Laughter is Good Medicine – A Look at British Humour with Eurovision

Have the British public ever taken Eurovision seriously?  Many would argue, no. Why? I’m not wholly sure, but our attitude might be held accountable in some way for why we haven’t won in so many years (we’ve only recently escaped the grasp of our own Dark Ages of piss-poor Nil-Points entrants), and perhaps our tongue-in-cheek humour towards “Johnny Foreigner” has something to do with it as being a staple of our patriotic diet for hundreds of years.

Like a Punch and Judy act the mainland European nations and Britain have been jabbing each other with comical rubber batons since the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. Mostly all in jest but sometimes with an added bitterness.
Given our current break-up with Europe and the Russia-crisis cynical situational satire is ripe for the picking!

Some classic British comedy shows containing elements of comical international rivalry are known and loved throughout the world, such as Month Python’s Flying Circus (BBC), Fawlty Towers (BBC) and Blackadder (BBC). These comedy shows are universally timeless, if a little dated now. (World War II references are emotionally lost on many of the younger audiences. And we haven’t won the World Cup in, well, a while!).

But why did we find this funny, then? In a certain light it looks as though we were laughing at our European mainland neighbours, but I feel it was mostly intended to make us laugh at ourselves. Of course, there was an element of patriotism in the humour and much of our collective grievances were (and still are) released under the guise of ‘comedy’ – they always have been – but our national ability to stand outside ourselves and laugh at our own, often irrational, knee-jerk reactions towards certain things that other nations wouldn’t even bat an eyelid to is not so much a nod to our patriotic superiority but an acknowledgement of our own ridiculousness.

Fawlty Towers ‘The Germans’, 1975 (BBC)

Basil Fawlty’s famous “Don’t mention the war!” skit got a lots of laughs for a subject that isn’t, itself, comical, but his quintessentially British awkwardness towards it epitomises our tendency to lean towards cynicism of our own foibles, self-deprecation and surreal detachment (watch any episode of Peep Show or League of Gentlemen for reference). These days, that post-modernist ‘after-war’ patriotism in being able to laugh-at-it-all has turned into a pseudo-modernist scepticism, but we are still laughing at it!

Ours is the uncanny ability to not take a situation too seriously and be sceptical of it, which can oftentimes come across as quite flippant and offensive (and some ‘past-watershed’ comedians are horrendously offensive!) but it is a testament to our democratic freedom of expression, and we often take a critical view of said situation, particularly if we are involved.

 

Laughing at Eurovision
I’ve asked many of my UK ‘non-pro-Eurovision’ friends (and some Americans) why they watch the ESC. The most common answer is; It’s funny! or It’s just so stupid. I love it!
Is it though? One could argue that in recent years it’s been taken a little more seriously by contestants with truly talented entries, a decent grasp of the English language (the days of poor English lyrics are all but dead), and the slow death of gimmickry.

As a nation we tend to cling to it’s comic value more than it’s musical value. Ask any ‘non-pro-Eurovision’ viewer what their favourite entry of all time is and they are bound to tell you of a comical, gimmicky song that likely didn’t win but was memorably bizarre. My latest investigation lead me to the, high as a kite, Sébastien Tellier with ‘Divine’ (Eurovision 2008 – France) with the response from a friend being; “That’s what I call Eurovision!”

Radio and TV sketch shows across the UK have always had a laugh at Eurovision’s expense since it began in the 50s. Back then, our healthy jesting mockery was indeed peppered with the National patriotism (of the ‘winning’ side) remnant from the post-war era and much of the material is quite un-P.C now.
The way to appreciate the comedy today without taking offence is to remove yourself from modernity and take into consideration the context in which this comedy was created, and for whom. A post-war time of living witnesses to one of the biggest multi-national fall-outs in history. Laughter was their medicine.

I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, 1967 (BBC Radio) – Satirising the ESC with a mock Russian entry.

Britain was not the only one to see the funny side of Eurovision. Ireland’s own Father Ted (Channel 4) paid homage in the 90s with the episode ‘A Song for Europe’, in which Ireland purposely wants to lose the contest because it’s becoming too expensive to host – based on Ireland’s winning streak of the 90s during the actual Eurovision Song Contest. It prods at both the contest for the stream of hilarious and sometimes awful performances it produces (which are inexplicably popular), and at Ireland’s position within the ESC at the time.

‘A Song for Europe’ Father Ted, 1996, (Channel 4) – Ireland’s comical entry into the Eurosong Contest, “My Lovely Horse” (from: Channel 4, 2008)

In a recent issue of the satirical Private Eye was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Lys Assia, the late representative of Switzerland and winner of the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956.

                “Ms Assia… was the first winner of the Eurovision Song Contest back in 1856, when there was only one country competing (today, of course, there are 912, including Tierra del Fuego, Easter Island and the People’s Republic of the Moon).” (Private Eye, Issue 1467 (06-04-2018), p. 32)

Political much? If it’s Private Eye then, you bet! But what’s important here is not the political statement about which ‘honourary-European’ countries are currently participating in the Eurovision Song Contest but the fact that we are laughing about it. As I’m sure many other countries do.

