Book review: Sunshine On Putty by Ben Thompson


the cover of the book

If this was the central character from a film, it would be John Cusack in High Fidelity.

Cover

A rather skilful fountain-pen caricature of the leading lights of UK comedy (at least according to the book) – Ricky Gervais, Vice Reeves, Steve Coogan, etc. The text isn’t bad, either – sans-serif and chunky, animated but not wacky. A good cover.

Plot

Thompson aims to chart the progress of an era of British comedy. Chronologically it begins with the first episode of Vic Reeves Big Night Out in 1990, and ends with the Christmas special of The Office in, I think, 2003. There was, the author contends, a shift in the nature of UK comedy during this period, and he aims to chart it.

The good

Why does he aim to chart it? Because A- nobody else is going to do it, and B- because he really likes this era of comedy. There you have the two biggest plusses of the book.

Growing up, I loved comedy. With three TV channels, no VCR, and (feebly kicks his rocking chair to life) no such thing as the internet, that meant I spent years reading about comedians, most of whom I’d never seen and, not being able to predict the internet, assumed I never would see. But that just made me love them more, of course. I read everything I could find about the greats of modern comedy (which was far more than the meagre selection I could experience in actuality, certainly with my Mum in charge of the remote control) - Roger Wilmut’s joyously comprehensive From Fringe to Flying Circus and Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law, Rowan Atkinson’s Funny Business, Kenny Everett’s gossy autobiography, and any and all script collections I could get my hands on. I’d read four series’ worth of the Monty Python TV scripts before the ABC deigned to re-run the actual show at 11:30 PM on a Tuesday, then I watched it all play out, amazed at how much the writers sacrificed to a tiny budget and a crappy director, but we’ll leave that sad story for another time. So even now, in the days of broad-banded intranets I appreciate it when a writer is prepared to quantify and categorise a comedic era for my delectation. If he/she is, like Thompson, a genuine fan, then so much the better. If he/she is, also like Thompson, prepared to include a lot of slightly extraneous but hugely enjoyable digressive information on people I half know, don’t know, or, most likely, have heard of years ago, am still intrigued by, but STILL haven’t got around to seeing, then hurray.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are two such people. I could give you a potted history of the duo just from Thompson’s epic love for the detail of their careers, but I won’t, because you probably haven’t heard of them or, like me until recently, seen them, either. They’re a couple of ex-arts students, in short, who came up with the idea of using Pythonesque strangeness in combination with a cheesy talk-show-host persona to subvert the dying paradigms of ‘variety’ television and make every schoolkid in the country start repeating rote-learned gibberish at each other before laughing inanely until their Mums tell them to go and play outside before they cop a belting. Sounds choice bro, you might be thinking, but surely Monty Python themselves did that exact same fucking thing two decades beforehand? Let’s keep that under our hats, shall we, lest Mr. Thompson take an angry dump into each and every one of them. Suffice to say Mr. Thompson is gay for Vic & Bob like Gilbert is for George, and it’s his book. Anyway, what’s much more interesting is what happened next. Cleverly, Mr. Thompson avoids giving the book’s subject, e.g. his favoured era of UK comedy, a specific name, which allows him to define it free of both easy generalisations and anybody else’s opinion, however relevant. For the purposes of this review, however, let’s call it post-modern comedy: the point at which popular comedians, as a group, began to turn to the subject of culture and comedy itself for comedy, as opposed to commenting specifically on politics or domestic existence. (The reason Thompson is wise to avoid such definitions becomes immediately apparent when examining his subjects; Coogan, with his stable of joke media characters, fits perfectly into this era, but Victoria Wood, who Thompson also likes to talk about, doesn’t. Vic and Reeves personify his thesis, but the people who heavily influenced them are too old and uncool, so they’re out. Gervais and Merchant’s Extras, focusing on comedy-within-comedy and the ladder-climbing of celebrity, is undeniably post-modern, but The Office, to most viewers, would seem a traditional sitcom setup straightforward to the point of blandness - Gervais’ conviction that Brent ONLY works as a character due to being the subject of a fake documentary, and would cease to entertain with audible audience laughter is, to be charitable, part of a parent’s love for their creation.)

