It can hardly be called news (then again, this is hardly a news-oriented blog) but a small notice on the often readable Chortle webpage quotes Noel Fielding as saying that Simon Amstell (”Who?” I hear you say, since showbiz memory has the duration of a sensory memory trace) ‘ruined’ Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Apparently, celebrities became hesitant to go on the show out of fear for Simon’s derisive remarks. This may very well be true, but that was clearly also (but only) part of what made Amstell one of the most brilliant hosts of any comedy panel show ever. More importantly, while some celebrities did presumably chicken out for this reason (only to return when one of the kindlier guest hosts arrived. Terry Wogan, for instance. I mean WHAT!?), others performed beautifully under the stress. As the prime example Josh Groban credibility score absolutely hit the roof after his excellent performance in 2008.
In an episode of BBC’s ”Chain reaction”, where noteworthy people, mainly comedians, get to interview each other (A interviews B, in next program B interviews C, and so on. It’s a chain reaction.) John Lloyd – legendary producer of things funny – suggested to his interviewee Phil Jupitus – comedy-quiz fixture and master of comedy in the short format – that he, being so promising, should take the ”next step” in his career and do something great and influential and worthwhile. Phil, quite sensibly, answered something like ”I’m pretty happy with my work, thank you very much. Let the young people think of new and exciting things to do”.
But one sees what John Lloyd was up to, does one not? Trying to manage Phil Jupitus career, think of things for him to do. One sees brilliance, thinks that there is more where that came from, and one wants to exploit it further.
At present, I’m a bit like that with Sue Perkins. I want her to be in everything, I want her to have bit parts in Shakespeare dramas, I want her on every comedy quiz show devised by man, I want her to go exploring and post amusing reportages from whatever she’s up to. And then it hit me, just now: I want her to be the next Doctor.
David Tennant has set a standard for the next generation of doctors, and I have not much faith in the current place-filler, so if Doctor Who is to move on, I see only one suitable candidate: Ms Perkins.
My first all too serious philosophical essay was on Heidegger (well, actually, I did a number on the ”positionality” concept in the work of Sartre earlier still, but it would take an insane amount of scholarly obsession for anyone to ever dig that up). The nicest thing said about was that it is ”not as incomprehensible as these things usually are”. The literature I discussed, I found at the University Library, actually going through a number of philosophy journals. I had a computer at the time, which was just barely hooked up to the internet, but didn’t use it for literature searches, just for writing and the occasional email. I spent a lot of time thinking about the subject of my essay, and used a very limited amount of sources.
A year or so later, while working on a different essay, I discovered JSTOR, and for about a month and a half, the printer didn’t get a rest. It suddenly dawned on me that everything interesting had been written about, at length, from almost every perspective, and the goal to find a theoretical position that was not currently occupied, and then to occupy it, suddenly struck me as much more difficult than I’d imagined. I spent the next few years reading more, too much probably, and thinking and writing less.
I used to do all my best thinking during walks and while running (or derogatorily: ”jogging”). Usually in very dull environments, not to distract from the thinking. Then I got an iPod, and started to listen to lectures, podcasts and audiobooks during those walks and runnings. (iTunes university has some great stuff, the podcasts from Nature, and from TED and the RSA are excellent. BBC 4’s ”thinking allowed” and ”in our time” just have me in stitches). And instead of thinking about what I’ve just heard, I tended to listen to another lecture, podcast or audiobook. Similarly with papers, even books. Before I start working on this chapter, I argued, I just need to read this paper, or that book. One wouldn’t like to be caught out ignorant, now, would one? No, one would not.
The all too great availability of other people’s writing and thinking made me quite heavy on the consumer side of science and philosophy, and much less of a producer. It is, of course, a great thing to learn, and to listen, but in order to become a philosopher, it is necessary to start doing it for yourself. To actually not care, for a bit, whether someone has written that same thing before, and been more well read while doing so.
