Words by Helen Knott
Ed Byrne warms up the healthy Town Hall audience with some amusing quips about the building work in Birmingham city centre. He takes the slightly generic line, “It will be lovely when it’s finished” and runs with it, extending it into a much funnier, and more topical joke. “You see all those signs for Carillion and think, ‘Oh fuck. It’s never going to be finished…”
Audience duly warmed up, Byrne launches into the gig proper. Called Spoiler Alert, he describes the catalyst for the show as being his concern about, “how spoiled we are, as people, as individuals, as consumers.” A lot of the material centres around Byrne’s concern that his two children are themselves spoiled. They go to a nicer school than he did, have better toys… “I’m raising two posh, English, boys.”
The examples Byrne uses to illustrate how spoilt his children are aren’t particularly horrifying. His children are able to watch specialised children’s TV channels, so they don’t have to wait until Saturday morning to watch cartoons. They ask for elderflower cordial and enjoy eating pesto. They aren’t particularly overwhelmed by an expensive trip to Lapland to meet Santa, because they saw him in Westfield shopping centre the Christmas before.
This is funniest when Byrne confides, “It’s all I have in me not to hate my own children”. And that he once considered letting his youngest child touch an electric fence as a “learning opportunity”. These kinds of thoughts quite likely pass through a lot of parents’ minds when their children are being difficult, but they’re rarely voiced publicly. It’s a little close to the mark for a number of audience members, who shift uncomfortably in their seats, as is a joke about wanking while camping and the section when he ruminates on the effect that getting divorced would have on his career (“a rich seam to mine”). It’s a gentile crowd, and I’m not sure that they’ve seen much of Byrne’s wanking material on the BBC.
It’s hard to take Byrne (a successful comedian with a big house and a nice car) seriously when he talks about how spoilt his children and the general population are. He starts the show by dissing the disappointing free snacks that he receives in tour venues. He complains about the – no doubt lucrative – corporate gigs that he plays. He criticises his tour manager for booking him into an arena in Derby, which he has no chance of selling out. There’s more than a whiff of “first world problems” about all this. I’m sure than Byrne must be making these comments purposely hypercritical to show that no one is above being spoilt; he’s too clever to lack self-awareness. But if we’re meant to be laughing at him as a character, he should ham it up a bit. In reality, it’s so cloaked under his cheery persona that you don’t really notice the absurdity of what he’s saying.
Byrne teeters on the edge of something interesting when talking about the way that we consume news. Instead of reading to challenge our opinions, Byrne argues that we seek news that is “tailored to our beliefs”. This probably is more prevalent than it used to be, with social media echo chambers trapping us into only ever reading views allied to our own. But Byrne’s example that we now only read newspapers that tally with our beliefs doesn’t completely ring true – there have been left and right wing newspapers in Britain for years; this isn’t a modern phenomenon. Still, spending some time teasing out how, in this regard, people are more spoilt than they used to be, and the impact it has on our political landscape, could have made for a compelling end to the show. Instead, Byrne quickly moves on and the point is lost between a weird rant about how semi-skimmed milk is indulgent and an unfunny anecdote about an author friend.
In essence, much of Spoiler Alert is a variation on the trope pedaled by grandparents the world over. Basically: “young people don’t know they’re born these days!” This would be fine if Byrne was exploring the topic in a particularly thought-provoking, novel or, crucially, funny way. Comedy doesn’t always have to be making a point and to have the aim of providing an entertaining Saturday evening for a roomful of people is completely valid. On the whole, Byrne achieves this objective, but too often the jokes and anecdotes meander without packing a punch.
For more on Ed Byrne, visit www.edbyrne.com
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