Political Comedy: An Idiot's Guide, Part 1 | Alistair Barrie on how the divisive issue of Brexit affected his work

Political Comedy: An Idiot's Guide, Part 1

Alistair Barrie on how the divisive issue of Brexit affected his work

When stand-up Alistair Barrie – the self-professed idiot of the headline – was asked his opinions on political comedy, he got carried away with his answer. Here, in the first of two articles on the topic, he offers his thoughts on what effect Brexit had on the nation – and his preferred genre. But first, he explains how the pieces came about...

Last month, I received a message from my good friend, fellow comedian and expatriate chutney-maker Ian Moore, telling me his son Samuel was writing his university dissertation on political comedy, and asking if I would be happy to answer a few questions on the subject. Obviously, I agreed, as it's never a good idea to annoy a mod. Especially a French one. 

What neither Moore père et fils realised was that I received the message as I was boarding a long haul flight, and six hours later a relatively simple Q&A had morphed into something rather more substantial, despite the fact Ian's the one who's meant to write the novels.

In the intervening time, it may not have escaped your notice that Rishi Sunak has called a General Election in a manner which possibly redefined the very notion of political comedy. Since then Labour have managed to squeeze their annual Diane Abbott scandal in much earlier than usual, and of course Nigel’s milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,  which is infinitely preferable to the metre, obviously.

In a not entirely unrelated note, I also have a new stand-up special to promote which just happens to contain some of the aforementioned 'political comedy', so I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts on the subject in these febrile times with anyone who cared to read them. In a phrase that rarely escapes my lips, I can only apologise for the length (thereby proving I can do other types of comedy too.) 

If it helps, you could always imagine I'm reading it from a lectern in a torrential downpour drowned out by the sound of Things Can Only Get Better and safe in the knowledge that my 'team' have arranged a visit to the Titanic a mere two days later. 

Did you find there was a shift in Britain’s famed ‘self-deprecation’ at the time of Brexit? If so, what changes did you make to your material?

That’s an interesting question, and to do it justice, you have to take a step back to explore the assumptions behind it, which is a trick I’ll be using fairly regularly, so apologies in advance for my complete inability to embrace brevity.

I am always innately suspicious of ‘national characteristics’. That is not to deny their existence – stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and comedy absolutely thrives on them. Your average Frenchman probably is a little more discerning with his food shop, a Spaniard will sleep during the day perhaps more than most, Australians will abbreviate everything to an -o ending and so on. Britain drinks too much.
Like most people, I fondly imagine I’m far too interesting and complicated for easy (and geographical) classification, but we are all  to an extent, creatures of our environment, and while I don’t consider myself particularly patriotic, I’m perfectly happy being British. What I do find utterly infuriating is less ‘Britain’s famed self-deprecation’and more what seems to me to very clearly be Britain’s obvious exceptionalism. 

One of my pet hates is the phrase ‘British values,’ as though only the native inhabitants of Blighty have the good sense not to murder each other in cold blood whilst retaining a healthy scepticism towards religious dogma and inventing sports we would consider it rude to play well. 

It is, to my mind at least, self-evident that (almost) all of humanity want much the same thing. Indeed, there is statistical evidence for it rather nicely presented in Freakonomics, because numbers don’t lie in the way people do. And that is – most folk simply want to bring up a family in relative security and reasonable health with the prospect of self-improvement in reward for hard work. And, at the risk of getting slightly less secular, to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.

It’s not rocket science. Yes, there are jihadis, there are egotistical monsters like Putin and Trump, and there will always be those who want to assume power simply to exercise it over others. Unfortunately, in many ways, that is what politics is, rather than a moral quest to make things the best they can be for the greatest number of people. 

But I suspect most political comics come from a place of idealism which probably reflects the fact that the vast majority want simply to be left alone as far as possible to live a relatively simple life, with support available at the point of need. Those are not ‘British values’. They are human ones. And a comic does need to be some sort of everyman if he’s going to discuss those ideas sympathetically with his or her audience.

So I’m always suspicious of ‘British self-deprecation’ because we all know self-deprecation is simply something we tend to admire in another human being. No one ever says of someone ‘he was pleasantly arrogant.’ Self-deprecation is also is the oldest weapon in the comedian’s arsenal – ‘I mean, I know I’m an idiot, but just take a look at these idiots…’

Ascribing it to a country is a trickier proposition. Hugh Grant may do a wonderful job of underselling himself at awards ceremonies, but you only have to look at an England football crowd in a foreign city centre, or Twitter, or GB News to find that not all of us are quite so talented, or have any wish to be.

