What happened to British comedy?
No one really wants to punch up
This was first published in Standpoint in April 2019, but with the magazine closed for now and its website down, I’m reprinting here.
Britain used to be famous for being best at two things, politics and comedy. So while our political system may now be a laughing stock, when it comes to the famous British sense of humour… to paraphrase Bob Monkhouse, they’re not laughing now.
Complaining about comedians being too Left-wing is like complaining about basketball players being too tall. The personality trait openness correlates both with artistic ability and left-of-centre politics, so comedy as with other creative fields will always have a liberal slant. It is also the case that conservative ideas are obviously stupid and absurd, but paradoxically work, which is hard to turn into comedy gold where timing is of the essence. Edmund Burke would not make a great stand-up.
Most of all, as comedian Stewart Lee once argued in explaining why there are few Right-wingers in his trade, it is about ‘punching upwards’. As he put it: ‘You’re on the right. You’ve already won. You have no tragedy. You’re punching down.’
Lee was the last stand-up I watched live, in my heavily progressive, Remain-voting, upper-middle-class Bobo neighbourhood of Crouch End, and I’m a big fan. But his argument, while it may have been true in 1982 or maybe 1996 at the latest, is obviously not true now. His side have won, quite clearly, and that what’s killed British comedy.
Stand-up is the art of relieving tension caused by the norms and taboos we’re all forced to live by in order to rub along. Live comedy in Britain was once mostly working-class and apolitical, but from the 1960s it became far more Oxbridge-and-university dominated, and interested in current affairs and power. Humour was often aimed at the conservative social mores of the time, as well as the social institutions that enforced them, especially the Church, judiciary, monarchy, military and aristocracy — the ‘establishment’.
Today, with the exception of our miniscule armed forces and the royal family, no arm of the establishment is less progressive than the public at large (and even the royals are shifting in the Meghan Markle era). Whether it’s academia, the civil service, the third sector, legal profession, finance or the Church, the overwhelming majority of high-status people have broadly liberal social views.
When Dave Allen used to make jokes about Catholicism in Ireland, he was poking fun at an institution with real cultural and social power. His observations were funny because a lot of people had those same thoughts but were anxious about voicing them publicly. Today a comedian can rage against a Tory government for its welfare cuts, or take part in a night for asylum seekers or a people’s vote, but there is no tension there between social ideal and comic reality.
In the US, one writer coined the phrase ‘smug style’ to describe the way in which liberal comedians now flatter their audiences by showing how much cleverer they are than their intolerant, dumb-ass, rural Republican opponents. As the US stand-up comic Rob Schneider wrote: ‘Much late-night comedy is less about being funny and more about indoctrination by comedic imposition. People aren’t really laughing at it as much as cheering on the rhetoric.’
This was epitomised by Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, which now has a British imitation, the Mash Report. I find it painfully unfunny, almost a form of torture, but then I’m not the target audience, I’m part of the punchline. But while the smug style has been prevalent here for some time, as with everything else it has become worse since the referendum. Aaron Brown, editor of the British Comedy Guide, suggested that many popular comedians ‘have this air of intellectual superiority, using comedy to look down on those who see the world from a different perspective. The satire of the middle-class comedian towards those idiots who voted Leave.’
After the vote a number of parody Twitter accounts popped up making fun of bigoted Brexiteers, red-faced men called Barry or Gary, living in lower-middle class towns in the midlands and north. Where once political comedy punched up, now the mirthful laughter was thinly-veiled snobbery; indeed it wasn’t even veiled.
Accusations of ‘liberal elite’ snobbery from the Right always sound a bit disingenuous because none of the conservative commentariat exactly come from Northumbrian pit villages. I don’t claim to find all this offensive to ‘real people’, I just find it weak. There’s no unspoken truth erupting out of social constraints, and political comedy is ultimately about truths, often awkward and embarrassing. Progressive politics is highly moralised, a vision of how the world should be, which is one reason it’s a comedy dead end, and inevitably prone to intolerance.
Britain wasn’t always famous for its sense of humour. In the 17th century the English used to be known for their melancholy, and the comedy may have come about as a defence mechanism. But it perhaps also had something to do with the developing liberal political tradition, which was about trying to get on with people you fundamentally can’t stand. Think of Blackadder and his Puritan relatives, or Basil Fawlty with everyone. I suspect that in an age of progressive political dominance that begrudging, compromising spirit, the desire to muddle through and laugh, has died a death.