Category Archives: Comedy

‘Anti-Woke’ Comedy?

I take the view that anyone who readily admits to being ‘anti-woke’ is comfortable with racism, misogyny and probably pretty relaxed about human rights abuses. They may deny these things, but the facts speak for themselves. A couple of days ago, I read on Chortle that there is to be a new comedy show on BBC Radio 4 for ‘anti-woke’ comedians. This should surprise no one. When the new Director-General of the BBC (a blatantly political appointment), Tim Davie, announced that he was going to sweep away what he saw as ‘left-wing comedy’, it sounded alarm bells. The first casualty of the Davie era was the allegedly left-wing Mash Report. Our ‘anti-woke’ comedians may complain about so-called ‘cancel culture’ but were eerily silent about the show’s cancellation. Personally, I haven’t seen or heard any “left-wing comedy” on the BBC’s platforms. Davie himself is a former chair of Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives, which is hot house for the Tory hard-right. You may recall that it was this constituency Tory Party that incubated the now defunct Young Britons’ Foundation.

The pilot for the unimaginatively-titled, Unsafe Spaces, will be recorded next month. This is from Chortle:

The stand-ups lined up for the trial episode of the possible Radio 4 show includes GB News presenter Andrew Doyle and Leo Kearse, pictured, who stood for Laurence Fox’s Reclaim party in May’s Holyrood elections.

Furthermore:

It will be recorded at Comedy Unleashed home,  The Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green, East London, next month.

Backyard Comedy Club is owned by the daddy of anti-woke comedy, Lee Hurst, a man who was once a regular on the BBC’s ‘laddish’ comedy panel shows like They Think It’s All Over.

One thing that I’ve noticed about these self-styled ‘anti-woke’ comedians is that they’re entirely white and male. Davie defended this programme by claiming it would offer a “diversity of opinion”, but this is a smokescreen; it is an attempt to control the discourse, and possibly drag comedy back to the 1970s.

One of those ‘comedians’ involved with this project is Andrew Doyle, who is an associate of Spiked, and who typically claims to be a free speech advocate, but would someone so concerned about free speech do this?

Doyle, who also has his own show on GB News called Free Speech Nation, seems rather touchy when challenged on his free speech beliefs (for beliefs they are). It’s as if to say “I say what I like and you shut up”. Free speech is a two-way process. However, what Doyle has in mind isn’t free speech at all; you get no right of reply. This is typical of the Continuity RCP, who demand absolute free speech at all times. Such demands, however, are immature and fail to consider the legal restraints on speech, such as defamation laws and the Official Secrets Act.

Doyle runs a comedy club called ‘Comedy Unleashed’, which gives space to reactionary comedians like Leo Kearse. According to his Wikipedia entry, Doyle also claims to be “left-wing”, and yet, I see no evidence of his apparent leftism.

The backlash against what was seen as ‘political correctness’ began in the 1980s when news of the alternative comedy movement began to filter into the public domain with television shows like Saturday Live, hosted by Ben Elton. The trad comics, who had dominated what there was of British stand-up for 20 years, were displaced by comedians who came from backgrounds in political fringe theatre, and the folk clubs. Alternative comedy, a term never used by comedians themselves, was ostensibly non-racist and non-sexist, and it was this kind of comedy that was regarded by those on the reactionary right as being a threat to their existences. In the 1990s, comedians like David Baddiel, Rob Newman and Lee Hurst began to steer comedy in a rather white and male direction. This kind of comedy was called ‘Lad comedy’.

When I think of these all-white, anti-woke comedians, I’m reminded of the reactionary and racist comedy of Tran und Helle, who along with a mere handful of comedy acts were permitted to perform in Nazi Germany. Indeed, what our anti-woke comedians want is to be able to say words like ‘nigger’ and ‘paki’ onstage without suffering any repercussions. Yet, it remains to be seen whether anti-Semitic jokes will be permitted on this show.

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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

Culture For The Future?