Add to this the feverish nature of late-stage capitalism and the fact we used to operate the largest Empire in the post-industrial world and you’ll find that self-deprecation is a wonderful tool to hide behind. Especially when you really do have a backstory that might benefit from a little careful misdirection. Conversely, when that misdirection is challenged, it is genuinely alarming just how furious, defensive and lacking in self-deprecation people can become. It is no coincidence that the only real legacy of Brexit as it stands is a quite preposterous and self-evidently hysterical culture war, which would be laughable if those playing it weren’t so serious – about the war, if not the culture. 

Perhaps the worst problem in identifying national characteristics is that it is only a short step from there to nationalism, where self-deprecation is a vanishingly rare commodity.

So I would start by reframing your original question, because what Brexit appears to have done is to have changed the way we are perceived more than the way we perceive ourselves. The vast majority of other countries now look at us and ask us what on Earth we have done. Anyone with any sense – in many ways regardless of whether they approved of the EU project or not – knew Brexit was, on a practical level, madness, and every passing day brings more evidence that was indeed the case. 

I suppose if anything it might now be even easier to be self-deprecating as we have rather more to be self-deprecating about. I am not sure however, that that has happened, especially among Brexiteers who have, if anything, been forced into ever less self-deprecating contortions to justify their illusory taking back of control.

Brexit was a seismic shock. I don’t know many people who woke up on June 24, 2016 who did not experience that profoundly. Indeed, you only had to look at the faces of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to see the most surprised were the two men who led the campaign to leave Brexit for far simpler reasons than a wish to extricate themselves from the EU. If you’re looking for a photograph to which you could add the caption ‘What the fuck have we done?’ you need to look little further than their ‘victorious’ press conference.

In terms of political comedy, it is important to admit that a lot of it does tend to happen in something of a liberal, somewhat self-righteous echo chamber. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of graduates voted to Remain, and it is also therefore no coincidence the majority of comedians voted the same way, especially taking into account that, as well as probably being quite highly engaged with the issues, (always looking for material…) we also travel a lot more. It’s quite hard to conceive of a reason to tell 27 other countries to fuck off, when you quite enjoy working in them with no barriers to prevent you from doing so.

What that does mean, in practical terms is there is almost always a sense of preaching to the converted in comedy clubs. Punching down is rarely an attractive look, so dismissing Leavers as racist thickos was never really going to fly comedically. 

Having said all that, I also delight (like most comics) in poking the bear slightly, as that, really, is the job description. Immediately post-referendum, the subject felt quite uncomfortable for a lot of audiences – although of course that in itself can be very fertile ground for comedy, and it didn’t take long to engage Remainers with why the whole thing Remained a dreadful idea.

There was also a certain defensiveness (obviously among more Leave-inclined punters) that I would argue has now mostly given way to silence. Or perhaps to non-attendance at comedy nights – though probably not Comedy Unleashed, a brilliant PR exercise which manages to be simultaneously the self-declared ‘home of free speech’ while taking place in a venue that has barred more comics than any other (myself included.)

I was MCing Glastonbury the day after the referendum, and it is difficult to imagine a more stereotypically supportive audience, as myself and Marcus Brigstocke roared at them about what an absolute dick move the country had just made. However, in Coventry a couple of weeks later, I remember one man who admitted he was a Leaver simply repeating ‘You lost. Get over it’. Not that a comedy stage interaction is the best place for an in-depth discussion on the matter, but what was notable was that was all he had. And, I would argue, nearly eight years later, that is still pretty much all he has.

I tweeted straight after the referendum ‘You can’t disenfranchise huge swathes of the population, then offer them a protest vote and act surprised when they take it.’ I still think that’s a pretty neat summary of what happened. 

Not only were things terrible as a result of an austerity which now seems to have condemned us to almost permanent doldrum, rather than acted as the corrective which was promised, but things are now significantly worse. No one expected the horrors of the pandemic, or Ukraine, or Gaza, but when all Four Horseman of the Apocalypse turn up, it is quite useful not to have shot yourself in the foot beforehand when you’re trying to run away. 

Public services are in the worst state they have ever been, the national mood is uniquely depressed, and it seems abundantly clear Brexit has exacerbated the problem both practically and emotionally. A failure to comprehend what Brexit might even mean before doing it means every queue at passport control, every bit of red tape, every lost opportunity appears magnified, while every crown symbol on a pint glass seems more darkly risible in comparison.