To put it another way, there was plenty of cultural satire going around UK comedy since the Goons and those Fringe chaps had revolutionised it after the war, but in the nineties, a new post-modern-sort-of-self-referential-ish flavour evolved, including such items as Chris Morris’ Brass Eye (fake ‘current affairs’ - a little bit like, and well before, The Chaser), Da Ali G Show, Steve Coogan’s hilarious fake interviewer/host Alan Partridge, The Royle Family (another essentially traditional sitcom that Thompson happens to like), Spaced (far more post-modern by any definition, but Thompson likes it less, so it’s relegated to the B-Team), The Fast Show, and the Gervais/Merchant productions, along with a few others. This lot used elements that satirical comedy had employed earlier in dribs and drabs, such as a degree of ‘documentary feel’, wry comedic self-referentialism (e.g. knowing jokes about the craft and the medium itself), and a calculable ironic distance which they could trust their audience to be “in on”. What they did differently (Chris Morris aside) was to throw away the politics which satire normally built these elements around, and which everyone in the UK was getting a bit sick of after years and years of Alternative Comedy, described by Alexie Sayle (who was one) as “a fat bloke in a suit shouting at the audience about things that weren’t their fault,” e.g. endless attacks on Mrs. Thatcher directed at audiences who never voted for her in the first place. The Office looks and feels (especially to an audience that missed most of the programs Thompson cites as having lead to it) like a satire, but, as Ricky Gervais himself states, it’s not. As he points out, Dad’s Army wasn't about the army, it was about ten middle aged men; Porridge wasn't really about jail, it was about Fletch being a bit of a loser who had to look after Godber. In short, the Office is about deluded human beings, not office life. If it was, it would be taking the piss out of people who end up working in an office – something Gervais didn’t intend (he claims) to do. As he notes, we can’t all be astronauts and rock stars: “There’s nothing wrong with settling for something. It’s kidding yourself that it’s what you really want, that’s the problem.”

Likewise, in an earlier era, Da Ali G Show would undoubtedly have been primarily about tricking people into revealing outrageously un-PC attitudes. As it was, Sacha Cohen eventually got to this with Borat, but Da Ali G Show was always more about prompting people to look like dicks by talking to (someone who convincingly appears to be) the biggest dick on the planet...or, if you want to be a bit more charitable, about getting people to admit, via their words, that there’s pretty much nothing so moronic that a teenager or a foreigner wouldn’t say it seriously. So there ARE satirical elements to some of these post-modern shows, but it’s certainly not the straight-up ‘right-on’ political stuff of the Alternative 80s.

Thompson has identified a genuine comedic zeitgeist, and written the only evenly partly comprehensive book, certainly that I know about, on the topic. If you have any interest in comedy of the recent past, or any of the shows mentioned above, then this is an extremely readable way of finding out more. Thompson isn’t as funny as his idols, of course, but he’s not without wit, and this, combined with an undeniable love for the subject (and, luckily for us, a desire to express that love by recording the thoughts of much funnier people than he) results in a highly enjoyable read indeed.

The bad

Mr. Thompson is a critic born of Ye Olde Schoole of British Rocke Journalisme. I am increasingly disillusioned with this stodgy mental paradigm. It seems to be little more than a way for lazy critics to pass on a wad of stereotypes to the next generation of lazy critics, which will glue its own group-thought prejudice to the clump before passing it on in turn. It's not just stereotypes of untouchable critical approbation I'm talking about (Dylan/Cobain/Motown/Jagger/Richards/Hip-Hop/Bowie etc etc etc etc) but stereotypical approaches to critical thought. These approaches are the greatest problem with Sunshine on Putty. For example, here's Thompson interviewing Charlie Higson & Paul Whitehouse, from the Fast Show:

“They must have had some sort of template in their minds for the kind of thing they wanted to achieve?

“Well, we both grew up loving Monty Python,” Higson admits tentatively.

But haven’t Cleese, Palin & co. inspired more terrible sketch comedy than anyone else alive?”

