Tough Crowd: How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy, Graham Linehan, Eye Books, hb, 288 pp, £19.99, reviewed by Edward Dutton
In the summer of 2000, queuing up outside the Almeida Theatre in London to attend Celebration by Harold Pinter, your reviewer noticed, standing behind him, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, the writers of Father Ted, the most beloved sitcom on TV, and the creators of Big Train. The latter brilliantly played with conventions and did something new with a tired, decades-old format – the sketch show. Celebration itself was a comedy which explored darker themes, such as incest, and which tried, albeit in a clunking way, to highlight the poignancy of life beneath a veneer of humour.
There is nothing “clunking,” however, about Tough Crowd, the autobiography of the creator of two of the best sitcoms ever, to wit, The IT Crowd and Father Ted. A superb read, it examines the vicissitudes of his career as a comedy writer. If you want celebrity gossip, this is present in abundance. For example, it transpires that Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted, was a prima donna who took calls about other jobs during rehearsals and who assumed that any ban on mobile phones didn’t apply to him. Such is the mind-set of the narcissistic thespian.
The standard stories you would expect are all here: how Father Ted was conceived, how to write a successful joke, how jokes are tested, refined, and thought of. And there are also childhood recollections and revelations. Linehan never went to university but began his career writing about film and contemporary music for the Irish press. He subsequently turned to comedy sketches, submitting them to shows such as Alas Smith and Jones.
As Linehan notes, comedians have the opportunity to debunk power, privilege and pomposity. This was ever the role of the court-jester and helps explain why Father Ted was so subversive in 1990s Ireland. In the 1980s, there was still a “traditional society” in the UK that could be lampooned. The war generation ran the show and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. But gradually, the Marxist radicals of the 1960s took power, establishing a kind of cultural hegemony. In his 2008 series of The IT Crowd (by the way, he reveals that the Irish character, Roy, was based on himself), Linehan presented a character unhappy to discover that his girlfriend used to be a man. This type of humour was acceptable then, but the Cultural Revolution subsequently accelerated. Linehan even contributed to it, attempting to stop “Count Dankula” (Mark Meechan) from raising money for his defence when in 2018, he was put on trial in Scotland for uploading a video of his dog doing a Hitler-salute. This is an intervention that Linehan now regrets.
Linehan was bullied at school, though he does not go into detail. There seems to be a side to him that is easily upset; an insecurity, a volatile temperament, which led him to storm off when a different director was appointed for Black Books. Tough Crowd is an account of what was essentially a religious conversion. During a conversion experience a person’s identity can dramatically change. It generally happens to a particular psychological type; a type that is usually highly sensitive and creative. Linehan gives the distinct impression of being this type. He is now on a veritable mission to defend the arts, free-speech and comedy against those who, in his judgement, want to circumscribe it, notably activists of the Trans Movement.
Linehan recalls being driven out of polite society. Contracts were cancelled, work withdrawn, his family harassed beyond breaking point (he blames his divorce on this battle), his reputation shredded. He has evidently suffered financially, professionally and psychologically because of his involvement in the culture wars and his uncompromising critique of Trans ideology. The pusillanimous response to trans extremists of his fellow comedians and script writers etc appears to have been an epiphany. Linehan has discovered what William James called the “religion of the sick soul” in which a person who, on some level, has experienced suffering, realises a fundamental truth which they have hitherto been supressing. He has been born again, evangelically promoting this truth, burning with zeal and understanding reality in a new way.
Why, ultimately, is Tough Crowd so compelling? You feel as if you have just met the author in a pub; he has obviously had a few drinks, he seems to like you but he’s down on his luck and he needs to tell you his story.
[Editorial note, “A sad coda”, as Fiona Sturges remarks, “to a once towering talent” (The Guardian, 1 November 2023)].
Edward Dutton is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Asbiro University, Poland