People are fond of gazing back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.  I remember reading somewhere that no one ‘does’ nostalgia like the British.  I love the 70sI Love The 80s and Dominic Sandbrook’s lightweight, but subtly ideological history series The 70s always present the past as the ideal time in which to live. In Sandbrook’s case, the blemishes, lumps and bumps that define eras and epochs are simply burnished or given a right-wing twist.  “Thatcher arrived to save the country from the unions” was the unspoken message at the end of Sandbrook’s series, which ignored the fact that management ineptitude and a chronic lack of investment was mostly culpable for Britain’s economic and industrial decline. In the case of the I Love… series, talking heads from showbusiness were interviewed on camera to talk about how wonderful Kickers and Kappa tracksuits were. “I really loved Kickers and you had to wear the key ring that came with them” opined one talking head. Just great. As I sat watching I Love 1980 on BBC2, it struck me how much about that year wasn’t mentioned. It was as if the people forced onto the dole queues by the Thatcher government never existed and the St Paul’s riots in Bristol never happened. This was an age of social and political turmoil. Thatcher was determined to destroy what remained of Britain’s countercultures- the permissive society she called it – and she had no time for those who disagreed with her.

Sure there were some good things about the 1970s but the decade wasn’t entirely good. This is, after all, the decade that saw the end of the post-war consensus. This is the decade that witnessed the rise in extreme right-wing activity on our streets, when people of colour were randomly attacked by neo-Nazis for merely going about their business. The National Front were emboldened by electoral gains they’d made in the local elections. Its splinter, the National Party, won two seats on Blackburn council in 1976. One of the reasons why punk arrived at the moment it did was because there  was a need for an antidote to the near endless stream of cultural nostalgia. Everywhere you looked, there was some romanticized reminder of the past, whether it was on The Black and White Minstrel Show or in the pop charts with bands like The Rubettes and Mud rehashing the 1950s with songs like Sugar Baby Love and Tiger Feet respectively. Nostalgia was in Britain’s pop cultural driving seat in a car that had one wheel stuck in the ditch. Britain could not move forward because cultural magnates were too busy gazing longingly into their collective navel.

The toxic sludge of nostalgia that was current in British mainstream culture and political discourse in the 1970s seeped into the thoughts of some of Britain’s prominent rock stars. In June 1976, David Bowie returned to London and gave a press conference to waiting journalists at Victoria Station. Standing in an open top Mercedes, he appeared to give a Nazi salute and was whisked away, flanked by outriders. In a later interview, Bowie told a journalist that

“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.”

A couple of months later a drunken Eric Clapton addressed a stunned Birmingham audience with this message:

“[I think] Enoch’s right … we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart were just as vocal as Clapton. For the millions of kids who bought their records and wanted nothing to do with the views they espoused, this was a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth.  Clapton, in particular, had made a living by playing the blues, an African-American musical form. Ironically, Clapton had recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff two years earlier. This was a point that was picked up by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, who responded to Clapton and Bowie’s musings by writing an open letter to Britain’s music press. The letter read:

When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

Rock Against Racism, formed in response to this letter, was the most successful cultural intervention in living memory. It successfully brought together left-wing politics and youth culture, and marginalized the right-wing elements in rock music and beyond.  While it is tempting to think of Live Aid and even Red Wedge in similar terms, we must remember that RAR was a rank and file movement that began with a simple letter to the music press. Red Wedge, for example, was founded to attract votes to the Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party. Live Aid, however, can be read in two ways: first, it was a naive project that responded to a news item on the Ethiopian famine, which had been created by the Eritrean separatist war against Ethiopia. This part of the story was ignored. Much of the aid sent to Ethiopia was diverted to warlords. Second, it was a vehicle to revive the fading career of Bob Geldof. Yes, I’m a cynic but take a look at Make Poverty History and tell me how that has succeeded in eradicating poverty. Poverty can only be eradicated by destroying the current capitalist system, not by liberal hand-wringing and buying cucumber sandwiches at premium prices (a fraction of the profit made on these sandwiches goes towards buying a bucket). Make Poverty History temporarily assuaged liberal guilt and nothing more.