Just in case you can't believe your eyes, I'll reiterate that: You have just read a professional journalist asking a pair of professional comedians their opinion on a comedy-related question, and then, after they replied honestly, ATTEMPTING TO GET THEM TO CHANGE THEIR ANSWER TO FIT HIS PERSONAL PREJUDICES. There are more problems with this example than hubristic, self-serving cheek; even assuming that Thompson's rebuttal to the reply to his own question was correct, which it isn't, how would inspiring imitators of varying quality be any sort of comment on "Cleese, Palin & co"? It may be safe to argue that Shakespeare "inspired" more terrible plays and scenery-chewing soliloquy than any other playwright, but what the hell does that have to do with the quality of the Bard's work? Or the right of any of his fans to identify themselves as such?

This passage is nothing more than sophistry in the service of laziness, in the grand tradition of British rock journalism. Thompson's not trying to unearth meaning behind the motivation of a pair of comedic talents, he's trying to shame them into confirming his prejudices by threatening them with an alliance to talents from another era who happen to be on the critically fashionable outer at this time. And, in another long-held tradition, if you can't bash an artist, e.g. the Pythons, on the grounds that they present an inarguable body of quality work, then bash their fans, on the grounds that cool people are only appreciated by other cool people. Finally, note the "admits tentatively" following Higson's (supposedly) shameful admission - this comes within 20 pages of an interview with another comedic team who roundly mock this EXACT manipulative element of print interviews - "he whined, bitterly," "he screamed, before standing on the table and urinating freely - we all laugh cynically" etc, etc, etc.

Another common fault with this school of criticism (and one which I also associate with the Poms, perhaps unfairly) is that it mistakes a watery spoonful of self-deprecation and a few yards worth of ironic distance for the high-caffeine brew of genuine self-awareness. Thus the heavy-lidded eyes of the habitual cynic, behind which are concealed the tired old hypocrisies of an unexamined, third-hand Weltanschauung. (It is possible, I admit, that the reason this flaw is so glaring to me is because it's one I share, but recognising this possibility won't help us look at Thompson's work, so let's drop it for the moment.) Sunshine on Putty is absolutely rife with these hypocrisies. To cut Thompson some slack, it must be said that humour is a more critically subjective matter than music. As a critical field, comedy hasn't been colonised to anything like the extent pop music has, and thus Thompson is more likely to find himself lost in a sparsely-populated area, far from accepted wisdom and forced to rely on his subjective judgements. I have no problem with that, per se - the problem is hypocrisy, as I said. What your Q/NME/RS journalist does in this situation is to work backward, e.g. construct a spurious critical rationalisation for a judgement which is wholly subjective. This is a lot more obvious in comedy, because, as I said, the touchstones of accepted opinion are spaced much further apart, and thus the author has a much harder time conveying certainty of purpose as he meanders, lost, across the moors.

Here's a straightforward example, made prominent by the frustrating fact that it's part of an interesting topic - Thompson calls it the "Post-Hornby Mindset," meaning...well, I'll let him explain:

"What might reasonably be termed the Post-Hornby Mindset generally presents itself as a bluff, common-sense riposte to outdated intellectual hierarchies (which, in one sense, is exactly what it is). And yet the positive discrimination – for the consuming masses, against the talented individual – which it also entails actually corresponds far more closely to the oft-bemoaned notion of ‘political correctness’ than anything the overcompensating erstwhile liberal elites of the late 1980s ever managed to come up with."

This is a bit clunky but a damn good point – a damn good point completely undermined by Thompson himself committing this same logical error all the way through his own fucking book. Not only that but, as this paragraph (and his entire surrounding chapter) prove, he seems completely unaware that he has just described himself – and the entire old-school rock-journo tradition - rather too well. For instance, like all good old-school music writers, Thompson has a great big pulsing stiffy for the nebulous, semi-subjective quality of ‘Authenticity’. This is the exact quality which a writer like Nick Hornby, and the ‘consuming masses’ who make up his supposed audience, is thought to possess, and which, in the mind of the British critic, lifts him above the ‘talented (but ‘inauthentic’) individual’. Thus, of course, Thompson hates Ben Elton. He does this for many stated and unstated reasons, but, demonstrating the slapdash construction of retroactive critical framework mentioned above, Thompson bases his dislike for Mr. Elton on two sturdy old rock-journo piles: 1- He's shit, and 2- He's a sell-out.

