March into the archives : Ben Elton

The following interview with Ben Elton was published in BMA Magazine in April 1997. Picture taken at his appearance in Canberra.

Ben Elton talks fast. His sentences overlap in a way that commas cannot do justice. Add to his manic monologue the delay of a transatlantic phoneline and you have an interviewee invincible to even the quickest interjection.

His output as a writer alone seems incredible, never mind the fact he's also a stand-up comedian. Since writing television highlights such as The Young Ones and later series of Black Adder, he's written the novel Stark and appeared in the adaptation, written Gridlock, the play Gasping and Popcorn, which is both a novel and a play due to open in London's West End.

Four months into his stand-up tour of the UK, Ben Elton recently answered questions on his prolific output and responded to the view his most recent novel Popcorn reads as an attack on the stylised violence produced by Hollywood.

"That's been misunderstood. I mean sure there's a lot of satire, because as you know, I take the piss out of myself and everything around me, but the initial inspiration was very clear. On the plane out to Australia from Britain, I'd been reading that Natural Born Killers had been banned in Britain because there was a real fear that violent movies directly influence people to commit violent acts. I'm less interested in that debate than what the repercussions of the actual debate are.

"If you have eminent journalists honestly saying 'I think NBK creates murderers' then if I were a murderer and got caught then I'd blame Oliver Stone. Amazingly that's begun to happen, well not because I wrote the thing, but I seem to have been about the right time because Oliver Stone is getting sued. Not by the villains, but that will be next, he's being sued by the victims.

"This is a dark and hilarious and deeply dramatic thing because where lies personal responsibility in that? Where lies justice? Are we to see a society where Hollywood producers are in prison for murder and murderers are on Oprah whining about how Hollywood rendered them dysfunctional?"

One observation is your heroes never get the girl. Is this something carried over from your personal life?

"Well, more recently I've been very fortunate and am married now and am very happy but I know what's like to be a straight git and we've all been there. My comedy tends to celebrate uncool. I like uncool. I think that people trying to be cool is a real worry for the world. We have this horrible term in Britain, an anorak. If you call someone an anorak, it's like calling them a dag. Well, people wearing fucking anoraks because it's cold and it rains in Britain, not because they're trying to impress anyone.

"I've always been on that side and I think a lot of British comedy has. If you look at Basil Fawlty or Rik in The Young Ones, they're about dags. Whereas American comedy, not to have a go at it because I think some of it's wonderful, but it tends to celebrate cool.

"If you look at the heroes of Friends, they're so wonderfully cool and even something brilliant like Seinfeld, they're still kind of cool at the end of it. They get the last laugh, whereas Basil Fawlty never did.

"I don't think that's better or worse, it's just a cultural thing. I think I'm in that tradition, so if my heroes don't get the girl or the boy or whatever, it's because I 'spose we're all scared of not getting the girl or boy and there's a lot of comedy in that."

So your characters flaunt their defects, like Zimmerman in Stark -- a masculine action hero without a dick.

"That's right. I like to see the heroism in not being very heroic. None of us live up to the images or whatever. Have a look at a McDonalds or a Coke ad and then go see the people eating McDonalds and drinking Coke, which is you and me. We just don't look like those models, do we? And that's where I base my comedy, it's in the real McDonalds."

What can you tell us about your new show?

"Well, it's two hours of brand new stand-up comedy basically. I never describe comedy because it always sounds boring and I always give the same example.

"In 1981 we went to the BBC to pitch the idea of The Young Ones to the head of light comedy there then, and he'd been told 'Hey, these kind of wild, mad people are coming in with this weird stuff.' And we sat in his office and he said 'So scare me, you're apparently the scary guys.' And we said, 'Well, it's this story about four not-very-clean people who live in a house together' and it sounded so weak we were about to crawl out and agree to do Terry and June or whatever.

"So I never try to describe a gag, you've got to come to the gig."