Well, They’re Not Laughing Now

Comedy magazines aren’t always funny magazines.

Alongside the confected days of Cool Britannia, there was the emergence of the peculiar, unexpected and relatively short-lived rise of men’s magazines. These were not the typical gentleman’s periodicals, with their tailorwear or tips on carp maintenance or steam engine modelling, but ones with a particular edge, flavour and attitude not normally found in the cologne-daubed world of GQ and Esquire. They were magazines for those whom Sean O’Hagan christened in Arena in 1991, ‘new lads’. These were the new lads’ lads’ mags.

It was against this thrilling, if slightly soiled, background that another magazine was born. Deadpan was the UK’s first magazine about comedy. Issue one appeared in April 1994, a month before Loaded. The circumstances and conditions which led to this phenomenon probably lie in the editorial freedom enjoyed by magazines such as Loaded and Viz and the publication of attitudes and content freed from the strait-jacket of traditional periodical publishing. Its birth also coincided with the emergence of what appeared to be a bumper decade of quality British comedy.

Every generation boasts its own ‘Golden Age of Comedy’, claiming that auriphrygiate crown as its own, whether it is the generation of The Marx Brothers, Phil Silvers, The Goons, Monty Python, Morecambe and Wise, The Young Ones, Alan Partridge or, yes, even Mrs Brown’s Boys.

But the milieu of comedy in 1990s seems to stand out, in retrospect, as more special than most. In his autobiography, Watching Neighbours Twice A Day, comedian Josh Widdecombe offers a list that is pretty much stuffed with some of the best examples of modern UK comedy. ‘One of the best things about the comedy of the 90s,’ he writes, ‘was just how endless it felt. This chapter could have been about one of at least 30 shows that I loved and can still recite jokes from 25 years later.’ He lists a formidable number of 90s comedies including The League Of Gentlemen, Father Ted, Mrs Merton, The Fast Show, Harry Enfield And Chums, The Royle Family, Red Dwarf, Smack The Pony, The Adam And Joe Show, Shooting Stars, They Think It’s All Over, I’m Alan Partridge and that’s only two-thirds of the cake. This was the decade of Newman and Baddiel and their 1993 Wembley show, of comedy as the new rock and roll, of spectacular Mark Thomas activist agit-prop, of Vic Reeves Big Night Out, of Fist of Fun, of Harry Hill’s Fruit Corners, of Men Behaving Badly, Have I Got News For You, Brass Eye, and Fantasy Football, and of Pub Internationale. Ben Thompson’s Sunshine On Putty spends a largely incoherent book making the same case.

In 1994, the Best TV Comedy Series at the British Comedy Awards was Drop The Dead Donkey, the Best New Television Comedy was Knowing Me, Knowing You…,  the Best Comedy Film was Four Weddings And A Funeral, and the Best Stand Up was Phil Kay. This was also the ceremony celebrated for Milligan’s description of Prince Charles as ‘a grovelling little bastard’. The BAFTA for best comedy that year also went to Drop The Dead Donkey (against Desmonds, Rab C Nesbitt, and Chef) and Best Light Entertainment programme was Rory Bremner- Who Else? Later that year saw the arrival of The Vicar of Dibley and The Day Today, with Father Ted, Fist Of Fun and Mrs Merton to come the following year.

Against this backdrop, the stars probably augured well for a magazine dedicated to chronicling and celebrating British comedy. Deadpan was published monthly and its final edition, 14 issues later, appeared in May 1995. For a long while, it seemed, a lot of people wanted a magazine about comedy; they even wanted more magazines about comedy because two more began publishing shortly after (the one-hit wonder, Comedy, with its unfortunate cover star, and Comedy Review). Until they no longer wanted magazines about comedy anymore, and all three folded.

Deadpan was bankrolled by DMC publishing (which also published Mixmag) and edited by David Davies (who also edited Mixmag). If there was one thing DMC liked, it was getting value for money. Davies later went on to become editor-in-chief of Q Magazine and FHM, Editorial Director of Heat Magazine and Grazia, CEO of Phaidon Press and is currently Chief Content Officer of Ascential. ‘I was editor of Mixmag and it was going well,’ he says, ‘and we started to think: was there another magazine we could launch?’ 

