Snob gags

Dan Sweryt takes issue with comedy's supposed class divide

In concluding that the middle-classes use comedy to exert a cultural snobbery, sociologist Sam Friedman appears quite snobbish himself by equating ‘middle-class’ with ‘intelligent’. For a start, there are as many intelligent working-class people as there are middle (and upper-) class thickos.

The implication that intelligent comedy is a bad thing is also intensely irritating; the whole idea that it’s a cardinal sin to want thought-provoking, aspirational comedy. There’s enough rubbish on TV as it is, with the concentration increasing with practically every new commission. The likes of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and Brass Eye should be revered, not lambasted.

I’m an enormous fan of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle; in fact, I started the almost-utterly inconsequential online petition to bring it back as I truly believe this sort of intelligent programming is vastly overlooked. I also completely understand what irritates people about him: the long pauses, the unmoved monotone and the high-brow humour.

What people sometimes don’t get is the very thing that is funny: the fact that he doesn’t get why people don’t understand him pushes him almost to the edge. Anyone watching his ‘famous Travel Lodge routine’ routine will surely understand that here is a man questioning WHY people prefer observational comedy over his intensely thought-through piece, rather than looking down on them. He aspires to have them understand and appreciate it (if only for commercial value) in preference to him having to ‘de-spire’ to ‘easy’ observational stuff. While hanging off a balcony.

I do him a disservice here: if you have to explain it, it’s not funny...

Perhaps it’s just the degree of irony that’s missing. A certain level of intelligence is required to understand irony. As you slip into the mainstream, maybe some of that irony is lost. ‘Middle-class comedy snobs’, for want of a better term, have regular exposure to irony, so the non-snobs, the working-classes, in their protected bubble of limited intelligence (apparently) may simply be taking longer to get the point of seemingly high-falutin’ comedy, if it’s noted at all.

Cases in point are Little Britain and Al Murray: as they appeal to more people, the irony appears to get lost. Both of these acts could be dangerous if taken without irony.

I was present at Richard Herring’s Hitler Moustache gig recently in Aldershot where an alleged UKIP supporter took issue with him about his material about ten minutes into the second half. The second half! He’d sat through the whole first half completely missing the irony.

Now, this bloke is entirely entitled to his point of view, but why should all comedy be geared to his sense of humour and wishy-washy liberals like myself be made out to be a ‘comedy snob’ because he doesn’t get it? I hope with all my heart the shaven-headed lout was a bank manager.

I laugh at mainstreamers Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay. I really do. A lot. As a comedy writer of no note, I do watch and try to comprehend why I often think their material is ‘easy’, but that’s not to say it’s not funny. In fact, it’s much more likely to make you laugh out loud than raise a high-brow eyebrow and suppress a ‘now, THAT’s clever!’ snigger.

Mind you, is a comedian’s their job to make us laugh or keep us enthralled? Everyone’s view will no doubt be different. Jimmy Carr’s barrage of one-liners are often very clever and pretty much always hilarious. However, they often feel soulless. The (usually later) bits in his sets that follow slightly more of a narrative feel much more satisfying to me. As do comedians with a pointed theme to their set: such as Herring or Daniel Kitson.

‘Comedy is subjective’ is the cliché we keep rolling out. But then, ‘clichés are clichés because they are true’ is perhaps the most clichéd cliché of all.

What’s happening is that, as in music, it’s the act of ‘going mainstream’ itself that irritates the ‘middle-class comedy snobs’ rather than anything about the material itself. Perhaps comedians who broaden their appeal to the masses – often a section of society who wouldn’t ordinarily consider going to comedy clubs or indeed watching BBC2/Channel 4 – offends them somehow. Once they’re popular, they’re no longer revered (indeed, often now disliked) by the people who liked them enough in the first place to make them popular.

To be perfectly honest, if you like any comedy at all, I approve. I can safely say there’s no snobbery on my part. As long as you’re not watching those god-forsaken soap operas. Those people are the true idiots...

Published: 9 Apr 2010

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