by Frankie Boyle
304 pages, Harper Collins
Review by Pat Black
“I’m so old, my pussy is haunted” – Frankie Boyle, in a section entitled “Things you’d never hear the Queen say”, Mock The Week.
There are all kinds of comics, and all kinds of jokes. Some of them cause a bit of a stir, some outright anger. If we imagine public acceptability of gags as a diagram of a penis, comedian Frankie Boyle isn’t located on it anywhere – not even under the helmet. He’s a pungent stain on the edge of the sheet. You think it’s tea, but it’s not. Then you drop the sheet and back away, aghast.
Frankie prefaces My Sh*t Life So Far, his autobiography, by explaining how much he hates celebrity autobiography culture. He went even further in an article in The Guardian in which he said: “There aren’t any publishers I think you’d confuse with leading philosophical thinkers of the day.” This was uttered during an interview ahead of the publication of this book, in late 2009.
Frankie always seems to be in trouble. As a stand-up comedian, this helps keep him in the headlines. The trouble is, well, that he’s in a little bit too much trouble now. He made a few jokes about the Paralympics opening ceremony the other night, and these seem to have triggered a massive backlash that had him, uncharacteristically, going on the defensive on Twitter.
These gags included: “The Saudi team must all be thieves,” and: “That athlete’s personal best was al-Qaeda assisted,” and: “So. F*cking. Horny”.
It seems that even Channel 4, his spiritual home since he left the BBC’s current affairs panel show Mock The Week, where he became a household name, might be about to pull the chain on dear Frankie.
Boyle was born in Glasgow in 1972. A south sider, he was brought up in Pollokshields and attended Holyrood Secondary School – a state school, but far from the worst in the city, as he admits. This book traces his journey from a working class catholic upbringing in Scotland’s biggest, dirtiest city to stand-up comedy, TV work and national fame/notoriety.
His formative years are gone into in some detail: he was born in a tank, a sentient pair of spleebs and ginger fuzz with a protein coating. A bit like the pink stuff you find at the bottom of the bin. Imagine it twitching, just as you apply the bleach. That’s him.
Just kiddin’ Frankie. It’s a joke. All of it.
To get the embarrassing stuff out of the way early doors: I’m a big fan of Boyle. The book provides ample evidence of his talents. If you have a robust sense of humour – and by that I mean, if you’re a bit of a sick bastard - he is very witty, and very funny. I have one of those ball-aching “I saw Frankie Boyle before he was famous” stories, too, being a fellow product of his home city - like bicycles, tarmacadam, alcoholism, sectarianism and domestic violence.
He was compering a Saturday night stint before a packed crowd at Jongleurs comedy club in Glasgow city centre. Even then, he was an edgy presence. A giggling specky imp sucking from a can of Diet Coke, his act as a link man mainly consisted of singling out the luckless people who sat at the front rows or got up to go to the toilet, and slaughtering them. One man who was on a work’s night out with six women is probably still cringing from the slagging he got that night. Boyle was very, very funny, and dealt with hecklers with a style and ease I’ve never seen since. Everyone was terrified of getting out of their seats when he came on; a tsunami of people headed for the loos whenever he turned away from the mic. That’s a rare power to have.
The line of humour and sociopathy in his material was not so much blurred as smudged into one pulpy mass, as if by grubby fingers on a third-hand scuddie magazine. This event would have been in late February 2003; the reason I remember this, apart from the debauched night out that followed the gig, is because it was the night of the second Space Shuttle disaster.
Frankie Boyle makes a joke about Space Shuttle disasters in this book.
The shock factor of his style of comedy and the fact he does not appear to give a f*ck about anything are borne out from the very first page. Frankie’s greatest hits include comparing the Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington – a lovely young woman who does not appear to have done anyone any harm, and is very pretty – to someone looking at themselves in the back of a spoon.
Most famously, he had a go at Katie Price, the former glamour model turned… whatever she is. On Tramadol Nights, Boyle’s 50% shite sketch show, he wondered if Ms Price had taken in with a mixed martial arts fighter in order to have someone on hand who could fight off her blind, disabled son when he grows big enough to try to rape her.
Now bear in mind that Katie Price, while being inexplicably popular among people whom society would not miss if they were quickly and cleanly executed, is hardly Britain’s most beloved woman. But the outrage that joke created still continues to reverberate whenever Boyle’s name is mentioned, like a fart in a crematorium.
Someone who could be described as one of Britain’s most beloved women is her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and that takes us back to the joke at the top.
Frankie gallops through his early life, sparing few details… well, he does spare a lot of details about his family life, in fact, other than that his brother was quite anxious as child. Curious.
His secondary school days are well-covered, and they remind me of my own, spent in a place I loved but which was not topping any European affluence leagues at the time, or since. Frankie describes teachers walking out of the school gates to head-butt teenage gang leaders, “like Dirty Harry”, and one boy being taken out of school after having had his head put through a wall by a gang for having “looked the wrong way” at someone. Chillingly, Frankie recounts one teacher’s reaction to the decision taken by the poor lad’s mother – incredulity that a parent would do this in response to extreme violence, as if there’s something shameful in it. As if the fault lay with the victim.