Since the global economic crisis of 2007/8 and the installation of a deeply unpopular Tory-led coalition government in this country, a number of political initiatives have been launched to counter the government’s austerity policies. There’s the Occupy movement and UK Uncut to name but two. What has been missing from these political movements is culture. If you have a Left idea, then you need something cultural to go along with it (qv. Roland Muldoon). For most of the political parties, be they mainstream or fringe, the idea of culture often takes second place (if it happens at all) to their respective ideologies and if culture appears within these parties, it is used as a means to have a laugh and unwind after a hard day of selling the party’s papers on the street, but not as means to contribute to real structural change. This kind of culture that speaks only to a small group of people.  The Conservative Party has never made any real use of culture because they’re too concerned with the past: their idea of culture is stately homes, old bones, statues of war heroes, and possibly the West End theatre of Cameron-Macintosh. Culture is a living thing that’s been created by ordinary people. It was revealing that, instead of creating a Ministry of Culture, John Major created something called The Department for National Heritage in 1994. He may as well have called it The Department for Mausoleums and Tombstones.

The situation that we currently face is dire and, in some ways, it is similar to what we faced in the 1970s. The need for a cultural intervention in Britain is now greater than ever. The rise of UKIP, the appearance of street groups like the English Defence League and Britain First are a cause for concern. Over the decades, the far-right has modified its language and now wishes to be seen as respectable.  Yet the sentiments in Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech are never far from the surface.  Powell himself was never subjected to rehabilitation, though his legions of admirers (some of whom weren’t even born when he made the speech) continue to claim that he was “right”. The normalization of racist, sexist and disablist discourses in the media are partly due to the rise of UKIP and are uttered under the rubric of free speech (or I speak and you shut up). The coalition government’s policies blame the economic crisis on – in no particular order –  benefits claimants, the disabled, single parents, immigration etc. You name it, they blame it. People like Katie Hopkins, who have no formal qualifications in the subjects on which they pontificate, are granted hours of airtime and are rarely, if ever, challenged on their repugnant views. Bullying and deliberate cruelty have become the new lingua franca of mass entertainment and the government alike. The phrase “political correctness” is used pejoratively to marginalize anyone who defends tolerance and fights for equality. This must be challenged at the cultural level as well as the political level.

We should not let Labour off the hook. When  Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, he claimed that he wanted to see the kind of patriotism he saw in the United States. Three years later, he gave a speech that contained the phrase “British jobs for British workers”. These words could easily have come from the mouths of Nigel Farage or Tory MP, Peter Bone. Instead, they came from a Labour Prime Minister, who was desperate to appeal to floating voters whose political sympathies were defaulted to the Right. In doing this, Brown unleashed powerful forces that he could not control. Let’s not forget that during the Wilson-Callaghan years the Labour government failed to deal with the rise of the far-right and hid itself inside its Downing Street bunker, oblivious to what was happening on the outside. Callaghan had already called time on the post-war consensus when he applied for an International Monetary Fund loan in 1976 to deal with the Sterling crisis, which was precipitated by the Heath administration’s massive balance of trade deficit. The conditions of this loan led to massive public sector cuts and helped to pave the way for Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Once she had won, Thatcher then draped herself in the Union Jack and repeated the phrase much beloved of nationalists and bigots everywhere: the country is “swamped with immigrants”. These days the words used are “mass migration”. The old right-wing cliché that the country is “full” has also been resurrected. The NF may have been marginalized as a political force, but their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric lingers in the speech of UKIP and others.

