The tradition of “Roasting” is well known to US television viewers. Set-up to resemble a dinner party the guests at the roast will deliver a mix of anecdotes, insults and tributes to the honoured “roastee” who shows they are a good-sport by taking it all on the chin. Despite the attempts of Channel 4’s woeful “A Comedy Roast” the format has never really taken off in the UK. This is most likely because the trollish impulse of the roast is so ingrained in many British entertainment formats roasting has never been necessary. The peak of this tendency came in the late ‘90s when a number of British eschewed the polite PR driven format of the past (and future) and used the chat show format as a platform to troll their guests.
Clive Anderson’s All Talk became famous for its titular hosts constant interruptions and cutting one-liners at his guest’s expense. The incident though which probably seals his place in television folk-lore is when after a stream of insults The Begees walked off the show leaving Anderson, for once, lost for words.
Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton Show took a similar tack but used the Mrs Merton character to cushion cutting barbs in innocent bonhomie, like the online identities of internet trolls hiding behind a persona allowed her to say the unsayable. Her classic question of Debbie McGee “So what first attracted you to the multi-millionaire Paul Daniels” has gone on to be voted the second greatest TV one liner of all time.
Whilst this trolling of guests guests generated a fair amount of laughs an encounter with Bernard Manning showed the limits of this approach. (If you can stomach it the whole interview is on YouTube starting here) Over the course of a rather awkward interview Manning refuses to play ball by pointing out that she is in character and when she goes for her sharpest line and accuses him of being racist instead of the expected embarrassment or outrage he just admits that, yes he is a racist.
Once you’ve got a man sat opposite you who unashamedly admits to being a racist, what can you do? Make him say something more offensive? Try and make him change his mind? Even after he has admitted to being a racist there are still laughs. He goes on to boast about his achievements and belittle and bully both guests and audience proving himself to be as unpleasant reputation suggests. It’s a strange scene, who has been trolled Manning – shown up for the bigot he is – or Mrs Merton and those watching who have tacitly endorsed him by allowing him airtime? By this stage of his career though, Manning was primarily known for being a “racist comedian”, a strange curio for the mainstream entertainment industry to wheel out and gawk at, he was hardly likely to be given his own show at this point.
Since that infamous interview the kind of topics Manning became famous for joking about have crept back into the comedy mainstream under a veneer of irony. When the likes of Garry Bushell are laughing whole heartedly at Al Murray’s pub-landlord character something, somewhere has gone deeply wrong. An elegant essay by Jonathan Coe in the London Review of Books pin-points the problem inherent in the kind of comedy that attempts to troll for more than just laughs by dissecting Boris Johnson’s star-making appearances on Have I Got News For You. Ian Hislop tried to confront Johnson with his misdemeanour, unfortunately these accusations didn’t didn’t stick in the public mind – but the laughs generated by Johnson’s evasions did. It could be argued it is this appearance that has enabled Johnson to trade on his buffoonish persona for years to come whilst many people have ignored his policies. Trolling may sometimes help to take people down a peg or two but it can mean less than zero if the laughs are all you remember.
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