I’m watching a short clip on YouTube. I’ve watched it twice already before clicking on it again. It’s is twenty-one seconds long; in it, a man walks through a dreich-looking housing scheme, early morning, streets deserted, shouting, ‘She’s turned the weans against us.’ Arms extended in a show of disbelief, the man is wearing tracksuit bottoms and a jacket, no top beneath the jacket, his pale and paunchy belly visible. He says, ‘She’s turned the weans against us’ a few more times before the sketch ends.
Despite the number of times I’ve seen that sketch, it still makes me chuckle, despite not observing the notional ‘rules’ for structuring a joke: no set-up, call-back, or punchline. If I had to settle on a reason the sketch is so funny, my guess is that my laughter grows from a sense of recognition; the scene is as familiar as it’s absurd. It’s a truth not universally acknowledged, but true all the same, that to live in Scotland is to encounter in the street, sooner or later, an inappropriately-dressed radge shouting something bizarre.
The sketch was written, directed and stars comedian Brian Limond, better known as Limmy. Over three series of Limmy’s Show and, now, two short story collections, Limmy has explored the wayward texture of everyday life in Scotland. Discussion of his work tends to dwell on its weirder aspects. Certainly, it makes for memorable television. In one sketch, a woman discovers her partner has taken to wearing a lampshade over his head; a friend who comes around to talk him out of it is persuaded to wear a lampshade himself; by the end of the show, the girlfriend flees an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers scenario where the residents of her apartment block, like her partner, all wear lampshades. Fear of conformity is a recurring theme.
What is less spoken about is just how melancholic the show is. If sketches often descend into a gratuitous nostalgie de la boue, they’re balanced by others which depict a tragic vision of relationships and work as limiting and frustrating, the consequences of which are mental illness, addiction and violence. One of his more memorable characters, Jacqueline McCafferty, ‘lost three year o ma life on heroin’ (pronounced ‘her-o-wine’) as she wastes no opportunity to share, while perma-stoned Dee Dee’s prospects are so shrunken, a trip to Yoker (ten minutes away by bus) is an adventure to ‘this pure fabled land that sounds like a pure mad egg yolk’. In another sketch, an insomniac Limmy is tortured by his own mind: ‘Hi, it’s me, your mind. Seeing as you’re awake I thought we might have a wee think about things, things you don’t have time to think about during the day. Some concerns, some worries. How are you for money?… Here, forget about that, it’s only money, so long as you’ve got your health. Speaking of your health, no long now, getting on a bit, eh….’ Limmy is a superb actor whose face can collapse into stricken looks you laugh at for fear if you don’t, your heart will shatter.
The son of a joiner, Limmy was born in 1974 and brought up in Carnwadric on Glasgow’s south side. After failing at college, Limmy spent a period depressed and alcoholic, and considered suicide. He began to recover after enrolling in a course run by the Job Centre teaching website design, which led him to start his own company. In his spare time, he set up a website that showcased animations he wrote and directed. BBC Scotland’s Comedy Unit came into possession of a DVD of his videos and he was offered a stand-up show at Glasgow Comedy Festival in 2007. He became known as an ‘internet sensation’ after several lo-fi comedy clips uploaded to YouTube and his Limmy’s World of Glasgow podcasts attracted a wider audience. After a successful run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, the BBC Comedy Unit gave him a pilot that aired in 2009, with his first proper series showing the next year. Even after making the transfer to television, Limmy continued to experiment online, making hundreds of sanity-bothering six-second loops on Vine while raising trolling to the level of an artform via his Twitter account.
Limmy’s Show won acclaim beyond Scotland, with comics Armando Iannucci, Richard Herring, Charlie Brooker, Graham Linehan, Stephen Fry and Matt Lucas declaring themselves fans. It’s surprising, as one might have thought his sense of humour so intrinsically Scottish, it would’ve been difficult for his comedy to gain purchase south of the border. His sketches are performed in unrepentant west coast accents and peppered with idiomatic Scots. Fans appear rarer on the ground, however, inside the BBC’s London HQ. Limmy’s Show was never broadcast outside Scotland except on BBC3 in the early hours during the week, a ‘best of’ compilation drawing on the three series he made for BBC Scotland. Non-Scottish devotees had to seek him out via the iPlayer. The BBC’s decision was perplexing, given that they awarded a national networked slot to the inferior if somewhat more mainstream BBC Scotland comedies Gary Tank Commander and Burnistoun. In 2013, the Guardian went so far as to write an editorial asking the BBC to air Limmy’s Show throughout the UK. Although there are reports he’s currently in talks with the BBC, Limmy no longer has a regular television show. After Limmy’s Show concluded, he worked on a sitcom centred on his character Falconhoof, which the BBC rejected, leading him towards a new outlet for his comedy: short stories.