This chimed with me. How many similar experiences could I recount? There’s one lad’s terrifying ordeal, hanging by his fingertips from a wall above a 30ft drop onto unfinished tarmac and broken glass, while some older kids attempted to stamp on him; there’s the “Crocodile Dundee” knife fight in the yard where one lad pulled out a bread knife, only for the other to pull out what may have been a Gurkha kukri… something impressively big and shiny, anyway. There are times that I think to myself, “everyone reckons they went to a mental school – everyone talks up their crazy school antics”. Perhaps. But perhaps someone actually did go to the most mental school. Mine wasn’t the worst in the scheme, I can tell you; the protestant schools were far worse, obviously.
It's a joke, folks. Not to be taken seriously.
Frankie Boyle at least still lives in Glasgow, so he must love it – whereas I f*cked off about a year ago, so Frankie Boyle wins. Glasgow runs through Frankie’s comedy DNA the way syphilis rampages through the synapses of a street jakey bellowing from his street furniture pulpit. There’s a raw psychopathy to a lot of the humour in that city. In some ways it’s a reaction against grim life, a generation or two on from the time when there was a genuine working class at the shipyards and foundries, which in itself was one of the first generations of that place to enjoy running water. If life is hard, you have to either learn to laugh at it, or let it consume you. Put it this way, if your father is attempting to drown you in dirty dishwater, you need to think fast to get a chuckle out of him.
This type of male humour, endemic in the shipyards, factories, foundries and industrial units, amounts to bullying, with every weakness torn to pieces. Billy Connolly’s work was part homage, part reaction to the humour of such workplaces, massive yards where the men poured in early in the morning and poured out into the pubs at night.
The Big Yin’s early stuff was an affectionate, even psychedelic, look at working class life as he strove to break the bonds of society and convention. He’s a lot nastier in his golden years, but it’s the meanness of a crumbly grandfather, sitting in a soiled floral print armchair with his wallies in a glass and a face like a slapped arse. Though I will tell anyone who will listen that Billy Connolly is the greatest comedian of all time; no laughing matter, there.
In contrast, fellow Glaswegian Boyle’s nastiness is a straight-faced, ingrained reaction to grim life. Boyle won’t sing any funny wee songs about wellies and night buses any time soon, though I would like to hear any poetry he feels compelled to compose on the subject of divorce.
Basically, you have to learn to laugh at some life conditions, especially if you come from a poor background, with drink, sectarianism and violence surrounding you.
In fact, Boyle’s Glasgow reminiscences remind me of the death of my father. I was lucky enough to hear his last words: “I pulled every one of those punches ya POOF.”
But there’s a hidden side to Frankie, one that he’s shy of showing us. He mentions being in a debating society at his school, and that it did well in national competitions. He also took part in the drama club, and was talented enough to appear in TV productions as a young teenager. He uses the time-worn excuse of “it’s because I wanted to get off with girls there”, but possibly glosses over the fact that he got involved with these things because he liked performance and debate.
I didn’t go to any drama clubs or debating societies. No such things existed at my school. There was a guitar class held at lunchtimes by the school chaplain and a nun - an alternative dimension Sonny and Cher - in a sexually charged atmosphere so dense that even haggard 14-year-old onanists fled in tears. It was beyond humour, like something out of the f*cking Thorn Birds. Or so I like to imagine. And you know what? There’s a part of me hopes they did it.
Anyway, you get a feel for the bookish, geeky guy Boyle undoubtedly was. His more fantastical comedy sketches (some good, and some kitten-mincingly poor, are reprinted in the book) are full of references to aliens, mad professors, giant crabs and other pulp sci-fi tropes. He lists Gene Wolfe as his favourite writer, is effusive about his love for comic books, and drops many references to Michael Moorcock. I can imagine Frankie getting these books out of the library and having his mind opened by them, as much as the political books he also favoured. Somewhere, in the city’s budget-squeezed shibboleths of literature, Frankie’s finger-prints and perhaps a flake or two of his old spunk can still be found on some of the PVC book jackets.
I wanted to know more about Frankie’s means of escape; because if you live in a grim eight-in-a-block, with your chief source of nutrition being fungal spores inhaled directly from the cracked lintel, then you can bet you need to escape every now and again. And if you can’t take an external journey, you’ll happily take an internal one. It’s no surprise that a lot of Glaswegians turn to drink and drugs, frankly.
I can well remember staring into the spaces between the woodchip wallpaper in my room when I was a child, and allowing my mind to drift, to far-off places, stories and fantastical adventures. I get the impression the author was the same.
