As the Scottish election staggers to a slow run, as Japanese reactors shudder and Libyan despots fume – indeed as the whole crazy modern world beats incessantly on our foreheads – I will admit to one escapist pleasure that literally helps me through the lows of a day: really daft, unrepentantly quirky comedy.
There are two Scottish practitioners, both embracing the web as props to their humour, who are particularly joy-inducing at the moment. Limmy you may know from his BBC Scotland comedy shows – and, for me, he’s also one of the most interesting creative figures in the country at the moment. But for now, let me introduce you to the bathetic genius of Swatrick Payze, otherwise known as SwatPaz.
I first came upon SwatPaz’s flash-based web animations on the diaspora site Dear Scotland, where he’d animated a Christmas message for them: a Santa (sounding exactly like Edwyn Collins) who got so distracted by his “intirnet-laptoap”, searching for Franz Ferdinand concerts, that half the weans missed out on pressies.
From that gentle start, what opens up is a weird day-glo projection from the Clyde Valley bourgeois unconscious – a pebbledashed commuter-land where a double-act called “Bearsden and Mull-guy” explore the same domestic weirdness and latent violence that the great Jon Kricfalusi explored in his Ren & Stimpy cartoons. Except they sound like censorious frumps and pedants overheard on a northbound train out of Glasgow Queen Street.
Great classic cartoon comedy – as exemplified by Chuck Jones or Tex Avery – is all about the timing. Specifically, the ability to pause momentarily in the midst of kinetic madness, or to repetitively focus or zoom in on an action or phrase, until it yields a laugh of recognition: Yes, I’ve dreamt of being that klutzy.
As far as I can see, SwatPaz has that timing to perfection. See “Living Room Telly“, or his epic of suburban pettifoggery “Terry Runders Kicks A Stone” – though the red sweaty outraged man in his recent promotional video for the Glasgow Short Film Festival comes close.
Scottish humour, like all ethno-linguistic humour, has always done a double service: it chops down the pretentious and the delusional – but it also confirms the specific language and rituals of the community. We are thrilled both by the delicious, dethroning savagery of the joke, and the way it honours the specifics of our most everyday expressions.
The continuity between Stanley Baxter’s Parliamo Glasgow from the 1960s (recently a promotional giveaway for a Scottish Sunday newspaper), and the idle animations of a jobbing digital designer from Scottish commuterland, to me is obvious and comforting. We Scots find out who we are – at least in our most stumbling and incomplete modes – through our humour. (It’s why I’m addicted to a US website called Old Jews Telling Jokes: I don’t get half of the cultural references, but I love the way that you can plug your own ethnic self-derision at the relevant place, so robust and universal is the structure of each joke.)
Who are we as refracted through Limmy’s world, though? Brian Limond’s second sketch series for BBC Scotland, produced through the incredibly consistent Comedy Unit, has just finished its run. It’s strange to say that a show played for laughs can be genuinely haunting and mysterious, but that’s what Limmy achieves.
He wanders through the most anodyne parts of Glasgow – the same high-rise courts and wastegrounds that Peter Mullan set his Neds – like a recording angel in smart-casual dress, observing (and sometimes portraying) junkies, jumped-up office pedants, essentially lost and rudderless men (and sometimes women) of all kinds.
Limmy is a guy wandering around a new-build estate, shirtless, repeating to himself: “She’s turned the weans against me…”. Next, Limmy is the happy guy who sells the neon “Open All Hours” signs to all cornershops in Glasgow – though when he closes each deal, a molotov cocktail is the calling card.
Honest to the sociological reality of his city, Limmy plays two drug addicts – one woman, Jacqueline McCafferty, whose “recovery” has completely fried any remaining empathy or social graces; and a man, Dee Dee, who is the perfect nightmare of workfare politicians everywhere, a half-awake sloth living and fantasising in his own domestic debris.
This is comedy as radar for sociopathy. What policy-makers and academics attempt to substantiate with acres of statistics and studies, Limmy picks up by simply not internally censoring what he sees and hears on the streets of polarised, many-worlds Scotland.
There are smart, efficient Pythonesque skits on subversive policemen, fraudlent psychics, incompetent spies. But sometimes, Limmy goes cosmic. There’s a brilliant sketch in episode four where Limmy buys a picture-frame that happens to open out into a parallel universe: in the face of this wonder, all his equally-cosmically dull dad can talk about are the details of an auntie’s minor ailments. There’s Bill Hicks here, but there’s also a cruel twist on Hugh MacDiarmid: “He canna Scotland see wha’ yet/Canna see the infinite…”. In this case, you can’t see the infinite because you’re maddeningly Scottish.
Limmy is a web-designer by trade, a Flash animator: his TV show is built on video-podcasts he’s been putting together since 2006. When you go to his homepage, you come across two sections called Playthings and Pictures, which has a list of web-experiments going back to 2000. The expected laddish cruelty is there, but there’s also surrealism and conceptualism – monstrous morphings of Limmy’s body tangoing with itself, or playing with serial samplings of a ned’s request: “I’m freezin… gie’s yer fuckin’ jaiket”.
Is this the multiphrenia of the chemical-and-digital generation – all these “dividuals” (as Gilles Deleuze once put it) chasing tiny intense experiences, unable and unwilling to hold themselves together? (OK, I can just imagine Limmy reading that sentence out on his Justin.tv livecasts.)
The Comedy Unit also produces Burnistoun, Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights and Gary Tank Commander. So never mind trailing-in-the-dust intellectuals like me – these are cultural entrepreneurs out there making “the national sphincter twitch on the velvet”, as one of their veterans, Phil Differ, once defined his comedy ambition to me.
I’ve been promoting the power of play for the last decade – and occasionally, somewhere in the world, I’ll get a response along the lines of “what does a dour, Presbyterian-defined culture like Scotland know about play?” I suppose a majority of Scottish managers in the English Premier League is one answer. But the super-modern, irrepressible energy of Scottish comedy is clearly another.
– For more on Scottish current affairs from Pat Kane, visit his ideas-blog, Thoughtland.