On point one, having myself discussed the subjectivity of the comedic experience, I'll try and avoid saying that Mr. Thompson is simply wrong about Mr. Elton. I will say that Thompson reviews Elton's 1996 show, which I saw live. The hypocrisy surfaces immediately, as Thompson crisply outlines the "15 good minutes" of material “held hostage” in this two hours of “rapturously received” entertainment. I can agree that the show I saw was also rapturously received, by which I mean that I, and the majority of the crowd, thought the majority of the show was fucking hilarious. I can also add that I bought the recording of the show (which contained a good 45 minutes of new material, Elton being a sublimely talented stand-up comedian who can customise half his act to suit any particular audience), and played it to many people, from my stoned friends to my sober Dad, who all enjoyed it thoroughly. So straight off, in (again) the Q journo tradition, Thompson has defined himself as the kind of person who can sit in a room full of people enjoying themselves "rapturously" for 2 hours, hating the performer and the crowd around him for lacking his discriminating taste. OK, sure, perhaps you’d feel the same at a Britney Spears concert, but this is not music, it's comedy. There is a primary positive response indicator – audience laughter. Not only that, but it's a very infectious response, at least for the genuinely objective critic, as proved by the hyperbolic blurbs on the DVDs of most live stand-up shows. Thus, if the comedian is succeeding enormously, despite the critic's personal judgement, yet eliciting negative reaction only from the critic, we're really only left with two options – 1 - that everyone in the crowd is a mindless dildo, or 2 – that the critic is not merely outside the comedian’s intended audience, but actively in opposition to it, meaning that the critic has a personal agenda against the performer, thus rendering his commentary, at best, subjective.

On point two, in terms of the comedian’s career, Thompson judges Elton at his high point of schmaltz. This was, incidentally, four years after the stand-up show mentioned above, which doesn't stop Thompson disingenuously quoting Elton in order to make him appear dated - putting words into his mouth, for instance, about designer lagers and unrealistic car ads. The fact that these are running jokes in Elton's stage shows, that they well illustrate the overriding, evolving theme of Elton's stand-up, or that Elton bothers to even HAVE an overriding, evolving theme, unlike 90% of the performers mentioned in the book, is not deemed worthy of mention. Nonetheless, the turn of the millennium was a tough time for Elton fans. Some hacky novels (Dead Famous, anyone?), a decidedly patchy directorial debut (Maybe Baby), and of course We Will Rock You, Thompson's high-point of loathing - Elton's scripting and producing of a stage musical/rock opera, based on the songs of Queen, set in a lo-fat satirical dystopia. Yes, that's pretty embarrassing (though, let's be honest, not much more embarrassing, on the surface, than a musical/rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard who "plays by sense of smell,") but the fact is, tellingly, that Elton has always been a complete dag, usually self-confessed. In my mind, yet never consciously in Thompson’s, this is the great sin he considers Elton to have committed - being thought of as cool (during the Alternative comedy heyday), being ‘revealed’ as not cool (by following daggy personal projects, getting old, getting married, and not talking about ‘Thatch’ as much as he used to), further compounding his uncoolness by being vocally unashamed of it, then FURTHER compounding the whole thing by basing entire stand-up acts around the "tidal wave of 'Style' bullshit" that we swim in every day:
"I'm doing this show for the people who wear the anoraks! They wear them cos it's cold outside -which it fucking is - not to piss off the editor of 'Loaded' magazine."

