Political Comedy: An Idiot's Guide, Part 2 | Alistair Barrie on 'you can’t say anything these days' and more

Political Comedy: An Idiot's Guide, Part 2

Alistair Barrie on 'you can’t say anything these days' and more

When a student working on a dissertation asked stand-up Alistair Barrie his opinions on political comedy, he got carried away with his answer, and produced substantial musings on the topic. Here, in the second part of his extensive answer, he considers what topics are best avoided, whether comedy can change minds, and knowing how to play the room. 

What topics are best avoided in political comedy?

It is a fundamental belief of mine that there are no topics which should be avoided. It is why the vast majority of comedians, with the possible exception of John Cleese, find the whole ‘The problem is, you can’t say anything these days’ cliché so utterly ridiculous. I told jokes about 9/11 on 9/12, I spoke about the Queen’s death the night she died. Were they great routines? No, but they became much better, and hopefully I approached them in a way that showed I was trying to play the issue, not the victim(s.)

I would always describe myself as a topical comedian before a political comedian, and it always strikes me as an incredibly weird idea that I would avoid the most topical subject of the day simply to second-guess some theoretical stranger’s sensitivities. 

Inevitably I will get it wrong, but I have to try, and I have to hope I can persuade the audience my attempts are coming from a good place, rather than simply mocking the needless slaughter of 3,500 office workers or the passing of a revered head of state. 

At the risk of frankly inexcusable pretentiousness, Socrates said ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ And I think that’s what you have to constantly do to your material – to interrogate it, otherwise it becomes stale and delivered by rote. 

It is very easy to see those comics who stop honing their material as it becomes more tired in the delivery, to diminishing returns, and they become more frustrated and start claiming ‘you can’t say anything these days,’ just because what they’re saying isn’t getting the response it used to. You really can, you just have to be able to justify it.

I think the important thing to bear in mind in any comedy is taste. Bad taste can of course be hilarious, but the stand-up adage of ‘play the room’ is a very useful one. 

To give an example, I wrote a whole show about my wife’s breast cancer in 2015. Just before Edinburgh, I was playing a relatively large semi-corporate room in Devizes, and the promoter, who I knew quite well, said to me beforehand 'I know you’ve been writing a lot of cancer stuff recently, but the chairman here has literally just died of cancer last week, so do you think you could steer clear of it on this occasion?’ 

He wasn’t telling me, he was giving me a very helpful and reasonable heads up. Now, a certain type of comic might claim he was ‘being silenced’ and try and create some sort of online incident over it. I just think anyone who insists on doing jokes about cancer on a stand-up bill knowing someone who was meant to be there isn’t any more because of cancer is a bit of a wanker.

Having said that, a couple of years ago, I was performing in Cambridge just opposite the clinic where my wife and I had undergone IVF prior to her chemo and I did a couple of routines about it. I received a lovely message afterwards from a woman saying I was brilliant but asking me not to do the cancer material again, because she had terminal cancer and had been there with her family. 

I very politely wrote back with enormous sympathy and explained that I couldn’t promise that as I believed the material was completely justified as part of mine and my wife’s experiences, and I thought talking about cancer was a great way of demystifying it. If I couldn’t justify the material, I shouldn’t be doing it. 

She wrote back and it became clear she was simply worried about the effect it might have had on her teenaged sons who had been with her. She also said she now worried cancer had made her bitter and humourless. I strongly disagreed. I pointed out she was simply being hugely empathetic, and how after 14 years(!) of chemo, she had the right to feel however the fuck she wanted to feel.  But that did not impinge on my right to discuss cancer. 

It was a really quite emotional exchange, in the best possible sense, and I think we both came away from it with our perceptions slightly changed. We also parted incredibly amicably and I showed the promoter the messages a few weeks later – he quite rightly described them as ‘genuinely moving’. I don’t disagree, and I often think about it when I see people bashing heads. At the risk of sounding like a dreadful hippy, there is always more that unites than divides us, and communication is always better than brickbats.

Similarly, yesterday, I did an all-male Dickensian Club corporate to 450 in The Connaught Rooms in Holborn  introduced by buglers from the Household Cavalry. I’m pretty sure there were more Brexiteers and Conservative voters in attendance than there usually are at The Comedy Store. But I poked fun at the situation, and them, and as it was done (relatively) affectionately we all had a good time, and perhaps, agreed to disagree. Again, it’s a case of working tastefully. 

To mention another well-worn story, getting on stage at The Grosvenor Hotel to tell 600 Lords Taverners they’re racist for voting for Brexit is possibly in slightly dubious taste. You’re very welcome to give it a go, but it might explain why I did my allotted time in Holborn without being dragged off and Nish Kumar didn’t manage it at the Grosvenor.