The leadership of today’s Labour Party is just as bad as their predecessors, because they have failed to learn the lessons of their past. In the aftermath of the local and European elections, Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet kept repeating the line “We got it wrong on immigration”. This plays into the hands of ethno-nationalists and, of course, UKIP, and shows us that the Labour Party’s leadership is too scared to say anything positive about immigrants and immigration for fear of a press backlash. If we go back to the beginning of the current economic crisis, Labour’s political enemies, the Tories and UKIP, couldn’t claim that Labour was “soft on crime”, so they attacked the party on a different front: immigration. Since 2007/8, there has been a steady stream of anti-immigrant stories in the media in which all immigrants are misleadingly referred to as “migrants”. However, many of us living in the  United Kingdom are migrants. If you move home within a city or town, you are a migrant. If you move from Stoke-on-Trent to take up a job in Manchester, you are an economic migrant. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey claims that most people are against immigrants and immigration, with a many more people claiming that immigrants come to this country to take advantage of our benefits system. Yet there is no concrete proof that people come here to live on a measly £72.40 a week. Benefits are more generous in other European countries, so why would anyone want to come here just to claim benefits? If you point this out to the average immigrant-hater, they have no argument. What the British Social Attitudes Survey actually tells us is that people are quite prepared to believe the lies and scare stories that come from the press and the self-appointed experts of Migration Watch UK . Perhaps worst of all, the data from this survey could be used to bolster the Right’s claims that immigration is bad for the country and immigrants are taking British people’s jobs. The Tory-led coalition’s ‘reforms’ are killing people and making many more homeless. They are pitting worker against worker and neighbour against neighbour.

Not a week passes by without some minister or other, repeating the phrase “hardworking families” and smearing those who are out of work. Television also plays its part in these attacks with the near-endless stream of poverty porn that oozes from our screens. Benefits Street, On Benefits and Proud and Filthy Rich and Hungry are a few examples of the media’s bandwagon-hopping tendency to demonize and stigmatize benefits claimants. The latter programme was actually shown as part of the BBC’s Sport Relief season. People’s poverty should not be a cheap source of entertainment; a sort of two minutes hate for bullies and self-styled ‘hard workers’.

Like the 70s, there is a great deal of nostalgia present in mainstream political discourse. When the Tories came to power in 2010, Michael Gove wrote of his affection for the Victorian age. The party itself repeated 19th century mantra of ‘self-help’ and resurrected the phrase “deserving and undeserving poor”.  Ethno-nationalists gorge themselves stupid on nostalgia. They’re constantly dreaming of a Britain that existed in fairy stories. UKIP, for example, wants a return to the 1950s and grammar schools, which it claims are essential for social mobility.  Yet during the 1950s, social mobility was fairly limited. Moreover, people knew their place.  Confusingly, UKIP also wants a return to the 19th century, but their idea of the 19th century is one without the poverty, disease and high infant mortality rates, which proceeded hand-in-glove with the ‘classical’ liberalism that is much loved by today’s Right. ‘Classical’ liberalism is also loved by American neo-confederates, who never tire of telling people that slavery “wasn’t that bad”. It was under a classical liberal economic system that the Irish Potato Famine took place. The mantra then was “it’s God’s will”. For the Right believes that inequality is “natural” – a God-given.

The Tories have always hated the comprehensive education system and want a return to the old system that effectively excluded anyone without the material means to pay for a decent education. In our current education system, by rote learning is threatening to supplant the teaching of critical thinking skills. This is particularly the case in Higher Education, where the former polytechnics (or post-1992 universities) are cutting courses and expunging those courses that include the teaching of critical thinking skills from their curriculum. The government likes people who can’t ask questions, because people who don’t ask questions are easier to manipulate. This the neoliberal idea of education: to train people to be mindless consumers, who question nothing and are unaware or refuse to believe that they’re being oppressed. This is what Gramsci calls “contradictory consciousness” and what Bourdieu refers to as “illusio“. The message from the top seems to be “You will love us while we kick the shit out of you. It’s for your own good”.

Neoliberalism, apart from creating false economies on a grand scale, forces people see themselves as consumers; customers of a particular service.  Healthcare and education, for example, are reified; magically transformed into commodities. Neoliberalism produces illusions: illusions of freedom, illusions of wealth, illusions of choice. Neoliberalism exists to defend the power of the already wealthy and powerful. It pretends to be meritocratic, but in reality it diverts ever more power to the same people who have controlled things for centuries. Neoliberalism is nothing but feudalism in a Savile Row suit carrying a smartphone. If we aren’t careful we will find ourselves in a technologically advanced version of the Middle Ages, where ignorance and superstition rule unchallenged and trump reason and evidence-based solutions every time. We want a modern country that isn’t afraid to look forward. Nostalgia is a comfort blanket for those who fear what the future might hold.