But, of course, though the difference between what is cool and what is not cool is the very foundation of the old-school music journo mindset, it is very uncool to admit or even mention this. So instead Thompson hits Elton with the creaky old accusation of being a sell-out, which remains the hipster equivalent of yelling "heretic!" despite being a borderline redundant concept in the sixties when it at least had some cultural relevance, now long since twisted into Gordian knots by the rationalisations of these self-same critical arbiters, after decades spent justifying Oasis, Bob Dylan’s latest lingerie commercial or the reasons why someone whose Dad was a brickie gets special dispensation beside someone whose Dad worked in an office. Even if you do consider commercial success in a number of heartfelt, but often cheesy, mainstream diversions to be an unforgivable sin against the artistic life, you must at least attempt to apply this across the board - Thompson's main man-crushes, Vic & Bob, are quoted earlier on, with grinning Northern cupidity, saying "We'll do owt for cash!" And indeed their career demonstrates this - game shows, sitcom remakes, cameos, variety shows, books, they even acted out an hour of Viz Top Tips, for fuck's sake. The only accusation of ‘sell-out’ that carries any weight at all is the one synonymous with the cry of ‘hypocrite’, which, in Elton’s case, is very telling, because Elton, apart from the odd ill-advised guilt-by-association public performance, began his career as a self-identified spotty, lefty nerd, and got older. Crap like, for instance, ‘We Will Rock You,’ is the logical extension of Elton’s unchanging nature. Nothing was objectively despoiled, nobody was hurt, good taste was the only loser. The sole accusation that can find its way around this logic, then, is Stewart Lee’s assessment that the entire production, from go to whoa, was nothing more than a cynical cash grab on Elton’s part - therefore he never really liked Queen, wanted only to make money, and inflicted the terrible fate of massive commercial success on his long-suffering and reluctant cast of dancers and musicians. The fact that the remaining members of Queen were wholeheartedly involved and approving of the entire exercise is rationalised by saying… Queen were never that good anyway. And it’s Elton who’s the cynic.

The accusation of 'selling out' is the fall-back slur of the old-school rock journalist, typically applied with a total lack of self-awareness: Their favourite artist is a sell-out, his favourite artist is a canny self-promoter, my favourite artist is an evolving creative force, slyly deconstructing the mainstream from within. Man. And as for being a wanker...well, blokes love to call each other wankers. It's an implication commonly used by the rock press, because it sums up that intangible distance between the hard-bitten, underpaid straight-talking writer and the deluded, derivative muso wanker with a private plane. But, as Mr. Elton points out, if we were actually honest, the epithet "wanker," would be an entirely meaningless term, along the lines of "eater" or "breather". Be careful who you call a wanker, and be doubly careful, Mr. Thompson, of people you loathe to an irrational degree. Quite often it's because they exhibit traits which you're ashamed of exhibiting yourself - an inability, for instance, to recognise one's own presumptuous wankery. (When referring to Elton one could certainly narrow down the accusation of selling out by making cash doing cheesy, fun things critics hate to the more specific accusation that spending half his career doing anti-establishment jokes about Thatcher and the Royals, then following the latter on stage at a terrible charity gig to do safe material to a crowd of showbiz cock-heads, sends a mixed message. It’s telling that Thompson never bothers with this level of detail, however. To him, Elton’s primary sin is that he tricked us into thinking he was An Authentic, then he went and became An Entertainer. The general fact that if the former wasn’t the latter from the very start then you would never have fucking heard of them is a big hole in the ideology of the Authentic Artist.)

Another problem with Sunshine on Putty is that Thompson's loosely defined comedic era exists most strongly within the confines of TV, and even here there are plenty of omissions - highly successful shows produced within the nineties which fall outside the purview of the new comedy movement defined by Thompson and his tastes - A Little Bit of Fry & Laurie (too Oxbridge, and too funny to prove his point by comparison), Red Dwarf (too nerdy, and too funny to prove his point by comparison), and Men Behaving Badly (A mystifying exclusion - it's an old-fashioned sitcom with a laugh track, but it's A- a touchstone of the "New Lad" movement which Thompson discusses several times, and B- at least a precursor to the social realist/self-referential aspect of the comedy movement Thompson claims to be investigating. MBH had an entire episode where the characters did nothing whatsoever except watch TV while drinking beer and talking shit, five years before The Royle Family came along.) Generally, though, where TV is concerned, he makes a good case for the emergence of his new movement.