It started small, but was very highly motivated. The magazine was ‘basically me and Dan Prince,’ says Davies, ‘We both had some Mixmag duties but our main focus was Deadpan. We liked the comedy scene it was a hot time with lots of new comedians coming through. Looking back, I realise we were very UK-focused and I guess that’s because our horizon was really the live circuit. That probably limited our appeal but, on the other hand, we were quite pure and sincere in trying to capture the magic of this scene that seemed to be blowing up in front of our eyes. Reflecting on that now, I don’t know how much we were covering a great moment in British comedy or just whether it was all new and fresh to Dan and me.’

Deadpan’s basic structure was tri-fold and, in keeping with many new magazines of the time, was rather laddy. The front section was normally reserved for comedy-related news items and short, comic pieces in the form of jokes or puzzles which rarely hit the mark (a regular feature was ‘That’s Shit’ in which readers would submit items from the modern world which they considered to be less than satisfactory). The second part, however, was where it demonstrated its strength, with pages devoted to live comedy reviews, interviews with comedians and comic performers (such as Robert Newman, The Hole In The Wall gang and, even, yes, Jimmy Jones) and columns from comedy luminaries. The final third of the magazine was given over to reviews of comedy books, TV, radio and films, and listings for live comedy shows, like a specialist Time Out, edited by Keith Dover. It was not a cheaply produced magazine. It was gloss stock, included colour photos, was lavishly illustrated and employed some star columnists. Stewart Lee had a regular column, as did Barry Took (disgorging his secrets of comedy in Barry Took’s Comedy Masterclass); Tim Cook began a gossip column from issue 11, and Malcolm Hardee published a monthly diary (The Secret Diary of Malcolm Hardee 44 1/2).

The magazine even launched its own national comedy tour in association with Rizla, kicking off at Jongleurs in Camden in 1995 with Rob Newman, Phil Jupitus, Boothby Grafoe and Gayle Tuesday (Brenda Gilhooly) headlining. ‘Club nights had been a big part of Mixmag’s success,’ says Davies, ‘so we were keen to find a similar formula for Deadpan. There was a great PR firm who believed in us and worked with us to take the tour idea to Rizla. And it did go very well but in the end that too drained our confidence as it didn’t seem to impact our sales.’

And, in the end, that’s what did for Deadpan not the lack of talent or creative enthusiasm or the willingness of comedians to take part but sales. ‘We just couldn’t sell enough copies,’ says Davies. “I think we were doing about 10,000. We could have broken even at 15. And we began to lose confidence that we could see a way to get there our sales weren’t growing every month like they had with Mixmag.

Looking at the first issue now, it is a comedy time-capsule in which your memories are provoked by the acts, the adverts and the youth, and where the vividness of the recall is only matched by the realisation that the comedians who stayed the course once had hair, even Harry Hill.

Five months after Deadpan’s launch, a competitor appeared, and then rapidly disappeared. IPL Magazines’ Comedy launched in September 1994 with Russell Bell as editor and this seemed a much more sophisticated affair, with heavy paper stock, cover design and design layout mimicking those of the glossier men’s magazines that were entering the market. For a magazine about comedy, it also had a daring travel feature on Iceland and a restaurant column written by Rat Scabies.  It also featured a lengthy fashion item on expensive, if terrible, clothes, thereby emulating those peers it would probably have been better advised to avoid.

There were features on Leslie Nielsen, Alexei Sayle, Jonathan Ross’s wardrobe (written by Roland Rivron), and Tony Hancock. Its cover star was Craig Charles who, in July 1994, had been charged with rape and sexual assault. The omens were not good. Neither, probably, were sales and a second issue did not materalise.

A newcomer which did stay at least part of the course was Comedy Review, published by Future Publishing in March 1996. This was very close to the content but not tone of Deadpan. It featured interviews with or articles about Bill Bailey, Stephen Fry, Bill Hicks, Paul Whitehouse, Peter Baynham and Donna McPhail amongst others, and a column (‘A Letter From America’) by a young, tousle-haired newcomer called Louis Theroux (‘the tall, thoughtful one with glasses from the BBC’s documentary TV Nation’).

A staff writer at the time was The Yes Man author, Danny Wallace. ‘I’d been working in my spare time after school for a few years on videogames magazines at Future Publishing in Bath,’ recalls Wallace. ‘I met some very funny people, and one day I shared with them some tapes of On The Hour – the brilliant Radio 4 show starring Chris Morris and Steve Coogan and everyone else. It became our thing, everyone got into the Chris Morris shows on Radio 1, and it was like we were discussing bands. One night, an editor I’d worked closely with and shared the tapes with called Andy Lowe was out with a couple of my other friends. Around that time, Future was launching a football and a film magazine, and Andy and the others thought what about comedy?. They told me, and as someone who loved both comedy and magazines, I was obviously excited. So suddenly it was me, Andy, and an art editor called Matt in a very tiny office next to a science fiction mag who did not like our music, planning the first issue.’