Do you find the club demographic vastly different up and down the country?

In a word, no. You are always aware when you are going to a more Tory-ish area, but they’re usually so self-satisfied that they’re perfectly happy to laugh at themselves, as I imagine it’s easier to find things funny when you’ve got a second home. 

Brexit did change that somewhat, as areas that you would never have considered Tory ended up finding themselves on the same side as the Tories. But that was an unusual situation, and therefore one that was ripe for comedy. 

But I return to my point about interrogating your material – if I know my arguments are sound, and work comedically, whether or not people agree with them becomes of secondary importance. Of course we will all do jokes about house prices in London, or how dreadful such-and-such a place is, but that is very much grist to the comedy mill. 

I used to do a big routine attacking the Tories in Manchester and Liverpool, and then mockingly congratulate myself afterwards for being so ‘dangerous’ in cities so well known for their antipathy towards them. Once again – self-deprecation as a very useful comedic tool. 

I am the only comic to have played both the Labour and Tory Party conferences and I’m pleased to say I used a lot of the same material for both. Would it go down so well at a Britain First convention? Probably not, but then I wouldn’t play there. Unless the money was spectacularly good. 

Sorry, after this long I did feel it was time for a joke, just to show you I can.

Do you change your set/tweak your material depending on the demographic?

I think I’ve already answered this, but yes and no. I’m not going to be able to change my material wholesale, but I do have a fairly big back catalogue to choose from.

Doing a routine about Margaret Thatcher in a club like Top Secret in London which generally has a much younger demographic is fairly pointless. Similarly, stuff about my kids is less resonant to those who don’t have them. 

But I always enjoy the tension of seeing how people respond – I did not expect to do anything about trans issues at Holborn yesterday, but I ended up dipping into it, and, to be fair, quite rapidly dipping out again. 

Your onboard editor is always in the background working far more furiously on stage than you appear to be – ‘If they didn’t really go for that, maybe we go here’ etc. As always – play the room.

Can you give an example of when you did (change your material) and/or a time you didn’t but think you should have?

Interesting one – the other day a couple of potential corporate clients wanted to come and see me at a gig in the Midlands. Stupidly, not having played it before, I arrived to find it was a very odd, tiny little pub gig playing next to the bar to a very small audience and I immediately thought ‘this is not where I want to be seen by corporate clients’. But a bit late.

Right at the front were a couple of lads in really quite serious wheelchairs. I think they were non-verbal, and both had their carers with them and needed help drinking etc. No problem there (although you’ve never known loneliness on stage until you’ve been heckled by a ventilator, as once happened to me in Scunthorpe.) 

Anyway, the gig started and it was just weird. It’s not the sort of gig I play that often any more because, frankly, it wasn’t a great room and the money was quite poor, but it was part of doubling up with two gigs in one night. 

I hope I didn’t get too irritated at them ooh-ing certain jokes that I know are perfectly good, but I was also acutely aware I probably wouldn’t be booking a corporate off the back off it. But when all’s said and done, play the room, and it was going about as well as it could have done.

 It always pays to be your own worst critic, and I should probably have planned my set a bit better, but it was fine – a 7/10. Then I made a mistake we have all made. I started a routine about my daughter’s autism diagnosis. Halfway through, I suddenly remembered the punchline was ‘Yes mum, but you did used to call them spastics’ and I was approximately two metres from two severely disabled guys in wheelchairs. 

However, it comes back to justifying the joke – the target of which is my mother, not the disabled. So I finished the routine. It went… OL. My rationale was that if I wasn’t prepared to do the joke in front of severely disabled people, I shouldn’t do the joke at all. Do I still think that? Yes. I even like to think they enjoyed it. 

On the other hand, am I sure, given my time again, I’d do a joke with the payoff ‘spastic’ in a brightly lit pub in front of two guys in massive wheelchairs, while being watched by a corporate booker? Well, that is a different matter…

Slightly less mortifyingly, and in answer to the other part of the question - we have all come off stage and thought ‘dammit, I should have done that’ or ‘I forgot that’. L’esprit de l’escalier is as familiar to comics as service stations and chasing invoices. 

What seems to have changed is that back in the day you’d get irritated if you forgot to say something. Now you’re more likely to get irritated if you did say something and weren’t filming it.

Do you think you’ve ever changed someone’s mind about a political matter with a joke or a routine?