It's the stand-up stuff that really lets him down, however, Elton or no Elton. The Perrier award comes under flak on various occasions, including in the author's own CV paragraph, where he notes that he has refused to join the judging panel on several occasions. Leaving aside the question, "what kind of twat complains about an award because it's regularly given to people he doesn't like, then brags about refusing an invitation to make sure that it isn't?" We are left with more straightforward hypocrisies. Lano & Woodley, controversial winners in the early nineties, were "horribly awful," despite, regardless of personal taste, having undeniable roots in the vaudeville tradition and the work of inarguable genii like Abbott & Costello, Keaton and Chaplin. This is worth noting because Thompson invokes the vaudeville tradition, like working men’s clubs, a LOT - whenever, in short, he needs to retroactively assign influences to people without mentioning the Alternative comedy movement or anyone from Oxbridge (except Peter Cook, of course – an honorary Authentic because he drank a lot, shat people off and never achieved that bloody awkward mainstream success). He has to avoid these bloodlines because, as we have seen, the idea that anybody Thompson likes being influenced by the two biggest British comedic movements of the last thirty years is anathema to the man’s loose thesis-slash-opinion. What have a pair of (self-described) clowns such as Lano & Woodley done to offend Mr. Thompson so greatly? It can't be winning the Perrier, because he mentions this accolade positively when it comes to comedians such as Frank Skinner, Jenny Éclair, and Peter Kay, who A- he likes, B- he devotes page space to, despite their borderline irrelevance to the book's purported topic, and C- are all less funny and unique than Lano & Woodley. Mr Thompson's first book lacked focus, but it was really just a collection of critical writing under a vague thematic banner. Sunshine on Putty has a stated focus, but this makes Thompson's prejudices, digressions and hypocrisies much more apparent. I can forgive him two-out-of-three, because he's often prejudiced toward, and digressing into, matters that I find fascinating even out of context, but the last is harder to pass, especially when he’s throwing the accusation around in every other direction than his own.

To bring up Lano & Woodley one last time, having roots in the vaudeville tradition is no better or worse for your comedic credibility than having roots in the quantity surveying tradition - the important part is whether you're funny or not. It is as ridiculous to be automatically biased against anyone from Oxbridge as it is to automatically favour anyone with a working class accent, and doing so only makes more obvious the defunct state of the critical tradition the reviewer belongs to. There's nothing wrong with being overtly political, if you're funny. There's nothing wrong with being completely apolitical, if you're funny - another of Thompson's many, many hypocrisies is that he practically cringes off the page with embarrassment whenever the subject of the loud-and-proud political polemics of your Eltons and Sayles comes up, yet, according the old-school rock journo tradition, any artist utterly removed from the politics of the day lacks a certain credibility, so, in the same tradition, Thompson simply ascribes implicit political messages, should none exist, to the work of people he likes – comedian Caroline Aherne cops these extraneous rationalisations for half an interview before telling him that it sounds like the kind of bollocks an arts reviewer would come up with, out-sneering Thompson in one deft move. Bolting your thesis to an incognizant comedian’s perspective doesn’t validate it any more than omitting the obvious makes it vanish - pretending that a pair of middle-aged comedians who specialise in punchline-absent stream-of-consciousness nonsense could be uninfluenced by Monty Python is as stupid as pretending that the comedians who immediately followed, grew up on, and in many cases worked alongside the Alternative movement owe nothing to it either. Arguments which beg the question are inherently flawed, viz:

“If the League of Gentlemen can renew their pledge of allegiance to the wretched of this earth…then they might have it in them to revive that great maverick tradition of British comedy filmmaking which seemed to expire with Monty Python."

DID the League of Gentlemen ever sign a pledge of allegiance to the wretched of this earth, whatever that means? ARE they aware of this contract, or is it just something critics know about? WAS there ever a great maverick tradition of British comedy filmmaking? (Pretending dozens of Comic Strip movies never happened, of course, because they featured casts of Alternative comedians,) DID this tradition, IF it existed in the first place, REALLY expire with Monty Python (or, rather, Graham Chapman, given that the other five are still working)? IS it not possible that Monty Python, despite committing the unforgivable crime of going to posh schools and being massively influential, simply made a bunch of great films, on their own, which made people laugh and achieved great commercial success? I dunno, but that’s five questions going begging from a one-sentence argument.