I am fully aware this might now be reading like a party political broadcast for the Alistair Barrie party, but if you think I’m wrong, just look at the polling numbers of the government who presided over what only the most cult-like devotees will still claim is anything other than a national disaster. Although on the plus side, you have just given me quite a nice idea for a routine about Britain’s ludicrous self-confidence as it strode blindly into it in 2016.

I’ve always believed we would be a lot better off if more people were politically engaged, and there is a certain amount of grim satisfaction to be had in attacking those whose passivity helped usher in a Leave win – partly by running an appalling and deeply conceited campaign, and partly from those thinking it wouldn’t really affect them. 

What Dominic Cummings did brilliantly was politically engaging a demographic which had almost never been engaged before – one less likely to display wan self-deprecation than simple fury at the way they were being treated by a society that was meant to be improving their lives and clearly wasn’t. 

It is also no coincidence that David Cameron was telling European leaders Remain would win at a canter only days before. The arrogance of the man was always apparent, but to see it now in the rear view is both salutary and enraging. Thank god we didn’t bring him back as Foreign Secretary or something. 

Having said that, as it became clear that Brexiteers had absolutely no idea what they’d voted for either, ridiculing them also provided plenty of ammunition. David Davies turning up to a negotiation with a grin and no biro to face off against Michel Barnier and his stacks of files - is another image which will probably bear out the old truism about comedy being tragedy plus time. Although in Davies’ case, it didn’t take much time as he became another casualty of reality almost immediately.

Imagine appointing a man as Minister for Brexit Opportunities whose department had to be disbanded because they couldn’t find any, while he described part of the policy he himself had voted for as ‘an act of national self-harm’. Then imagine that man is a cosplaying Dickensian who names his children after ​Renaissance Popes, lives in a castle and is called Mogg? I mean, I can’t write actual jokes that good.

The fact is, Brexit was in so many ways the result of the opportunism of a man without a genuine ideal in his body beyond his own ambition, who saw the referendum as a vehicle to get him into a position he was not just fundamentally unsuited to, but actively lethal in possession of. The revolving door at No 10 ever since the referendum is always going to be a ripe area for comedy, and the ludicrousness of Boris Johnson meant a great deal of comedy wrote itself, albeit tinged with genuine anger that he, and we, could have done this to ourselves.

But I do think the most fundamental rule of political comedy is it HAS to be comedy before it’s political. If you want to deliver a manifesto, go into politics. If you want to deliver comedy, make it funny.

I think another interesting thing to note is how comedy has changed in how it is delivered in the past few years. The mid-2010s saw everyone really starting to operate on a new level on social media. Twitter is a cesspit at the best of times, but you could also find much to revel in there, pre-Musk. 

And there was a HUGE amount of back and forth over Brexit, rolling rows that could go on for days. It is very noticeable how much that has quietened down over the past couple of years, mainly because every day seems to bring more bad news, and the architects of Brexit have so spectacularly self-imploded. You can only keep on saying ‘You lost, get over it’ before you have to provide evidence of what you actually won.

The last thing I would say is that I have always strived to be an equal opportunities offender. I like to poke both bears, so to speak. So anything that seems ripe for attack is fair game, whether it is an over-officious customs officer in Paris OR an angry Union Jack insisting that is evidence of the EU punishing us for our brave self-determination, as opposed to simply imposing rules we helped write. I am a deep believer in making sure my shows are accessible to EVERYONE, of any persuasion outside the genuine pathological. 

Of course, you are going to make some people angry – and this is particularly true in an age when people can take a 30-second clip out of all context and immediately pour vitriol upon you as an unfunny lefty Remoaner snowflake who hates democracy. 

But I have had people on all sides of the arguments come to my gigs and say they really enjoyed them, even if they did not agree with the views I inevitably espoused. Not only am I very proud of that, I think it's absolutely vital if you’re going to be a good comedian. You may well end up preaching to the converted, but you need to make the ​heretics laugh too. After all, you are one yourself. As has become my mantra here, it must always be about the comedy before the politics.

• Part 2: What topics are best avoided, whether comedy can change minds, and knowing how to play the room.

Alistair Barrie's new special Woke In Progress, recorded at The Comedy Store in November, is available on ITVX. Stream it here.

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Published: 6 Jun 2024

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