Grandad’s Back in Business

Monday, September 10, 2007 by

So what counts the most – youthful exuberance or aged experience?

Grandad’s Back in Business attempts to prove the world contains a legion of old people, all perfectly capable of employment in today’s society, cutting the mustard along with the youngsters. This week, two comedians were pitted together to see if fresh faced versatility is any match to old school charm and humour.

Representing the youthful contingent was Paul Smith, a rubbish name to have in the Google age. He is a young comic from Liverpool who derives the majority of his comedy from the hue of his hair – ginger. The start of his act was based, time and again, on his “yes, I am the g-word” gag, the punch line being gorgeous, not ginger, which was mildly amusing first time round but soon got rather tiresome. In fact, his entire routine concentrated heavily on his red locks, with puns about sun-burn, sun-block, and ginger nicknames repeatedly tossed to decreasing degrees of interest and amusement from the crowd.

And for the old school – why, it’s Alan Humphries’ dad from Grange Hill! Obviously the work at the timber yard dried up after that copper pipe went missing. Tony Barton has been a regular on our TV screens, not just chastising Susi’s mum, popping up in all the familiar places such as The Comedians and even a turn in Minder. He is first shown entertaining a gaggle of old folks in what looked suspiciously like a retirement home, then lamenting the lack of engagements in his bookings diary. His first performance in front of a youthful crowd displays all his weaknesses – he completely misjudges the situation, galumphing on stage to Ever Had One of Those Days before collapsing into tired homophobic gags and slightly racist material.

The job on offer is not made entirely clear, only that it entails an undetermined number of performances over a year at Jongleurs. It is the job of comic Ricky Grover to whip the two combatants into shape.

His advice is pretty sound, and he comes across as a man who clearly knows the business. He surmises that Smith deals badly with hecklers (his technique – just shout “shut up” really loudly at them), and encourages him to take part in a debating society to learn how to think on his feet. He takes one look at Barton’s act and decides it needs reshaping into a character piece, so rather than being a boorish old comic, he should merely pretend to be a boorish old comic, in the guise of Big Tony.

The differences between the two is clear from the start. Smith finds the advice difficult to accept, struggling to see the point of the debating exercise and unable to divert from the meticulously planned routines he writes for himself. Barton, on the other hand, embraces each new notion like an over-eager puppy dog. He makes out as if the character name Big Tony is the greatest moniker in history, even though it just points out that he’s a big chap … and that his name is Tony. He’s also over the top in his reaction to criticism and intensely annoying to his rival. Plus, he apparently lacks any conviction – on his first performance, he takes offence at the bad language, saying “he could never swear”, but as soon as Grover suggests the Big Tony character might benefit from a bit of profanity, the air turns blue. The younger comic, on the other hand, stands confident in his act, taking solace from his mum rather than his teacher.

Smith’s resentment of Barton is not without reason, particularly when they perform gigs after their tutelage and Big Tony goes down a storm. The younger man feels it unfair his rival can just peddle out these tired old jokes, which he hasn’t even written, and still get laughs, whereas he sweats blood over his own original material about ginger people. Grover has the final word on this, and it’s a fair point – he wouldn’t care if Barton stood there reading jokes from lolly sticks – as long as he got the laughs. As much as Smith improves – and he does considerably over the course of the programme – the experience Barton possesses means his timing and extensive databank of gags is a force to be reckoned with. And his new-found character gives him the opportunity to exploit those strengths.

But he doesn’t always hit his targets, and occasionally lets the character slip with the odd racist gag to reveal the tired stand-up under the facade. However, for all the ancient material Smith peddles, there is something quite rousing about an old-style comedian getting the youngsters cheering.

In the end, the job goes to Barton, and Smith is visibly gutted, but gracious in defeat (the punchline to a Barton joke about Nelson Mandela by the way). Did they give the job to the right person? Well, I think not. The whole concept was unbelievable to start with – the very idea that these would have been the only two candidates for the position. But quite apart from that, Big Tony night after night would soon get stale, whereas Smith – once he stepped away from the ginger gags – had far more potential. That said though, this was an interesting, well made look at the world of stand-up comedy from two opposite ends, when experience in front of an audience surely means as much as the material.


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