“It’s not Sacha Baron Cohen’s fault that he has more freedom to do what he wants than a black comedian would have. But it is his responsibility to remember this fact when he’s making use of that ethnicity-based licence extension.”

DOES he have more freedom than a black comedian? WHICH black comedian? Chris Rock? Dave Chappelle in whiteface? Paul Mooney? Or British black comedians only? Perhaps he does, at least in the UK, and here Thompson is not entirely begging the question because he has preceded this passage with an example, that being the scene in Ali G Da Movie where the titular character daks the Queen and comments on her depilated state. (According to Thompson, it's hard to imagine a genuine black comedian getting away with this; the idea that it's hard to imagine ANYONE getting away with this, a statement which pretty much sums up Cohen's entire career regardless of the race of the character he's playing, does not get mentioned.) This paragraph terminates a promising potential line of thought with a spurious but neat-sounding conclusion that begs half a question and fails to ask many others, including, to continue: WHY shouldn't a white man be able to laugh at and/or take the piss out of the most ridiculous manifestations of black culture, if the inverse allowance is taken for granted, and everyone does it at home when Jay-Z comes on TV anyway?

And, all together, once again:

“...(the final episode of Seinfeld)’s a brave step forward into the unknown; an unknown where comedy defines the limits of our lack of feeling, rather than the extent of it. Where Jack Dee selflessly offers the spare change of his humanity to the emotionally destitute. And four endlessly flippant New Yorkers embrace the possibility that perhaps the thing we need to be most cold-heartedly sceptical about is our capacity for cold-hearted scepticism.

Leaving aside the fact that Thompson just used the same example twice in a list of three examples, this topic forms a pretty good final chapter to his book, and a valuable mention of the negative side to the post-modern-ish comedy movement - its reliance on exploring the dirt and darkness of the human soul for purely comedic value, while underhandedly conveying that traditional morality is so, like, 1989. The first problem is that Thompson's entire critical ethos relies on the latter capacity for cold-hearted scepticism, and if Sunshine on Putty proves one thing, it's that he's not nearly sceptical enough about that capacity. Problem number two is that the situation described above simply doesn’t occur in the last episode of Seinfeld. By no stretch of the imagination do the ‘four endlessly flippant New Yorkers’ embrace the possibility that yada yada yada. They get humiliated and wind up in jail, but there is, as promised in Seinfeld and David's original mission statement, no hugging and no learning. The last lines of show involve Jerry, endlessly flippant as ever, bagging out George for his sartorial decisions in a decade-old callback line specifically designed to emphasise the total, American-Psycho-esque absence of any sort of character development whatsoever. It's simply impossible to imagine that Thompson missed this point while watching it, and I don't believe he's a malicious liar, either. Which leaves us with one option, summarising, again, the biggest flaw of both the book and the critical style it espouses: There's a touch of self-deprecation, in that Thompson allows the possibility of another negative aspect to his beloved comedic movement, but a distinct lack of genuine self-awareness, most specifically toward the critic’s willingness to make horseshoes out of the truth to shod his thesis. Thompson, one cannot avoid concluding, cranked out this paragraph because it neatly fit his argument, then allowed himself to misremember, throughout the entire drafting and editing process, the final episode to perhaps the most beloved TV comedy of the nineties. That's not just lazy - it's deluded.

What I learnt

Though I suspected it after reading P.J. O'Rourke's On The Wealth Of Nations, Sunshine On Putty confirmed for me that the most engrossing non-fiction is the sort where I'm 100% interested in the topic, but only 50% in agreement with the author. It's a mental wrestling match where you're constantly pushed out, forced to analyse your own opinions and prejudices, then drawn inexorably back in again. Admittedly this makes for a distracting read, but, on the other hand, I get to enjoy the book for twice as long because I spend quadruple the normal amount of time staring into space and trying to decide if my wrinkled nose is due to rational disagreement or the noisome odour of fried opinions.



In short

Title: Sunshine On Putty
Author: Ben Thompson
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 0007135831
Year published: 2004
Pages: 459
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Journalism