Comedy Review did pack an awful lot into its 90-odd pages and was a very serious attempt at revivifying the comedy magazine genre. ‘We wanted to treat comedy seriously,’ says Wallace, ‘but with a light touch, and celebrate what we loved about it. We wanted to be grown-up and respectful but never pandering. We wanted to tell people why we enjoyed it, and why they might enjoy it too. Sort of professional enthusiasts.’ But, to no avail. It, too, folded. And there has not been another comedy magazine since, with perhaps the exception of the short-lived but much-admired Mustard, a self-published fanzine. ‘We were too expensive,’ says Wallace. ‘I think it was £2.95? £3.95? Whatever it was, it was too much, even though you’d get a cover-mounted cassette some months. One Friday night the whole thing was pulled. It was a real gut punch. I got drunk and bumped into the company boss in a nightclub that night. He put his hand on my shoulder and woozily said “I guess it wasn’t funny enough” I said, “It was never meant to be.”’

But there was something about 1990s British culture and the voluptuous magazine culture especially that nourished and encouraged magazines such as Deadpan and Comedy Review.  Says Danny Wallace, ‘It was, I think, a great time for magazines in general. They were really selling. New launches all the time. Young teams of people in their twenties. You had the excitement of the lads’ mags like Loaded turning up and writing freely and capturing a decade that – while problematic in all sorts of ways now – felt fresh and exciting and new.’ 

But there is, according to David Davies, little likelihood of a Deadpan-style revival. ‘I am sadly of the view that magazines are dead. Killed by Steve Jobs. Would I do it again? No. It was great and I am glad we did it. But not again.’ One of the earliest freelance contributors to the magazine was Sian Pattenden, now famous for her live Eurovision watercolours and interviews with bookish pop stars. She sees the failure of the magazine as more structural: ‘I’m not sure you can actually make comedians into pop stars if that’s what they were trying to do. And comedians are all over the TV, they don’t really need extra exposure. They do very well selling live tickets in most cases. It was very good-willed as a magazine, and a great idea, but sometimes magazines have a certain lifespan.’ Danny Wallace agrees. ‘I think it’d have to be on-line now, he admits, ‘for the simple reason that there’s just so much more content. There are so many more comics. There is so much more material. There is so much more news.’

The idea of the magazine as being a quondam, if perilous, home for comedian-as-pop-star is also something others have noted. Oliver Double, an academic at the University of Kent and co-founder of the University’s British Stand-Up Comedy Archive, was ambivalent on the matter: ‘I liked how well produced it was, but in all honesty I was a bit sceptical about what it was for. I think their rationale was that there are music magazines, and comedy-is-the-new-rock-and-roll so surely there’ll be a market for a magazine about comedy. My response was that people’s relationship to comedy and music are different. Music albums are listened to over and over and pop songs become the soundtrack of our lives. Comedy albums are famously destined to feel old after a few listens. I think comedy is much more ephemeral  and thus a magazine about it really needs to consider what it’s for. Crucially is it supposed to be a magazine about comedy or a funny magazine?’

Looking back at that roster of comedy gold the 1990s produced, it is perhaps not surprising that the mid-1990s offered fertile ground in which to grow some comedy shrubbery. But there was little irrigation, modest fertilizing, and the plants didn’t take. People may have liked comedy; they just didn’t want to read about it. Fast forward a decade or so and you have the Chortle website, Cook’d and Bomb’d and others that undertake what these magazines did but for our time. These, in a way, are our modern Deadpan. ‘What I admired about Deadpan,’ says Danny Wallace, ‘was the confidence it had and the fact it was ahead of its time in treating that kind of comedy in a mainstream way. It was trying to take something a little niche and genuinely get behind it and move it forward. And of course it outlasted Comedy Review by many issues and had some laugh-out-loud moments.’ 

That’s as fine an epitaph as any. And, a confession: I was the Deadpan writer who did the Jimmy Jones interview. From an Indian restaurant. In Benfleet. The 1990s: It was quite the decade.

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