Recently the government has insisted that schools teach “British values”. Aside from being a woolly, ill-defined concept on two levels, this is nothing less that a rush to inculcate forms of nationalist thinking in our children, and risks unleashing dangerous forces that cannot be controlled. For the Right, British history is marked by the dates of battles between royal houses and the births, lives and deaths of monarchs and their acolytes. Britishness only came about with the 1800 Act of Union that brought Ireland into the realm against its will. Moreover, Britishness (like any form of national identity) is entirely constructed from a selection of myths and half-truths. You create your own history.

We know what we’re against: we’re against neoliberalism, inequality, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, corporate greed, slum landlords, inflated travel costs, lazy grasping MPs, war, etc. Therefore, we need to define what we’re for. We are for the 99%, because the current form of capitalism helps to enrich greedy people and sustain a hatred of Others. We must create culture for the 99% that addresses social and political concerns rather than tug on people’s emotions like the bourgeois theatre that dominates London’s West End, or the Hollywood movies that place style over substance. Much of today’s art doesn’t seek to engage with people’s lived experiences, instead it speaks only to itself. It is self-indulgent drivel. The artist must reject the dead space of the bourgeois art gallery, which demands disinterest and contemplation instead of engagement, and use the street as their palette and exhibition space instead.

We should adopt RAR as our model but include all forms of art and culture.  Much to the anti-immigrant parties’ disgust, Britain is a multi-cultural country and that is not going to change. All the multi-coloured cultural strands of this country need to be brought together under one umbrella in celebration of our diversity and in opposition to a cultural industry that is run for the benefit of accountants and media moguls, and says nothing about life as it is lived. We want artists of all kinds to take part in a new grassroots cultural movement for the 99%. Painters, sculptors, musicians, DJs, comedians, dancers, poets, rappers, writers, actors, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, clowns and others that I haven’t mentioned. We must create cultural artefacts that look forward, not backwards.

History is a teacher, but nostalgia will teach you nothing that you don’t already know. In the words of Johnny Thunders, “you can’t put your arms around a memory”. That’s true, but you can embrace the challenge of the future.

We are the many, they are few. Culture for the 99%!

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Eyes Down For A Full House!

Let’s play extreme right-wing bingo!

Hat tip, Another Angry Voice.

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Remember this?

Here’s a great Spitting Image sketch about rail privatization. It’s eerily prophetic.

Come back, Spitting Image!

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Filed under Comedy, Government & politics, rail privatization, satire, Society & culture

Is the comedy circuit on its last legs?

Is this the ideal venue for stand-up comedy?

Once upon a time there was something that the media named “alternative comedy”. We, that is to say those of us who played the circuit, called it “alternative cabaret”, which was, coincidentally, the same name used by Tony Allen and Alexei Sayle to describe their loose circuit of pub venues. By 1992, that had all changed, the cabaret circuit became the comedy circuit and barely anyone outside the business noticed the change. Back in 1992, you could hear comedians in the dressing rooms (if you were lucky to get them) talk darkly about how “television was killing comedy” and how Britain was going the way of the US. America, which was 20 years ahead of us, was witnessing a gradual decline in the state of its live comedy scene.  I remember chatting to a few American comedians who had come over to work here, many of them complained of a circuit dominated by hacks and the lazy promoters who booked them. In this climate, acts like Bill Hicks were finding it tough to get work, while the new breed of performers like Andrew Dice Clay (my friend AJ assures me that all that racism, xenophobia and sexism was just an act on Clay’s part) were playing Madison Square Garden. This was a backlash against the so-called ‘truth-tellers’ and it didn’t take long for it to catch on over here as a reaction to ‘political correctness’.

