The good news is that Graham Linehan is still funny. Had you forgotten that he’s a comedy writer? I suspect he sometimes does as well. Tough Crowd, the memoirs of this much-loved humourist cum controversial gender-critical feminist, contains a lot of fire and brimstone, but it is very entertaining.
Comedy fans will be glad to learn that about half the book is devoted to Linehan’s career in television. Politics fans, meanwhile, might find themselves thumbing through Father Ted anecdotes and howling, “WHEN DOES IT GET TO THE TRANS STUFF?”
Dedicated comedy fans have always had a special respect for writers (mingled with resentment because we would have liked to have their jobs). We loved the Chris Morrises and Steve Coogans — but we also knew about Armando Iannucci, and Peter Baynham, and Arthur Mathews and, above all, Graham Linehan.
There is a lot to enjoy in these chapters. On Linehan’s early experiences of porn: “Little did we know that hole under the floorboards would become one of the few places where you can’t find grimly alienating pornography.” On an expensive new typewriter: “I couldn’t be doing with a keyboard that typed ‘AGGH!’ if you didn’t shut a door quietly.” I genuinely cackled at an anecdote involving Dermot Morgan, a pub and a murderer, but I won’t spoil it for you here.
Linehan muscled his way into writing through hard work, ballsiness and desperation to express himself creatively. He didn’t have a fortunate “Footlights” style background. He annoyed people until they appreciated the merits of his work — and what work he did. Father Ted is a joyous sitcom, Big Train deserves a fresh new audience and Black Books (based on a character invented by Dylan Moran) is wildly entertaining. Linehan has an exceptional talent for making characters both hideous and loveable. Even the drink-drenched pervert Father Jack has a sort of pathetic charm.
Tough Crowd features some valuable insights into comedy. The laughter of live audiences, Linehan suggests, which is often felt to be a bit contrived and cheesy, does not mean “being told to do anything; it’s about being a part of humanity”. Explaining his early fears that Father Ted might be considered insulting to his Irish compatriots, Linehan remembers thinking, “Were the Irish not allowed to be dumb, to be human, to take part in comedy? Because we were the butt of jokes, we’re not allowed to be funny ourselves?”
Anyone aspiring to a creative career (this author included) should take a sober lesson from the litany of failed projects Linehan recalls. No, not the projects that failed because cowardly moneymen and collaborators backed out of them after Linehan took his gender critical stand (though there are different lessons to be learned from that). Just think of the projects that failed because of the usual creative frustrations and institutional inertia.
Let’s face it, though. Most readers of Tough Crowd aren’t coming for the comedy tales. They’re coming for juicy gossip about the trans wars.
I remember Linehan’s online presence from when he was an irate left-wing demagogue posting under the handle @Glinner. So annoying was the vitriol that would get promoted into my Twitter feed that I made a mental distinction between Graham Linehan, the author of splendid comedy, and “Glinner”, an arsehole.
I’m not saying this just because I disagreed with him. He hunted down a young rhetorical opponent’s Facebook page and posted a photo of the poor chap with his mum, and he campaigned against the Scottish YouTuber Marcus Meechan’s attempts to raise money for his legal bills after he was taken to court over a joke video in which he taught his dog to do a Hitler salute. (It’s important to note here that Linehan has already apologised to Meechan and apologises again, at length, in Tough Crowd.)
Right-wingers can’t deny Linehan’s courage and determination
This background makes it especially ironic that Linehan has been cancelled — and there really is no better word to describe the professional and personal erasure he has endured — over his campaigning on the issue of transgenderism. His insulting behaviour had not been a problem when it was targeted against right-wingers. When his feminist beliefs led him to colourfully question the idea that men can become women (or vice versa), and that single-sex spaces should be qualified, and that children should be the subjects of hormonal and surgical treatments in an attempt to permanently alter their growing bodies — then doors were slammed shut in his face. The doors of employers closing were painful enough. The doors of friends were doubly so.
For an actual right-winger like myself, Linehan’s analysis can be a bit annoying. As a leftist on pretty much all issues other than transgenderism, he struggles to explain why the world went mad in the mid-2010s. Was the problem social media? Was it millennials? Those of us who think the “gender wars” are just another battle in the long campaign against the notions of inherited differences and traditional ideas may feel that these interpretations lack a certain explanatory power.
Still, actual right-wingers can’t deny Linehan’s courage and determination. How much have I sacrificed for my beliefs? Not much (so far). Linehan has lost hundreds of thousands of pounds and more friendships than I suspect I’ve had in my life. What would the world look like if we had such audacity?
(As a sidenote, Linehan references the left-wing academic and author Mark Fisher’s early essay on modern leftist intolerance “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and adds, “He was cancelled for writing it, and killed himself in 2017.” Fisher certainly received backlash over his essay but I’m not sure the implication here — if I am correct in inferring it — is warranted.)
Linehan writes with fire about the colourful abuses of truth and ethics that have emanated from trans activism. On social media, his writing can be such a blizzard of unfamiliar references that it’s hard to discern what he’s talking about, but here the rhetoric is more controlled.
At the risk of being patronising, I did find myself feeling a bit concerned for Linehan as I finished Tough Crowd. He admits to losing his rag in a way that might not always be productive. Remembering a time when people had been talking whilst his friend and Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews was performing onstage, Linehan writes:
I yelled at them to shut up so hard that I felt a vein pop in my eye. Arthur, like the Mighty Boosh when their turn came around, looked briefly undone at the weird, out-of-control screeching from some lunatic in the audience, many decibels louder than the drunken conversation that had prompted it.
A good event to bear in mind — not because it should stop one from speaking, but because it could influence how one speaks.
Linehan’s ire, and the backlash in response, has consumed his life. The section on his website for “everything that isn’t gender critical” contains a single entry. “Boy, have I suddenly got a lot of grist for my mill,” Linehan says of writing inspiration. “It’s almost too much grist. Maybe take it easy with all the grist!” He’s joking, but it really does sound like he should devote more time to other things — not because his theme is unworthy of his time, or that he’s unworthy of his theme, but because burning out will do no one any good.
With that said (and lest I sound like I’m killing the man with pseudo-kindness), I should once more accept that we right-wingers could often have done with more of the passion and determination of Linehan and his gender critical comrades. “If that’s the right side of history,” he writes of his opponents’ worldview, “then history can go fuck itself.” Stirring! You won’t hear that from a lot of conservative columnists.
I hope Linehan keeps his sense of humour, though. It’s what brought him here, and I suspect it’s what will keep him sane.
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