Chris Hallam made several excessive generalisations in his Correspondents piece about the lack of ‘right-wing’ humour last week.
First, Jeremy Clarkson has never claimed to be a comedian. Neither has James Delingpole (though it’s useful to recall the hilarity with which we greeted Marcus Brigstocke’s offer to beat up the rotten climate-change denier earlier this year). Neither is comedy the primary purpose of Boris Johnson. So... why mention these people?
We cannot extrapolate from all this that nobody on the ‘right’ is funny. I don’t even think we’ve proved that Clarkson isn’t funny.
I do not hold with Clarkson on many things politically, but I have yet to see anything on the modern UK circuit that is funnier than the Top Gear 2007 US Special. I have yet to see anything, in any stand-up belonging to the left, the right or the indifferent, that gives a more incisive or excoriating view of American small-town self-importance than the Top Gear 2007 US Special.
I have yet to hear, in any comedy pit in the capital where ‘edgy’ comics preach small portions of reheated wisdom to the long-ago converted, anything one tenth as daring, reckless or memorable as a man driving through Alabama in a car that has ‘Man-Love Rules OK’ scrawled across it, as Richard Hammond does in the Top Gear 2007 US Special. It was important, too; the sort of thing that needed to be done. Like a white comic tackling racism. Except that this was funny.
I accept that this makes me a bog-dwelling mollusc who belongs in a primordial swamp. I understand, entirely, that this point of view excludes me from almost all comedy car-pool conversations.
I accept that I need to get out more, and possibly breathe the rarefied air of a modern comedy internment camp so that I too can sneer at such puerile prankishness from the turbid, flatulent waters of the communal liberal fishtank. But sorry, the Top Gear 2007 US Special is fucking hilarious.
But his most important point: ‘The comedy world is overwhelmingly dominated by the left’. No it isn’t.
The comedy world that I see every day is dominated by people talking about incest, and wanking, and the difference between men and women, the same as it was 15 years ago and the same as it will be in another 15 years. If the practitioners of this vapid art are on the left then that is to the left’s detriment, not its gain.
I know that the Huffington Post recently carried a piece from blogging psychologist Lori Day, celebrating the fact that US comics are the new liberal intelligentsia. But this is the US, where liberals are people who can find the sea on a map, and the intelligentsia are people who can staple the map to a wall without hurting themselves (for more evidence of this, see the Top Gear 2007 US Special).
It’s true that the American right is particularly ridiculous right now; the US satirist Lee Camp even managed to make Jeremy Paxman laugh when he described the Republican candidates as “Bobble-headed giggletwits” on Newsnight three weeks ago.
The rich feast of Republican pondlife over there has led to a comedic swarm: coastal, metropolitan, blue-state USA is a great place to practise comedy right now for anyone to the left of Archie Bunker. The Daily Show, if you’ve worked out a way of watching it illegally yet, gets funnier every night. But over here, there’s no such renaissance.
Perhaps it’s the Labour Party’s fault. Perhaps if our Parliamentary left wasn’t a phallanx of crooks, careerists and charisma bypass cases led by an adenoidal sea-squirt who has been sitting on the fence so long he’s starting to smell of creosote then we might be getting somewhere. Perhaps it’s all a plot; one that included keeping Mark Steel busy with a Radio 4 series.
So it’s interesting that Mr Hallam can declare the left’s domination of comedy without giving us a single name. Who, in Britain, is so overwhelmingly funny AND irresistibly gauche these days that they’ve captured the redoubt of comedy for the left? Has Stewart Lee done it all by himself? Was his Top Gear routine the entire battle? (I’m a fan, by the way, but is that it?)
At this year’s Political Animal in Edinburgh I saw, over the five shows I attended, a few well-intentioned attempts to talk about political issues. Most people tried to put a political slant on their usual material. Most people equated being political with being a bit snide about the whole satanic mess that is government.
Don’t get me wrong, it was all of a very high standard and thoroughly enjoyable. But I didn’t see anything that was going to get the status quo’s knickers in a twist the way the Tea Party gets about Bill Maher.
I’m sure there will be people dying to tell me about someone who, last Tuesday at the Ponders End Comedy Shed, did a brilliant point-by-point demolition job on George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. In which case I must assure you that nobody is happier about that than me. I hope it flies in the Home Counties. And I hope its creator performs it there even if - ESPECIALLY IF - it doesn’t.
Which leaves only Mr Hallam’s closing comment, that’right-wing people just aren’t very funny’. Well now, let’s see... PJ O’Rourke, Dennis Miller, Alfonzo Rachel, Theodore Dalrymple? Admittedly conservative humour lends itself more to reading books. But then, there is more to being funny - and being political - than getting 200 vaguely liberal 20-somethings to sneer at something they already hate.
So I must ask what, exactly, we mean by ‘left-wing’ comedy, because it seems to have moved away from its sense of being of, and for, the people.
Take Clarkson, for instance. He’s an anti-intellectual who is beloved of millions who claim the title ‘working class’. He excoriates the Tory Party along with outlandish, ‘unBritish’ things like charity and, um, Shakespeare. His books get sold in WH Smith right next to those of Katie Price.
He would tear the roof off Highlights Watford, because he is a man of, and for, the people. He is horrible. The people are horrible. And the intelligent left hates him not because of his pronouncements but because he underlines how thoroughly irrelevant the comedic left truly is in Britain, when the working class (such as it is) is horrible, and doesn’t give a shit.
If ‘the left’ is about to break out into a second coming of the Alternative Scene then it had better make a start soon. It had better find some new heroes. And its footsoldiers should do more than grumble about the economy in shared cars, while wending their weary way to Tory provinces that still have well-attended comedy nights.
None of which will be as funny as the Top Gear 2007 US Special.
- Liam Mullone writes and performs unfunny right-wing comedy all over the UK.