My dissertation took longer than it should have, and I know people who have been, and still are, in that state where they just can’t seem to finish their texts. Partly, I believe, for this reason. They are excellent, well-read consumers and thoughtful, accomplished critics, but seems almost to have forgotten how to actually do philosophy. (The dominance of ”critical” philosophy among published articles is a testament that this tendency is very common indeed). The kind of second-order thinking were you are constantly reflecting on how what you are writing relates to what other people have written tends to stand in the way of confident, genuinely original and interesting work. At some point, you just have to get out of reading mode, and enter writing mode.
David Mitchell is no Eddie Izzard, whose free-floating musings on the history of the world can have you in fits and influence the structure of your thinking for weeks after listening to it. Nor is he a Bill Bailey, whose considerable musical talents were featured in this years ”BB’s guide to the Symphony Orchestra” (The recycling of material from earlier shows, especially the brilliant ”Is it Bill Bailey”, shouldn’t bother anyone. How can you get enough of the Belgian Jazz-version of the Doctor Who theme?). David Mitchell is not a comedian for the big arena. He could not entertain you with an impromptu lecture, or lull you to sleep reading anything loud, like a certain S. Fry (whose tweets will be missed, but the prospect of a second installment of his autobiography has me almost indecently excited). And he does not have the good-natured instant rapport with the audience of a Dara O’Briain (as Mitchell’s refusal to dance even a little on ”the big fat quiz of the year” the other night amply demonstrated).
But David Mitchell was the consistently funniest man during 2009. He is simply molded to fit the all-important comedy quiz show format, and 2009 saw him perfecting his sound-bytes and his trade-mark rants. Perhaps too heavily featured in the podcast ”David Mitchell’s Soapbox” but put to great effect in small doses in episodes of ”Qi”, ”Would I lie to you”, ”I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”, ”Have I got News for you” and ”Mock the week”. He also squeezed in series of both ”That Mitchell and Webb Look” and ”That Mitchell and Webb Sound”, showing that radio actually is the better format for the duo, hosted another series of ”The Unbelievable Truth” on BBC radio 4 and provided consistently interesting, funny and yet utterly common sensical columns in the Guardian. Oh, and there was a new series of ”Peep Show” too, but personally, I find it too painful to watch.
He is certainly not the first british comedian to make a virtue out of being a bit displeased with state of affairs, and being amusingly sarky and witty about it, but in 2009, no one did it more effectively. And his capability to respond to insults should be an inspiration for generations to come.
I’m a big fan of british comedy panel shows. Have I Got News For You, of course (would they benefit from a new permanent host? If so, my vote is for Kirsty Young or Alexander Armstrong, both being capable of reading the autocue with the right form of detachment), QI, because it got Stephen Fry by the bucket in it, plus the rest of my favorite participiants (I could, and probably will, write at length about the supporting role of Phil Jupitus, the trademark rant of David Mitchell, the off-on-a-tangent brilliance of Bill Bailey etc.), even Mock the Week (Dara O’Briain’s physics jokes, Frank Boyle’s pseudo-psychopathy) and Would I Lie to You (sad to see Angus Dayton leave, but it is a much better vehicle for Rob Brydon), and I haven’t even started listing the radio shows.
And then there is Nevermind the Buzzcocks, returning to BBC tomorrow without the adorable and irreverent Simon Amstell, whose hosting for the past few years can hardly be improved upon. Seriously: when it comes to sheer comedy brilliance, Amstell’s hosting off Buzzcocks is comparable to series 3-5 of the Simpsons. And, even more remarkable for a topical quiz show (about pop-music, no less), it seems to age remarkably well. It’s as much what he says (reads) as how he says it and to whom. Like the question ”When did you first realise that you had what it takes to be Rod Stewarts daughter?” or, to David Gest: ”You’ve must have met Grace Jones? Or married her?” . Or, when Noel Fielding pointed out that Courtney Love could break him (Amstell) ”like a twiglet”: ”Or kill me, and make it look like suicide” (BBC included a disclaimer in that episode.) I’m probably not alone in pleading to the BBC to release the episode with Russell Brand which got cut as part of the official punishment of Brands ill-advised phone calls.
The upcoming series will probably be more or less like when Mark Lamarr left, i.e. a long audition for a new permanent host. It will probably falter for a bit, but I will be there to watch it do so, and so will enough people to keep it running.