ring) and producer Phil Spector, played like a magic trick to this reader. Again, I’ve slung an axe in a studio. But for someone who hasn’t?

To start a review by saying the book has two distinct parts could be misread as a complaint about tonal inconsistency. The book does move on to detail a dramatic career collapse, but the comedy lessons offered in the first half serve to better set up the tragedy. This is a man who clearly loves comedy with a still burning passion, and desperately wants to connect with other comedians. And why wouldn’t he? If I ever won Lotto, I’d run daily comedy tables with friends for the rest of my life, and wouldn’t care if anything we produced made it to the screen. Who wouldn’t want to laugh for a living? And so, we’re softened by Linehan’s insights, which for me help make the second half absolutely heartbreaking.

Linehan begins this portion of the book by setting the table and making a case for the gender-critical movement. His critics will say that his approach to his activism has been exceptionally mean-spirited, and I haven’t had the time to root about in his blog to be fair. In the book itself, I didn’t read anything that Georgina Beyer would’ve necessarily disagreed with, in my experience of her during which we discussed the issues at length, though I obviously cannot claim to speak for her. But, whatever transpired, it ended his career, and marriage eventually.

Reading a blow-by-blow account of a cancelation – the work and standing lost, the abandonment by close friends – cannot but force the reader to examine the strength of their moral foundations. Is there any cause you believe in so deeply that you would give everything up for it? I share Linehan’s disgust at the overuse of the ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’ mantra. History doesn’t tend to be kind to society’s censors – in fact, most are recorded as perennial villains. The merits of a case make censorship completely unnecessary. To censor is to emphatically state might is right. Democratic societies will only suffer such supremacist attitudes for so long.

And then there is the backlash which makes the whole adventure counterproductive. Actress Melissa Berrera was fired from the ‘Scream’ franchise for anti-Israel posts after Oct 7th. Spyglass Media later released a statement affirming their “zero tolerance for antisemitism or the incitement of hate in any form, including false references to genocide, ethnic cleansing.” Deadline Hollywood reported that individuals connected to the film production perceived her posts as “anti-Semitic.” In response, Barrera stated, “I will persist in raising my voice for those in greatest need and remain a champion for peace, safety, human rights, and freedom.” Her persistence may now cost Berrera her professional representation with her management company questioning their relationship.

On X, a screenwriter posted that Berrera had only been canceled because she was a ‘woman of color’ (Berrera is Mexican) which is a sentiment likely to be picked up and shared by many sympathetic to the actress and unsympathetic to Israel. I ask myself, how does any of this help us (Jews)? Are we as a people safer for the silencing of this starlet, and in doing so activating defenders who see utility in linking her censorship with racism? And likewise, what have Linehan’s spiritual executioners achieved, bar closely tying transgenderism (a group as ideologically diverse as any other) with authoritarianism and censorship? As a member of a minority group, the last thing I would want is to have our community made synonymous with censorship. It just isn’t a smart strategy. It isn’t sustainable and can only harm us in the long and even short terms. If you want to create resentment, convince others you control their thoughts and speech. My free speech activism is selfish on one level in that I am desperately trying to save my community from such associations.

Linehan’s artistry ensures the book maintains humour, even at the darkest times, and the closing chapters are pretty relentless. The U.S. was beckoning, and ‘Only Murders In the Building’ could’ve been another Linehan-penned show. But Linehan offers as good a reason as any for what motivated him toward the end of the book which I won’t spoil here. It won’t move his most strident detractors, but if a flame of liberalism flickers somewhere deep inside you…

What makes the book invaluable, aside from allowing me to sit at the feet of a master, is its contemporary telling of our McCarthyist moment. I cannot recall a memoir of a victim of the Hollywood’s blacklist of the 50s written as it was happening (if there is one do tell me about it), though plenty of books have been written about the experience retrospectively, including one in which a namer-of-names makes his case (Theatre and film director Elia Kazan’s ‘A Life’). The blacklist was a horror show but it produced some vital literature full of Dostoyevskyist anguish – cautionary tales on how prone we as a species to misuse power- which we have a human duty to read.

We will now be able to look back on this time – whoever wins – with this beautifully written contribution. Let’s hope the sequel is a happier one.

Author