Political comedy is dead. Has anyone noticed?

Liam Mullone on the state of the art

I like satire. I like political comedians, who are the ones we once relied on to supply it. If I meet a REAL political comedian, it’s such a joy that I don’t even care what their politics is. If someone can be funny, with passion and originality, about something they really believe in, then the comedy world is a better place whatever colour they’re trying to paint it.

When I find myself drawn in by Mark Thomas’s arguments, almost to the point that I’m passing through the gate of his lunatic utopian socialism, I realise what a devious and powerful thing good political wit can be.

The problem is that political comics are so rare that, if they were on the endangered species list, they’d be termed biologically dead. So I was stunned to read, in the excellent 'Things I have learned from comedy’ series on Jo Caulfield’s website, this comment by Steve Gribbin: 'Jo Brand once said that the default setting for most 1980s comics was left-wing. That default setting would now seem to be libertarian.'

Now, I don’t want to come over as the only libertarian in the village, but I haven’t met any other openly libertarian libertarians doing this comedy thing in Britain. Andrew Watts, writing in the Spectator, says that there are 'more Tories on the circuit than you’d think', but they 'take care to call themselves libertarians, a label that allows you to attack big government while still looking edgy.'

Who are they, Andrew? Who’s attacking big government on the pallet-crate stages of our provincial church halls? Even if they’re cardboard libertarians I’d like to have them over for tea. I’m lonely. I don’t know what we’d do, apart from fuck each other over and play libertarian monopoly (ignore the income tax square, never question the banker, double cash in jail). Actually, none of us would concede to make tea for anyone else.

I suppose that, when you care about comedy, and the message of comedy - as Steve certainly does - it always feels like the tide is against you. To me the comedy army seems full of whining, uninformed, 20-nothing cod-liberal dildos moaning about the Tory party closing the libraries they never went to except to nick wi-fi. To Steve it probably looks like it’s full of selfish pricks laughing at the dispossessed and trumpeting their own petty triumphs, which may look like libertarianism to Steve the way Blair’s New Labour looked like fascism to me.

We may even be - from opposite sides of the political divide - getting exasperated by the same comics and the same comedy landscape. The people who have no political affiliation, no social motivations and nothing to talk about other than what’s going on in their trousers. But self-absorption, or anti-socialism that goes as far as mocking the poor and disabled is not, by itself, libertarianism (however much Doug Stanhope tries to convince us otherwise). And the lazy liberal telegraphing I see all the time - 'David Cameron, he’s such a wanker isn’t he?' - is not, on its own, someone occupying a left-wing position. They’re both just the wanky exhortations of boring fuckers with nothing but received wisdom to work from. And anyone with ANY politics should be bored with putting up with this by now.

You don’t have to be political to be tired of all this ‘live blogging’. Tony Law (on the surface the least political comic in Britain) called them 'young guys fuckin’ noticing things'. The rub is that their noticing things ought to lead to some conclusion; to morph into something bigger than the fact that something has been noticed. It’s the very seed of satire to look at something massive and important or terrifying and knock it down to the size of something the people understand; to turn the grandiose into bathos.

Here’s a joke I heard a year ago: 'It’s easy to be sorry for what someone else did. Cameron fucks the disabled and then apologises for Bloody Sunday. That’s like your dad kicking you in the balls and saying ‘Sorry granddad was a cunt’.” See this thing? It’s a bit like this other thing. A satirical weapon we still use, but rarely as satire and never as a weapon.

Maybe, if we stretch ‘political’ to its furthest, Leninist extreme, Tony Law IS political. It takes a certain engagement with the world to discuss what kind of bear is best for fighting a shark. Conversely it takes a certain disassociation, or maybe just an incredible level of self-absorption, to supply 30 minutes of observational comedy that observes nothing more than how stupid you feel when you bang your knee.

It seems that, in growing big, comedy has outgrown satire. I have always argued that satire, and political comedy, requires the comic to dig in and defend a position. The comic must be prepared to lose all credibility if they abandon that trench. But when asked, at a debate on satire during the last Edinburgh Fringe, where we could find comedy that met such requirements, I was hard pushed to come up with very much. If satire is to breathe again its first target should be stand-up comedy, the thing that grew out of it, then dominated and suffocated it the way the Fringe has buggered the once-culturally-important Edinburgh Festival. Comedy is now such a massive industry that anyone who wants to pick holes in the state of the world should first wrestle that room-shitting elephant to the ground.

In any case, Steve Gribbin - who IS political and IS very good, makes another good point that I’m ignoring here - that comedy is not actually very important. I can’t help thinking that it is. In any case, he’s depressingly right when he says that, today, 'comedians are much more a reflection of the society they live in than they are shamens or holy fools'.

I think this society is an adolescent one, a society built around old men trying to pander to youth. In this BBC Three yoofocracy the comic interacts with the audience the same way they deal with their parents. Most comedians want to be the audience’s friend; the rest want to shock them with rape jokes. Seeking acceptance and revulsion - saying 'please love me' at the same time as 'I’ve drunk your gin and shat on the carpet'; the two sides of every teenager’s push-me pull-me hormonal personality disorder, is what defines comedy in 2012.

Comedy has gone into its bedroom and slammed the door, and it’s not coming out again until it has thoroughly observed its own navel and comprehensively noticed all the wank stains on its pillow.

In the meantime, thank fuck for The Thick of It.

  • Click here to listen to Liam and others discuss satire in the Festival of Politics debate at the Scottish Parliament last month.

Published: 28 Sep 2012

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