Not really. Possibly the least entertaining thing to see in a comic is when it becomes a lecture rather than a set and they end up delivering a diatribe rather than a routine. That doesn’t mean I don’t give good diatribe, but again, it’s very important it’s very funny – and the rhythm of a good rant can really help a gag. 

But being told what to think is never likely to win people over. It always reminds me of conspiracy theorists who start their arguments with variations on, ‘The problem is, you’re an idiot’ which, speaking personally, I’m never particularly receptive to, no matter how true it may be. 

I can think of one comic who has been in the news recently who has simply got worse and worse over the last few years as he initially found some success with intelligent, nuanced material, but started believing his own hype and delivering his ‘truth’ rather than making sure he was really delivering comedy. And unsurprisingly, less people listened, so he appears to have disappeared down something of a ‘you can’t handle the truth’ spiral. Most people can handle the truth, what they don’t like is not laughing.

Having said that. I was at a wedding a while back and ended up having a long chat with a businesswoman, and the subject turned to politics. She messaged me a few days later and thanked me, because she said she’s always voted Tory before without even thinking about it, because she assumed they were the party of hard work and self-improvement. I’d apparently made her reconsider that. 

I do think so many ‘small c’ conservative values are so universal as to simply be Blindingly Obvious – hard work, personal responsibility, opportunity – but as another (former Tory) comic once said to me, he realised with this lot, their only real policy was pulling up the drawbridge behind them. 

Similarly, lots of people think Labour/socialism means rewarding idleness and giving away the fruits of your hard work to the undeserving. I think that if we ever get a proper government again (and I am quietly optimistic) they’re going to have to work doubly hard just to prove that they are fair and just and not simply an exercise in frittering away everyone else’s money. 

It will take generations to change minds. That’s not happening in a comedy club.  But if you can make people laugh about it then you can encourage them to engage with the subject, and then, like the woman at the wedding, maybe they’ll reach their own conclusions rather than the (quite easily disproved) ones they’ve inherited.

Have you ever made a joke about a politician and it went down badly?

I’m trying to think, and I really can’t. My last show has a big routine about a drunk woman in Manchester being upset I was doing jokes about the Queen, but then she was also upset the act before me was doing stuff about disability, and he actually had cerebral palsy... 

I do remember having a full-on rant about Boris Johnson in Bath and apparently someone on the balcony walked out giving me both fingers as they went, but I didn’t know because everyone else was laughing. And they were in the balcony. 

It is worth remembering Johnson was absolutely bewilderingly popular, but dig under the skin and it takes no time at all to reveal both how insidious and ridiculous he is. That is fertile ground for comedy and once again, if you force people to engage, they’re likely to realise that too. 

But there is a big difference between shouting ‘Trump’s an orange cunt’ and doing decent material about him, which is actually, much harder than it is with Johnson. But if you’ve ever been the victim of a MAGA pile-on, you’ll know they are notably humourless about their orange cunt.

Which is actually where you see much more pushback. As I’ve said, if you’re a good comic, with taste, and you play the room, generally speaking the gig going well should be a foregone conclusion. Online is a whole new ballgame. 

I recently put a 30-second clip about Lee Anderson on TikTok. It’s actually about him dismissing parents whose kids have ADHD but the comments were something else. It is still doing numbers two weeks later, with loads of people claiming we’re becoming a Muslim state, Enoch was right, children should be beaten etc etc. Some proper filth, a lot of it nothing to do with the subject being discussed, and a lot of anonymous accounts with no followers. And a huge amount of people telling me I’m not funny based on footage from a gig where there are clearly a lot of people laughing. 

But it is quite ranty, and if you see someone ranting about something you disagree with in an out-of-context clip, of course you’re not going to enjoy it. As someone much wiser than me said, ‘if they don’t like you, they won’t find you funny’. 

But in a live setting, while I’m not saying everyone will enjoy what I do, generally speaking it will not make them furious (though it can) What those online Troll who think shouting ‘YOU’RE NOT EVEN FUNNY!’ at you fail to accept is that if you really weren’t funny, and no one in the room WAS laughing, you simply wouldn’t be able to make a living as a comedian of any stripe. 

They may not like it, but they cannot call you a ‘so-called comedian’ when you are, clearly, a comedian. I mean, you don’t call them a ‘so-called twat’....

But the internet is a different beast. And of course, more engagement means the algorithm pushes your clip, and you get more views, so you ‘like’ it, you make some quip back, get on with your day and watch the numbers climb. 

Whether this is healthy or not is of course completely different conversation, to which I will simply say, in an unusually (for me) succinct manner: ‘No, it fucking isn’t.’

• Part 1: How the divisive issue of Brexit affected political comedy.

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: 7 Jun 2024

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