Comedy's class issues | James Meehan calls for an end to stereotyping, on and off screening

Comedy's class issues

James Meehan calls for an end to stereotyping, on and off screening

Last week, comedian James Meehan took part in the Class, Comedy and Offence seminar at Brunel University, West London, as Chortle reported here. Now he expands on the issues he raised there…

Born in Wigan, and described as ‘our first authentic film comedian’, George Formby entertained millions of people throughout the 1930s, during the Second World War, and into the early 1950s. He was a genuine superstar, and although he was born into some privilege due to his father’s music hall career, was ostensibly from a working class background. Let's be honest, though, with songs such as I'm A Froggie, a mad racist ditty (YouTube it) aimed at the French he probably wouldn't be as popular today. Well, maybe he would be in Burnley and Lincoln. 

But the point I’m making is there was a time when people from Mr Formby’s background could legitimately make a career from making people laugh. … and sometimes while playing an instrument, which all comedians know is cheating.

Cut forward to the 1970’s and The Comedians, a show which featured such talents... comedians... white men as Stan Boardman, Jim Bowen, and Bernard Manning, all of whom have at least been accused of having outdated views, was popular and even award-winning. It was on TV from 1971 until 1985 with a brief reprise in 1992 and mainly consisted of people from working-class backgrounds making jokes that often took the form of racist and sexist stereotypes. It was definitely a product of its time.

Then the alternative comedy boom of the 80’s gave rise to such talents... comedians... white men as Ben Elton. The comedy landscape had changed. British comedy had evolved and cult heroes such as Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson were as popular as I assume the Rubik’s Cube or hairy genitals were at the time. As they should have been as they were bloody brilliant. This appeared to be a death knell to working class comedians as most were deemed nothing more than a stereotype of outdated and bigoted views. The thing is, that stereotype has never gone away has it?

As a working class person (born and raised in Leyland, Lancashire, recently voted the unhappiest place in the UK) who somehow managed to get a degree (2:1 from Salford, recently voted the worst university in the UK by its own students) I’ve felt incredibly privileged to call ‘comedy’ my ‘job’.  But I’ve noticed several things during my time as a comedian that have made me question whether people from my background are welcome in this industry. 

Whether it’s character comedians putting on a Northern accent to convey that they’re stupid, rather than just saying something stupid without the accent. Apparently being from the north means you’re an idiot who probably works in a factory and loves gravy on everything. OK, I used to work the production line at Leyland Trucks and gravy is sublime, but my cousin is a doctor and hates gravy, so screw you and your stereotyping.

There’s the assumption that you can only understand ‘clever’ comedy if you’re university educated. Comedy is subjective but if you’re working class and you’re not a fan of Stewart Lee, then you obviously don’t understand it. For the record, I think he’s brilliant. But does that mean I understand his comedic styling or that I’m just trying to fit in with my peers?

Comics who work the club circuit obviously have no understanding of subtext or irony either; ‘club comedy’ being shorthand for lowbrow in every review and afforded little time in Edinburgh. 

I’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe for the past four years and while there I’ve noticed a handful of comics I’m friends with have been reviewed as ‘Peter Kay-esque’ when the only thing that they had in common with him was an accent based north of Birmingham. 

Stereotyping is so ingrained in society that reviewers and audiences automatically know what type of comedy a person performs just upon hearing their accent. Most of the time in comedy Northern equals observational, or if you’re educated and Northern, you can be a tortured Morrissey-like poet. It’s not binary though, is it? It shouldn’t be one or the other.

A friend of mine had a meeting with the BBC as a potential host of a new documentary. When asked what set him apart from the other comics he mentioned being working class. The BBC said: ‘We’ve already got one of those’, and they meant Stacey Dooley. I was unaware that only one of us was allowed on each channel. Fingers crossed for QVC, guys.

Have a look at the comedians that appear on any panel show on television. What do you think the percentage is that have at least been partially privately educated? I’ll let you look that up, but it is A LOT higher than you’d imagine. Most of the big channels now have a diversity quota. Which as any sane human being knows is an excellent thing. We need more women, people of colour and members of the LGBT community on television. But does that diversity quota mention class or background? Not at all. It’s as absent as the empathy in a Chubby Brown joke about refugees. 

I was brought up on council estate by a mother on benefits (I’m saying that for context, not as a sob story, my childhood was by and large excellent) and I feel as under-represented in my industry as I imagine women feel, and I’m a white man so it must be bad. 

I’m not saying let’s bring back the days of The Comedians, but how about we at least trust that not all people from working class backgrounds are idiots? On television and radio we need a fair representation of society. We are correctly working towards that with several demographics, now how about we start thinking about class and social standing as well?

(By the way, the subtext of this article is ‘please put me on the telly’ in case any industry reading it thought it didn’t have any.)

James Meehan is appearing as Jim the Elf in Funz And Gamez at The Phoenix in Central London on October 23 and 24 and as part of Gein’s Family Giftshop at Suspiciously Cheap Comedy at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green, East London on November 13.

Published: 20 Oct 2016

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