The cackling peddler of brutal jokes about the most sensitive subjects is not for the faint-hearted, but his new standup show is relentlessly funny
If you thought Frankie Boyle’s monologues on his recent BBC show New World Order were too mild, this is the show for you. Repeatedly in Prometheus Volume 1 – receiving a handful of performances on the fringe – Boyle tells us this or that joke was censored from TV. And you can believe him. This is an hour of terrifically brutal material and one only hopes the man has a strong mouthwash on hand backstage. But it’s wickedly funny. Boyle is in the meanest streak of his career – the gags are still ruthlessly well honed, but the targets are more deserving and there’s a radical worldview to back up the radical insensitivity.
Joke for joke, and assuming you have a dark sense of humour, this is one of the most relentlessly funny shows around. That’s partly because Boyle wastes no time on pleasantries. Not for him the overarching concept or autobiographical back story. It’s usually just one gag after another, each one attended by a whiff of sulphur and that strange sound you get when people laugh and recoil simultaneously. “Scotland’s Jesus”, runs the title of a recent Boyle book, but as he cackles at one more joke about paedophilia, rape or drone warfare, it’s another of the Bible’s dramatis personae – the one with the horns and the forked tail – that leaps to mind.
Some will find the harsher material too strong to stomach, and I sympathise. Earlier in his career, I struggled with Boyle’s brand of showy cruelty, especially over the span of an-hour-or-more’s standup set. To his notorious gag 10 years ago about the Queen we can now add a gothic routine about an occult Prince Philip infiltrating his soul into Princess Charlotte’s body. And to those who argue that rape jokes implicitly advocate rape? “Nothing could be further from the truth,” deadpans Boyle. “I’m completely neutral.”
It’s not as if he’s mellowed. Yet Boyle has changed. Yes, the royal family material is abusive for its own sake, but it’s also angry about the propagandist way the Windsors are represented in British public life – hence the breathtaking “joke” about Prince Harry’s concern for the mental health of Arab shepherds killed by air strikes.
Elsewhere, Boyle takes pains to redeem the cruder lines about sexual violence, with a routine about the inappropriateness of the word “predator” to describe rapists. And as for the gag about seas full of abused and slaughtered children? Well, it’s about the super-rich, although I confess that that barely excuses the relish with which Boyle animates his vision of oligarch-paedophile Armageddon.
But if it’s sometimes horrible, it’s horrible in comically baroque style. His similes are as unexpected and weirdly lurid as ever – as is his response to the adage “you only regret the things you don’t do”, which involves two corkscrews, an anus and an “unlubricated parsnip”. And it’s horrible, usually, in proportion to the horrible lies, hypocrisies and violence that Boyle’s reacting to.
Much has been written about the inadequacy of modern satire in the face of, to coin a phrase, the new world order. Mock the Week isn’t going to save us. Boyle’s comedy may not do so either, but I’d give his recent TV show and his confrontational, complacency-busting live work considerably better odds.
Along with routines about Theresa May (“the worst person at controlling a party since Michael Barrymore”), the incompetence of our Brexit negotiating team, and the idea that Isis terrorists are posing as refugees (which dissolves into a hysterical roleplay), there’s more innocent material, too. One sketch features the two Frenchmen who originally attributed genders to nouns (which Boyle himself admits is Eddie Izzard après la lettre), and there is another – amusingly idiotic – about his life unlived as a shouty binman.
At one point, Boyle advances his acid test of a comedian’s worth, which is: “Do the security services have to silence you?” Give or take a Lenny Bruce, this isn’t a bar many comics could (or would want to) vault. And I doubt MI5 will lose much sleep over Boyle’s gags about Ukip’s new pro-gay agenda, or the feeble state of his middle-aged ejaculations. But, if neither Boyle nor anyone else can honour the letter of that standard, at least Prometheus Volume 1 honours its spirit. It’s a comedy show that is simultaneously resigned to its own impotency, and determined to fail only in a blaze of inglory. Sick, cynical, alarmist and bleakly amused, it makes for gruesomely funny comedy.