Category Archives: comedy

What’s Happening To Stand-up Comedy In Britain?

I’m one of the judges for the New Acts of The Year and we’re about half way through the contest. One thing that I and other judges have noticed is the general lack of political and philosophical engagement with the world among novice comedians. There are also a worrying number of acts who either have no material or have nothing interesting to say. Some have even ventured into misogyny, homophobia and casual racism in a feeble attempt to get laughs. What we also tend to find is that, rather than present a quirky view of the world, some of these novice comedians are giving us a spoken version of their CV. Is this what people are being taught to do at the many stand-up comedy courses that have proliferated since the early 1990s? I think it is. Whatever the case, British stand-up comedy is on its sick bed.

For the last few days, many comedians have been talking about Andrew Lawrence’s alleged support for UKIP and his attack on immigrants. Even UKIP leader Nigel Farage has given Lawrence his support.   A potential kiss of death? Possibly. Only time will tell. What has the world come to when today’s comedians are embracing anti-immigration rhetoric and railing against diversity? Are we really heading back in time to the immediate post-colonial period when comedians used trot out a stream of racist and sexist gags and used “it’s only a joke” as a defence? Sometimes it seems that way.  In Lawrence’s case, it’s easy to suggest that he’s doing this to attract attention. On the other hand, perhaps he, like so many others, is suffering from cognitive dissonance or maybe he’s just a right-wing reactionary arsehole. At any rate, there is an absence of critical thinking to his rant and I would argue that this is indicative of a malaise that is currently affecting the entire country, especially in England, where this negative attitude towards difference seems rife. This malaise is particularly manifest in those people who believe UKIP is ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘anti-politics’.  ‘Anti-politics’? Really? There is no such thing as ‘anti-politics’. Everything is political. UKIP is an anti-intellectual party that appeals to anti-intellectuals, who believe the country’s myriad problems can be solved by simply ‘pulling up the drawbridge’.

On Lawrence’s Facebook page, he attempts to “clarify” his earlier post but is actually reiterating what he said previously. In effect, he ends up digging himself an even bigger hole of gargantuan proportions:

A comedian from a minority background who uses their own ethnicity as a foundation for the whole of their act, rather than looking at wider aspects of society and exploring outside of their own personal experience.

And then says:

Quotas have been introduced, whereby every panel show must book a certain number of female and ethnic comedians, regardless of ability or merit.

Objectively then, there are comedians on panel shows who are there first and foremost because of their gender or ethnicity.

But it gets worse:

Because there is currently not a sufficiently large enough pool of female comedians with the requisite experience and ability to fill the quota, there are females who’ve been booked for these shows who are either poor comedians, not comedians at all, or aspiring female comedians that are still learning their craft, but have not yet reached a decent professional standard.

These females I have described as ‘women-posing-as-comedians’.

The upshot of all that is that there are still many women coming across incredibly badly on panel shows, which is helping to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t funny.

The hope is that women currently on panel shows, will further legitimise stand-up comedy as a career for women and encourage other women to take up comedy. Which is an admirable aim.

Unfortunately for every female who gets on a panel show, there are very many male comedians with more ability and experience who are not and will never get the opportunity to be on one. I think that’s a great shame for TV audiences.

And for his finale:

Oh, and I don’t have a problem with properly regulated immigration and I don’t have a problem with immigrants.

I do have a great deal of concern about the lack of border controls in this country and subsequent gross overpopulation as a result of EU legislation, which I believe adversely affects all our quality of life.

Here Lawrence uncritically accepts UKIP’s position on immigration and seeks to rationalize this position by summoning up the Malthusian claim of “overpopulation” to lend some kind of intellectual gravitas to his narrativization. This is exactly what Malthusian think-tank Migration Watch UK (and Bill Oddie) does all the time.  But this claim that there is a “lack of proper border controls” is not only ludicrously melodramatic, it’s a complete myth. He claims that he isn’t a UKIP supporter but that claim is pretty meaningless, given the fact that he’s regurgitated the same myths as Kippers and the rest of the English Right. Lawrence, if anything, is a reactionary, though it’s not something that he would readily admit. Instead, he complains that comedians are making jokes about UKIP. Diddums.

Let’s return to Lawrence’s comment about “minority comedians”, who he claims use their ethnicity as the basis of their act. Here, he doesn’t even try to understand why this is the case. He’s a white male stand-up and looks more or less like every other white male stand-up. If you’re black or a woman (or both), you have certain visual signifiers that differentiate you from the rest of the pack and may make jokes about those things. That’s what happens. If you have red hair or you’re fat, you will also make jokes about those things. That’s what happens. Yet, for Lawrence, it’s as if over 200 years of colonialism and racism never happened and that things are all right now because this is the year 2014 and people have stopped being racist. Sure they have. Yet for all the white male faces on television, the numbers of black faces on panel shows is so small as to be non-existent. Can you think why that is? I can. It’s called institutionalized racism and it’s a product of the dominant class’s early socialization. The vast majority of producers and commissioning editors come from public school and Oxbridge backgrounds. In their schools, some of which are all boy schools, they never see any females apart from those who are employed to teach or make beds. Black pupils are just as much of a rarity, thus commissioning editors tend to employ those people who are most like them: white and male.

With regards to women comedians, Lawrence has painted himself into a corner by claiming on the one hand that there aren’t a large number of women comics and on the other,  this small number of women comics is responsible for inferior female talent because male numbers are superior. Confused? Don’t be. It’s the anti-intellectual tripe of a knee-jerk reactionary. Like so many white [right-wing] males, Lawrence is playing the victim and it’s as if to say “It’s all the fault of those horrible wimmin with their feminism. They’re oppressing me”.  Lawrence is offering nothing new and is merely repeating the worn-out fallacy that women aren’t funny. Let me tell you something, Andrew, a lot of women are funnier than men, they just don’t get the same opportunities as white males who constantly refer to their genitalia and their apparent sexual inadequacies/perversions. Boring, huh?

The current malaise in British stand-up comedy is an indication of an overall malaise that hangs over this country like miasma. We have now entered a time when the very idea of tolerance is being pissed on, not only by right-wing politicians, but also by selfish misogynistic comics for cheap laughs, who believe they’re ‘pushing the boundaries’. The dominant discourses in this country have been orientated to the right for the last 35 years. People walk around talking in market-speak without realizing it. Other people repeat phrases like “Benefit claimants are addicted to the state” and “We need to have cuts” without thinking about them. Some, like Toby Young, believe that free speech means you can say anything you like without being criticized or being called an ‘idiot’ for it. However, if you’re tolerant and see immigration as a benefit to the nation, you’re shouted down, while those who oppose immigration complain that their voices “aren’t heard” even though the newspapers are full of articles complaining about immigration, and which rely on the usual myths, tropes and hyperbolic flights of fancy like “the country is crowded” to make their spurious points.

If comedy acts as a barometer for the political and social health of a nation, then Britain or, at least, England is a very sick patient indeed. It is obsessed with nostalgia and ready to blame its condition on everything but the system that produces inequalities and untold miseries. Instead, women, ethnic minorities and immigrants are scapegoated for a system that has comprehensively failed to deliver. Those in power in Westminster are happy to allow this continue and comedians like Andrew Lawrence are more than happy to act on their behalf. Sometimes I think the battles that we fought in the 1980s were for nothing.

 

 

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Filed under Comedy, comedy, Ideologies, immigration, National Identity, Popular culture, racism, sexism, social class, Society & culture

Political Comedy and Me

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.

References

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

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Filed under comedy, Popular culture