Since I started performing comedy back in the 1980s, I have often seen myself as a ‘political’ comedian. In the early days, my comedy probably wasn’t as political as it became towards the end of the 1990s. By that stage, my set was around 80% political. These days, it’s closer to 97%. Being a left-wing political comedian or a comedian who is interested in left politics, doesn’t necessarily mean that I bat for the Labour Party (I don’t), nor does it mean that I spew a stream of cheap politically-charged invective for quick laughs (‘Thatcher is a cunt’ clearly lacked analysis). There’s more to it than that.
Often, when people hear the word ‘political’ prefacing the word ‘comedy’, they assume that the comedy in question is taking sides with one political party or another – usually a left-wing party or ideology. In the 80s, I used to tell people that when I talked about politics I was using that word in a much broader sense than what is generally understood. Sometimes they looked confused. But for me there is no confusion. As feminists used to say (and still do), “The personal is political”. Catherine Itzin, writing about left-wing theatre companies, said in her book, Stages in the Revolution “Everything is political” (1986: 2). If you have an opinion on something – even on the cost of foodstuffs – then you hold a political position. When people tell me that they “hate” politics, I despair. Of course, what they really mean is that they hate party politics and career politicians. No one is completely apolitical.
When I started in comedy, the main political issue for me was consumerism and its consequences. In 1988, I wrote a comedy piece called “The Shopping Centre That Ate The World”. The piece was influenced by the expansion of the Eldon Square Shopping Centre in the middle of Newcastle City Centre, whose continued expansion seemed to be out of control. Eldon Square was joined by the new Metro Centre in Dunston, near Gateshead. It is a massive shopping complex that was once considered to be the largest of its kind in Britain (sorry, Sheffield, but Meadowhall is smaller). These new shopping centres arrived to coincide with the increased uptake in credit card ownership and the availability of cheap credit. All of a sudden, people rushed to get their hands on credit cards and take out loans for consumables. This is exactly what the Thatcher government wanted. Loans, which were suddenly considered to be ‘products’ could now be included in the country’s GDP figures. Loans, in effect, could be used to make the claim that the economy was ‘booming’ when in fact, it was heading for recession.
More recently, I have included a piece in my set that addresses the oft-used remark used by politically disinterested comedians who continue to tell me that politics “isn’t funny”. Yet, the same comedians would claim that nothing is too sacred for comedy. If that is the case, then what about politics? Aren’t these people contradicting themselves? Of course they are. Stephen Wagg (1997) notes that in Britain, politics – as it is generally understood – was traditionally the preserve of the aristocracy and landed classes. Therefore, it was assumed that these people possessed some kind of specialized, but esoteric knowledge that was off limits to the uninitiated. The politicians themselves were seen as untouchable; above criticism. Indeed, in the music halls, it was forbidden to lampoon or satirize politicians, who were treated somewhat deferentially; almost like demigods. It wasn’t until Beyond the Fringe that this attitude began to change, but it’s still a struggle some 50+ years later to satirize politicians if you come from a working class background. The production of satire in Britain remains stubbornly in the hands of an Oxbridge and public school-educated elite. Armando Ianucci’s MBE a couple of years ago, serves to remind us that political satire is still a bourgeois pastime. Only these days, satire also has state approval. State-sanctioned satire, regardless of how entertaining it is, is an oxymoron because it does nothing to raise consciousness. It fails to speak to power, because it is produced by the same social class that holds political power. In what other country does this happen?
There is a depressing lack of comedy that addresses the issues that we face today. We have a government in power that rides roughshod over the majority of the people, yet many stand-up comedians would rather talk about their dicks, their cars and what they had for lunch than speak to power. Sometimes, I think that, in terms of comedy, we’ve moved backwards. It’s only a matter of time before someone goes and books Jim Davidson to appear at their comedy club. They already have, you say? Well, there you go.
Itzin, C. (1986) Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968. London: Methuen
Wagg, S. (ed) (1998) Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. London: Routledge.
Wagg, S. (2002) “Comedy, politics and permissiveness; the satire boom and its inheritance” in Contemporary Politics, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2002). Accessed via JSTOR