 

Laughing With Eurovision
Speaking of politics (it had to rear it’s ugly head eventually) our Eurovision wouldn’t be the same without our commentators (the best-known and loved being both Irish).
Terry Wogan’s commentary made the event all the more memorable and enjoyable with his dry cynicism and down-right ‘piss-taking’ of the contestants. No doubt with a glass of Irish whisky in hand, getting gently sloshed throughout the evening and rolling his eyes at the notorious political voting between nations throughout it’s history.

Terry’s funny commentary (from: Adam xxx, 2017)

On a personal note, I wish I had been old enough at the time of Terry’s ESC hay-day to fully appreciate his witticisms. I remember it well, but being of a time when, to me, the ESC wasn’t of great personal interest further than being on in the background – and not being old enough to enjoy a drink – I didn’t appreciate his impact at the time. In hindsight, and with adulthood, I can see how important he was in our enjoyment of the whole event.

His commentary became so loved and appreciated because it was a true representation of our own feelings towards Eurovision. It was like watching it with an old friend as you both gradually got more and more merry and laughed, not only at the entries, but also at the politics. Terry canonised Eurovision for what it is now and how we love it today, and he set the bar high for anyone following in his footsteps.

Thankfully, that bar has been satisfactorily reached by his successor, Graham Norton. Why do we need a treasured funny-man to take that position? For the feeling of continuity and for the satirical comic element which is so embedded into our culture and which fuels our national enjoyment of Eurovision.

I once asked my Dutch friends whether they watched Eurovision. Not one of them said yes. When I asked ‘why?’ they explained that it was just boring. I almost spat my tea into their face with shock. ‘Boring?!’ How can that be? I invited them to an ESC evening where we watched the Grand Final on the BBC, with Graham’s commentary. They laughed all the way through and enjoyed the whole show. They described their own commentator as being somewhat dull and un-animated, as though he were commenting on a funeral procession or a snooker tournament (incidentally, my favourite sport). Despite watching the same show they were not having the same experience. Now, they remember me each year during Eurovision season and often watch the Graham Norton version in favour of their own.

Graham is one of the most famous – if not the most famous – commentators in the box and other countries are starting to acknowledge his humour (and, indirectly, our own tongue-in-cheek attitude towards Eurovision) as demonstrated at the 2014 Eurovision held in Denmark – which was also aired in China – when the presenters made a surprise visit to Graham’s box in mock-offence at his comical jibes.

Graham’s Danish surprise at Eurovision 2014. Look out for a pre-Game of Thrones-fame star! (from: Today’s World News, 2014)

Granted, these days Graham has to monitor his jests to BBC-friendly levels (more’s the pity), and he doesn’t seem to get as drunk as Terry did. Also bare in mind that we now live in an age where live streaming is available from any broadcaster to any country, which not only broadens his audience but also extends the field of potentially offended communities should he jibe at one of their beloved artistes or make a nod towards their own strategical voting. Thankfully, thus far, Graham hasn’t completely had to tone down the comedy that has made the contest so beloved in our eyes, yet.

Lately, we’ve also been playing catch-up with the scoreboard with some genuinely excellent representatives of the UK after Europe began setting the bar of quality higher. Hopefully, this won’t mean the death of comedy in Eurovision performances. There’s always room for a ludicrous gimmick, if you ask me!

 

Don’t Stop Laughing!
It’s easy to forget how important comedy in and around Eurovision is in our enjoyment of it, and within our culture in general. We are so used to having it as part of the aural and visual banquet that is the ESC that we take it for granted. But with political correctness being mercilessly allowed to destroy even the most innocent of smirks we have to be careful not to lose our sense of humour completely.

The day we take Eurovision too seriously is a day when it’s broad popularity will wane into only the niche of die-hard fans and serious music connoisseurs, and it becomes just another music contest to join the throng of “talent” shows out there with no distinguishing impact.

 

Other countries have their own sense of humour regarding their Eurovision culture – both new viewers and old veterans. America has joined the Eurovision ‘World’ party along with China and Australia, and is broadcasting ESC for the third year in a row with commentary by one of their beloved comic drag queens, Shangela. And remember Sweden’s 2016 mid-show entertainment piece? With Måns Zelmerlöw and Petra Mede, Love, Love, Peace, Peace’, was a direct spoof of all things we know and love about Eurovision history. You can read more about that in Rob’s ‘Favourite Eurovision Moments of all Time – Part 5’ (link)

Humour makes the entire event accessible to all whether watching with a sense of irony, or with mirth at the performances, or with a cheeky wink towards the voting (Irish whisky in hand). It is embedded into our Eurovision culture and is what keeps the ‘non-pro-Eurovision’ punters watching. Being able to laugh at the Contest with our very ‘British’ sense of cynical humour has made it a unique experience in the UK regarding, both, the performances and the politics behind it all, which has always been rife.

British humour has allowed us to laugh at ourselves and our relationship with the rest of Europe. We know we’re not a popular country at the moment, and no doubt that will be represented during the voting this year, but we know it and we laugh about it. We can laugh about other’s and our own short-comings as we share the same stew-pot of economical and political disaster, and there has been no better stage for this than Eurovision. I’m sure many other countries feel the same. Laughter is still our medicine. 

And for those of you wishing to practice your Portuguese for your Eurovision trip to Lisbon, here’s Bill Oddie’s melodic lesson in Portuguese romance:

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