Fans of Limmy’s Show will recognise the tone that runs throughout the stories that comprise his first two collections, Daft Wee Stories, published in 2015, and That’s Your Lot, published earlier this year. Although Limmy has often mocked the very thought of becoming an author – Daft Wee Stories is dedicated to ‘everybody that can’t be arsed with a real book’ – there is a certain logic in his move from sketch show to an author of short stories, the brevity of his tales, coupled with their dark and surreal tone, mimicking the quick fire feel of his sketch show; there are 29 stories in 314 pages in That’s Your Lot. And like his sketch show – like any contemporary sketch show – the quality control can be hit-and-miss, with the number of side-splitters and head scratchers about equal (although even Limmy’s less successful sketches still contribute to the show’s unsettling mood).
Given his concern with language, it shouldn’t be a surprise to Limmy or his fans that his attention would eventually turn towards literature. His zest for the modern urban demotic is matched only by his dislike of Americanisms, trendy words and incorrect usage. In one sketch, a friend offers Limmy ‘a muffit of tea’, provoking Limmy’s incredulity. He’s never heard a cuppa referred to as ‘a muffit of tea’, although a friend and his partner insist it’s a common phrase. In the next scene, despite misgivings, Limmy finds himself ordering ‘a muffit of tea’ in a café, only for his friend and girlfriend to appear, laughing. It was a joke! Giggling, Limmy says: ‘How stupid and weak-minded of me to start calling something by another name for no reason other than that’s what everyone else is calling it now,’ at which point, he stops dead, looks directly at the camera and says: ‘D’you know what I mean?’
That’s Your Lot is a more sombre collection than Daft Wee Stories. Whereas the cover of the first collection featured a Limmy grinning dementedly on its cover, That’s Your Lot is simply black, no details beyond the title, and reminiscent of a gravestone. Fear of deteriorating mental health haunts the book. In ‘New Life’, a man gathers his friends together to tell them he’s suicidal and will only survive if they never contact him again, allowing him to reinvent himself. Long-term relationships are depicted as sites of psychic agony that cause people to act out of character. In one of That’s Your Lot’s odder excursions, a man is so bored by family life, he develops telekinesis:
You couldn’t just be the type of bored you get when there’s nothing to watch on telly. You had to be a special type of bored. The type of bored you get when you’re stuck in a soft play with no connection on your phone, stuck with a family that you’re bored of. Stuck with a life that you’re bored of.
If it isn’t family life, it’s work that’s the cause of unhappiness. ‘The Dog’ exposes the emptiness of office life, the hollow shows of confidence upon which deal-making depends:
This is where the small talk usually happened, during the minute or two before the taxi arrived. He wasn’t sure if he could do it… Not today. If he could have come up with a good enough excuse to get away, he would have, something about being too busy to talk… Then he could rush off to his room or out the door.
Limmy’s ultimate statement on what office life does to the soul is Limmy’s Show’s recurring character Mr Mulvaney, a middle-aged corporate manager, drowning, not waving, who resorts to shoplifting and setting off fire alarms to alleviate his ennui, although any pressure his petty crimes might release is instantly negated by his comically unnecessary fear the police are after him. Watching a Mr Mulvaney sketch or two after reading ‘The Dog’ underlines where That’s Your Lot goes wrong. Whereas Limmy has proven himself adept on television at creating memorable characters, his short stories’ protagonists are to a man – and most of them are men, women relegated to the role of wives and girlfriends – anonymous.
The stories in his second collection feel hurried, under-developed and lacking a punchline. Daft Wee Stories was dark, but its nihilism was offset by a manic invention and blunt playground humour. There’s nothing quite as unhinged in That’s Your Lot, which, according to a recent interview, was his intention. Claiming to have been influenced by Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Alice Munro, he said, ‘They’re a slice of somebody’s life, with no particular punchline, no happy ending. It’s kind of like, that’s it, that’s your lot.’
Reading That’s Your Lot, I was reminded of a story from the previous collection, ‘Nothing Happens’. In it, a couple are watching a soap opera. The male protagonist Johnny is moved to comment that far from realistic, soaps, with their need to impose plots on their characters’ daily doings, are travesties of the everyday.
This was real life, this was realistic. Johnny thought somebody should write something like this, and stick it on the telly, or in a film. Or in a book. ‘Who’d want to read this?’ laughed Paula, flicking through the channels to see what else was on. ‘I would,’ said Johnny. ‘A story about nothing.’
Although things do happen in That’s Your Lot, with a surreal twist occasionally, the tone is so relentlessly downbeat, one often finds oneself at the conclusion of a story suppressing a shrug.
In case you’re wondering, ‘Nothing Happens’ ends with Johnny’s Knaussgard-like musings on plot minimalism being interrupted by an alien ‘Doom Ray’ that destroys the earth, a narrative coup of the sort That’s Your Lot misses.