It's not about class, it's about politics
Bethany Black on the 'old' vs 'new' debate
Is modern comedy bigoted against the working class, or is it that modern tastes are more progressive?
It’s an old argument that keeps getting dragged up by the old guard: That modern comedy isn’t funny, that it’s all people with degrees talking about badgers and jam and that it’s snobby and middle class. Chris McGlade, writing on Chortle yesterday, certainly thinks so.
Every few months it gets rehashed as an argument about ‘mainstream’ vs ‘alternative’ comedy, with ever more weight applied to the claims that ‘mainstream comics are all joke thieves’ while ‘alternative comics aren’t funny’. As a recent ‘mainstream’ comedian pointed out, these days the difference is ‘just a bunch of interchangeable middle-class kids in T-shirts and jeans instead of a bunch of interchangeable fat Northern men in frilly shirts and dinner jackets.’
Is that a fair assessment? Is there really a class divide between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’?
Usually when people try to show these divisions they juxtapose comedians rather than comparing like for like. A recent study that into the difference in class preference for comedy pitted Stewart Lee against Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. This instantly draws battle lines, but who is on each side? Is it Johnny Vegas vs Bernard Manning? Tony Law vs Jim Davidson? Frank Skinner vs Joe Pasquale?
Comedy works on shared experience or understanding, which is why stereotypes will always be prevalent in comedy. And the more accessible the shared experience, the more people will find them funny. Peter Kay, Michael McIntyre and Jason Manford all do very accessible, easily recognisable observations that make huge audiences laugh, Peter Kay's monster residency at the MEN arena and his tour show how many people are in the market to laugh at his brand of observations. McIntyre, too, goes from strength to strength, playing every bigger audiences.
It seems that it's Old School versus New School, mainstream vs alternative, working class vs middle class. But while there certainly is a class divide in comedy, there is as much a divide of race, of gender and of sexuality. Not only do people's tastes change, the middle classes are expanding, and their young people waiting longer to buy houses. So instead they spend their money on entertainment, overpriced clothes and iPhone apps – which is why the comedy industry is booming.
But I’d say that the main difference is not, as Chris class, but rather of political ideology.
The main difference between comedy now and comedy 30+ years ago is that it the ideology behind it tends to be more left wing.
McGlade asks: ‘Why is it then that working-class comedians like Manning or Brown are classed as bigoted or racist and are ostracised, yet middle-class comedians like Jeffries or Boyle, who do the same type of material, are classed as daring or ironic and are applauded and accepted? The hypocrisy is staggering.’ And on the surface that looks like an obvious point to make but it’s false logic.
Marx, in the Communist Manifesto says that the proletariat always fight among themselves or take pot-shots at the petite bourgoisie, and never look any further up the ladder to see who it is who's keeping them down. The racism, sexism and homophobia that's associated with ‘mainstream’ comedy comes from comedians like Bernard, Roy and Jim's refusal to change with the times and their continuation of peddling the same jokes.
I think a perfect illustration of this comes from comparing Johnny Vegas and Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. Both are northern, working-class comics, both of their material relies on them being low-status and gaining the upper hand or at least attempting to for short periods of time,. But while Roy's material rails against women and immigrants – people who on his audience might feel are getting the the upper hand every day – Vegas rails against everyone with a ‘normal’ life, as he strives for an existence where he doesn't wet the bed, where things go right, where his life is as easy as he imagines everyone else’s in his audience must be.
People vote with their feet. Until his death Bernard Manning was selling out gigs, Roy and Jim continue to do well because there is a market for their humour. I'd say that it wasn't working class humour but that it was a right-wing humour. There are few right -wing comics around, so they will continue to get audiences.
The Eastern European philosopher and cultural historian Slavoj Žižek suggested that inherent in all humour is the escape from the horror of the real: we laugh because we can't put into words the horror that we face on a daily basis, and that the act of telling a joke is an act of cruelty whether that cruelty is at the expense of the joke teller or the victim of the joke. With the right-wing comedians the victim is often someone who is gay, female of an ethnic minority, or possibly all three.
This line becomes blurred when you look at Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr's material which relies on saying ‘the unsayable’ and offending sensibilities. Who's to say that Jimmy Carr's sexist jokes or Frankie Boyle’s jokes at the expense of the disabled, or Ricky Gervais’s racist jokes are any different than the jokes of those right-wing comics?
But there is a difference of intent, what, as an audience, we're invited to laugh at,. When Sarah Silverman makes a racist joke you're laughing at her saying something that isn't justifiable. The logic works but is false, it creates an irony that we all know that she doesn't mean what she's saying, or at least that she doesn't mean it for the reason that she's saying because the logic is so flawed. Whereas when Bernard Manning said ‘Keep your friends white’ based on the tone of the jokes and the intention underpinning the routine, you know he actually means it.
There is the difference.
Personally, I think that as long as you're making an audience laugh a comedian is fulfilling their job specification. Different people like different things, and whilst class plays a role in this in this country there are bigger dividing lines, namely political opinions, age, race, gender and sexuality.
McGlade’s argument that ‘the rise of the fascism known as political correctness... is choking free speech and expression’ is untrue and again typical of that favoured trick of the right-wing press to make themselves look like they’re the ones whose rights are being taken away, to make them look like freedom fighters.
‘Political correctness’ is their favourite enemy, but what does it really mean? And how is it taking away freedom of speech. I’d argue you’ve got the right to say anything you want no matter how bigoted it is, but in doing so I’ve also got the right to tell you that you’re being bigoted. It’s simple. ‘Political correctness’ is just not saying something that will upset someone based on their race, gender, sexuality or religion. In real words, political correctness means ‘being polite’.
There is no overriding conspiracy of middle-class gay vegetarian Muslims stopping working class comedians from going on stage and doing ‘Paki’ jokes. Society’s changed, people voted with their feet and what was once alternative won, and there’s some cracking working class comics who are very successful: Peter Kay, Jason Manford, Micky Flanagan, Johnny Vegas, Billy Connolly, Janey Godley, Mick Ferry, Jason Cook, Justin Moorhouse, Sarah Millican... the list goes on and on and on.
What I love about live stand-up is that it is entirely meritocratic, the audience will laugh as long as you’re funny, and if you make an audience laugh then the promoter will get you back for paid work.
It really is that simple, if you want to do right-wing comedy there’s an audience for you too. It just might be a bit smaller these days than it used to be.
Posted: 7 Jul 2010