What also tickled me is the fact that Boyle counts himself lucky because he didn’t experience the real, deep, near third-world poverty which his parents and grandparents would have encountered in Glasgow. I feel some of that shame myself. If I got new clothes or toys at Christmas, or when I got a tape-loading home computer one year (as Frankie and his brother did), then by Christ I was made to feel bad about it. An Amstrad CPC 464 becomes a formidable weapon if your older brother should so desire to utilise its 8k ram capacity in such a way. They didn’t half make computers chunky in those days, eh?
But Frankie’s comparatively comfortable upbringing would still have been a million miles away from that of more affluent kids in the same era. As he says about the poor teenagers he taught in Edinburgh, some people have no chance – they’re not in the reckoning when it comes to life. “They were never even invited to the party.”
University life for him in Birmingham and Sussex was a blur of alcoholism, drug experimentation and not having much sex, so that’s another area where Frankie’s history and mine intertwine uncomfortably, like two scouts in the same sleeping bag. At least Frankie got to see places as exotic as Aston in his student days; I stayed in Glasgow, attending one of the universities which is not Glasgow University. Way to go, Doogie Howser.
Anyway, Boyle also had stints working for the civil service, then at a psychiatric hospital, and then a short-lived gig as a teacher at a tough school, all of which helped his evolution from a person of use to society to a blabbermouth comedy c*nt.
Boyle is loyal to the friends he’s made on the circuit – indeed, I recognised the laconic North American guy who guested on his Boyle Variety Performance TV special less than two weeks ago as one of the men who appeared on that Jongleurs bill all those years ago.
Boyle’s done alright for himself; it emerged during the confected storm-in-a-teacup tax stramash earlier this year that he’s earned millions off DVDs, tours, TV shows, appearances and writing. Comedy worked out for him, although it seems the drinking and drug-taking nearly killed him in the process. His former appetite for excess is one of the main areas Frankie is totally up-front about his difficulties in life.
The book can either be viewed as a collection of jokes with a life story threaded through it, or vice versa. Both are equally compelling and there is a belly laugh to be had on every page, and sometimes every sentence. If Frankie never reappears on television then I’d be quite happy to buy more of his books. God knows, we all need a laugh.
But there’s also a philosophical bent to a lot of his writing, and some deep political convictions which he can’t altogether disguise. One tract on how we worship money and will go to any lengths to monetise every experience in order to give it legitimacy seriously disturbed me, long after the laughter had subsided.
Latterly, he’s also talked about how having children has led to true love for the first time in his life – no sniggering, please! – with children providing the tender feelings which you were always told love with a partner were meant to engender. These sentiments are lovely, but they probably aren’t why you’ll watch a Frankie Boyle show.
What I will say about Frankie’s controversial jokes is that we all have a threshold. I didn’t like his material about Rebecca Adlington. I could probably list about five more swimmers who deserve abuse before she does, never mind sportspeople or women in general.
When it comes to unwarranted trolling, I take a very dim view – it’s just bullying, nastiness, people with big, big issues looking to feel better about themselves by mocking the weak and the innocent. When people defend internet trolls, I find it bizarre that such nasty wee c*nts are somehow held up as being guardians of the freedom of speech. There’s a moral component being missed out there. It’s a bit like halfwits from the United States who say that every gun massacre is a necessary sacrifice in the name of Americans’ freedom to bear arms. Which I am sure would be precisely what goes through your mind if some lunatic points a high-calibre firearm at you in a shopping mall, before a bullet does.
But when it comes to what is obviously a joke, well… censuring it is a very slippery slope to take indeed. It’s a tricky one.
Frankie’s in trouble over some Twitter gags about the Paralympics, which I repeated above – and I did laugh at them. To me, they weren’t as potentially offensive as his comment about the late film director Tony Scott: “Credit to him for doing his own stunts.” But that seems to have passed notice.
I can’t be a hypocrite, here. I’ll let you in on some gags I’ve made to my friends on email since the Paralympics started. One on Stephen Hawking: “He urged us to look to the stars, not at our feet. Understandable, because Hawking’s feet must look like someone mashed two jobbies together.”
And one on an attractive Paralympic runner with prosthetic limbs: “You wouldn’t fish slice her out of bed.”
I wouldn’t dare vocalise these jokes at work, or just about anywhere else, in fact. But I did make them. No matter that it was to friends in a closed environment; they came from my mind. Context is key, if you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head.
Granted, you may not be as warped as me. But to criticise Frankie Boyle for humour that you use yourself is rank hypocrisy. And to put things in context; being outraged over a comedian making a quick gag, when we tolerate things like benefit cuts for disabled people during the Paralympic Games – well, that really is a joke.
But I should stop here. This has gone on long enough. In the course of his book Frankie Boyle has a description for all critics of comedy. As this description must include me, then I’ll leave it with you and take a bow.
** Author’s note: I’ve edited this piece to remove some terms of abuse and one or two other references which went over the score. In case it needs pointing out, the thrust of this article is satirical; it’s a parody of the author, and his jet black, often cruel comedy. Even so, I couldn’t countenance one or two things being left on this site, even written in jest. If anyone read these in the original and were offended, I am sorry.