I'm cancelling myself... | Dave Cohen accepts that 'political correctness' means sharing the opportunities

I'm cancelling myself...

Dave Cohen accepts that 'political correctness' means sharing the opportunities

Last month, I wrote about the various stages of my career in an attempt to work out how much of my success was down to my own talent, and how much to the luck and privilege of being born white, male and middle class.

 It’s impossible to give a scientific answer but it did make me understand that there was a combination of factors, and being white male and middle class hasn’t done me any harm.

In this article I want to try and work out how much of my career has been affected by what is known as ‘political correctness’.

The origins of the term politically correct are not certain but it seems the earliest use dates back to 1934, when the New York Times reported that Nazi Germany was granting reporting permits ‘only to pure "Aryans" whose opinions are politically correct’.

After the Second World War it recommenced its life as a term of disparagement, used by American socialists to slag off American communists,

Its journey from there to the British comedy scene via the American college campus isn’t one we need to spend too much time on, but through the 1980s when I was performing on the stand-up circuit, the phrase began to emerge to mean that any criticism of the left was suppressed by a battalion of comedy police. The phrase gained traction in the late 1980s probably thanks to the extraordinary success of Ben Elton as a stand-up comedian.

Comedians had been blurring the lines between jokes and personal political rhetoric for years. An early pioneer was Bernard Manning, whose TV performances were no more racist than anything else you saw at the time, but who used his live shows to deliver racist diatribes that these days would have got him arrested for hate speech. He would begin his routines innocently enough, but would end with a political statement about the smelly foreigners who had taken over our jobs and corner shops.

Elton’s live style was very different: he would run with the kind of anti-Thatcher jokes that you could see on TV and at any club in the country at the time, but then he would end with a little political slogan of the moment ‘support the teachers, fight the government, my name’s Ben Elton goodnight.’

This was the first time the joke/rhetoric line had been crossed on TV, and Ben was on TV a lot, but from this single instance a whole movement began to emerge, and with it the false notion that ‘alternative comedy’ meant ‘no jokes just political slogans’.

The reality for comedians at the time was nothing like that. In its early incarnation, there was a small strand of new comedy that had evolved as a reaction to the racism and misogyny of people like Manning, from the left-wing fringe theatre of the 1970s. This was quickly left behind as the pioneers of laugh-out-loud comedy emerged: Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer, Pete Richardson, Arnold Brown, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Mayall and Sayle had plenty of material that mocked the earnestness of the left but that was about as political as the new generation of TV superstars got.

They very quickly went off to be famous on their own terms but left behind a modern club circuit and a growing audience that was simply not interested in the old school comedy of race stereotypes and sexism. Nobody called it political correctness, it was actually something much more popular at the time, a thing called ‘market forces’.

‘Let the market decide’ was one of the great economic mantras of the Thatcher government. Success for business must begin and end with whether there is a demand for your product. The market, which in my case was the people who paid to go to comedy clubs, liked alternative comedy, and they kept coming to see it. Which was how I managed to have a busy and financially fruitful decade as audiences paid to watch me perform.

If ‘political correctness’ was nothing to do with live performances, how important was it in relation to TV comedy, which was where I got most of my work as a writer from the early 1990s? The answer, again, was for the most part, not at all.

The landscape of TV was changing and becoming more liberal for sure, but once again this was all about market forces. ITV, whose sole source of revenue has always been from advertising, began rethinking their approach to some of their more famous stars. Advertisers spent millions of pounds on TV campaigns, and a lot of that money went into market research. The people they wanted to buy their products, the ITV audience, were sending a message that they no longer enjoyed the sexism of Benny Hill, or the dodgy racial politics of performers like Jim Davidson. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, market forces dictated to ITV that they should replace these performers.

Politicians often cite the BBC as the home of political correctness in comedy, but unlike the people they represent these politicians have clearly never watched an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys. Also, when Jim Davidson was sacked by ITV (as dictated by market forces) it was the government-funded corporation that revived Davidson’s career and reinvented him as a mainstream presenter.

By the way if you’re wondering why you tend to see more people of colour in adverts than you do on the rest of TV, that is also very much to do with market forces. Millions of pounds are still spent on finding out via focus groups what consumers aspire to when they watch adverts, and people interviewed by Argos market researchers for example were probably more likely to prefer the sight of a black family to one of Nigel Farage shouting at frightened asylum seekers in rubber dinghies.

The idea that big corporations with closely guarded advertising budgets sit around like a bunch of alternative left-wing theatre hippies saying, ‘hey wouldn’t it be cool and woke if we had like more black guys and chicks on screen’ is one I see from time to time in the right-wing press. The same people who argue that there are too many immigrants in this country are complaining about adverts showing minorities because they make up such a tiny percentage of the population.

Since 2008 I’ve been writing songs for the kids’ TV show Horrible Histories. As an Englishman born and bred I never felt there was any problem writing songs about our Kings and Queens, great inventors, poets and politicians.

And before this year I hadn’t thought a great deal about songs I had also written about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Jesse Owens. Jews have a perspective on history that understands when black leaders say their voices haven’t been heard – and of course we understand better than most what it means to be at the wrong end of leaders who countenance white supremacy.

Now however, in the wake of events that have been taking place over the last year, and in consideration of how poor black representation is in my little world of comedy writing, I wonder if a bit of political correctness on my part is overdue. If the Horrible Histories team were to suggest a song about, let’s say, the abolition of slavery or the life of Marcus Garvey, should I be the person to write it?

The answer is, I don’t know. I’m not saying that any black person should be given first choice over me, but it seems eminently sensible that instead of writing these songs myself, I should be passing on my own comic songwriting experience and enabling new black comedy writers whose knowledge makes them better qualified than me to write funny songs on the subject for this fabulous TV show.

I’ve seen people on social media complain that the Black Lives Matter movement is about cancelling white culture but it’s actually about bringing back equality of opportunity. This was a phrase much beloved of Margaret Thatcher, who as I mentioned last time oversaw one of the few periods of the creation of a level playing field in comedy thanks to her rolling out of Universal Basic Income for the unemployed.

I’m not saying I want to do this because I’m a bleeding heart liberal or woke or because I want people to think I’m so right on but because it seems only sensible that the best people to represent their culture are those who have lived it.

Throughout October I’ve been tweeting a very personal history of the 20 most influential funny black people and shows in my life. I started doing it on a whim then got carried away – all the time thinking, why the hell am I writing this? How would I feel if I read a bunch of tweets on the most influential funny Jews if written by a non-Jew? Probably quite cross, and not just because it’d be all about Matt Lucas and Sacha Baron Cohen and I might not get a look-in. When the history of black British comedy is eventually written, I’m hoping it won’t be by me but by a black writer who knows their history and comedy.

To return to my first question, I can say that political correctness has had almost no bearing on my career – until now. From now on I intend to use the phrase political correctness accurately, for the first time. I believe it is no longer politically correct for me to be writing songs about black history, and it’s time I helped to train a new generation of black writers to replace me.

Dave Cohen will be running a free comedy songwriting course for BAME writers in 2021. If you think you might want to take part email funnyup02@gmail.com and tell him why.

Published: 4 Nov 2020

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