So when I read John Fleming’s interview with Noel Faulkner the other day, I thought, “Bloody hell! It’s taken you all this time to see it”? Faulkner, who owns the Comedy Cafe (soon to be rebranded as The Comedy Cafe Theatre) in Shoreditch, says,

“The game is really played-out,” he told me. “I think ‘arena comedy’ has really done it damage, because 60,000 people at a time can go and see comedy now.

“I’d say the average comedy punter used to go to a club maybe four times a year. But, when they go to these arena shows, it soaks them up and they don’t bother coming to the little places. They go to an arena show and see ‘him off the telly’ and they’re able to boast about it at work on Monday morning: It was amazing. We were right against the big screen! Really up close!”

This seems to support an already widely-held view that not only has television changed the way in which audiences consume comedy, but the stadium shows are also responsible for sucking the life out of the circuit.  Perhaps the biggest complaint about these large-scale concerts is that they are bereft of intimacy; they have no soul.  How can a comedian really connect with an audience in a space that holds 60,000 people? Many of them will only be able to see the comedian on the huge monitors that hang either side of the stage. It is more a spectacle with laughs than it is a comedy show.

Continuing the interview, Fleming asks,

“So why are you going back to stand up?”

Faulkner replies,

“One of the reasons […] is that, in the last four or five years, I’ve seen so many bad, hack, middle class comics trying to break through and some of them have made it all the way to telly. Twenty minutes of talking on stage doesn’t mean you have a comedy set. Talking, in itself, is not comedy.”

Well, the bad news is that even the cabaret circuit in the late 1980s was full of middle class types and I can literally count the working class acts on one hand… well, one and a bit, if I’m lucky. But to be honest, some of those cabaret acts had come from working class backgrounds but had gone to university or polytechnic. This route was effectively  blocked by the Thatcher government in 1989 and the policy of economic exclusion for the working class was continued by the Blair government, when it introduced tuition fees in 1998. By the time I left the circuit it was almost all white, middle class and male. Some of these people had substantial sums of money behind them to make stand-up comedy their full-time career.  It also turns out that Faulkner is himself from a middle-class background, “My father was a bank manager in Ireland. But I’ve fucking lived a life”.

Bennet Arron, writing for Chortle, echoes the sentiments that I outlined above when he says,

Stand-up comedy on television is also having an effect on the audiences which do attend clubs; their attention span is much shorter. (Again, I thought this was just me but thankfully it’s not). I assume this is because when you watch stand-up programmes on television, you see a comedian perform for five to ten minutes, before being replaced by another one. Some audiences seem to expect this at live gigs and seem bemused and somewhat cheated when the same comedian is still on stage after 15 minutes.

This is something that I’d noticed in 1998. I was doing a gig at a long-running club in North London, when I noticed 3 people in the front row casually chatting away, so I leant over and said, “You don’t have a remote control. This is real. This is actually happening right now”! By the way, this didn’t happen in the middle of my set, it happened at the beginning as I was introducing myself. Being the sort of person who can be a little on the confrontational side, I felt compelled to challenge these people. They were at a live event and not sitting at home in front of the telly. There are conventions.

Dark murmurings about stand-up comedy’s imminent demise aren’t new. This article from The Daily Telegraph in 2002 says,

To have to cancel one gig may be regarded as a misfortune; to have to scrap an entire summer season looks catastrophic. But that’s exactly what Nigel Klarfeld has been forced to do with his 200-seater club, Bound and Gagged, in Palmer’s Green, northLondon. “Normally we’d keep running through the summer, but attendances have been dropping so much that there was no point going on,” he explains. “I’m not alone. A lot of clubs are suffering, with numbers down across the board by between 30 and 40 per cent.”

And

Don Ward, who runs the Comedy Store, says: “Stand-up comedy has peaked. It’s all going to go very quiet. A lot of clubs will shut.”For someone of Ward’s status to be openly worrying about stand-up’s demise is almost unthinkable. What he helped to bring over from the States with co-founder Peter Rosengard – a cheap, egalitarian form of entertainment that required only a stage, a microphone and an individual with the guts to try and make people laugh – has looked like a growth industry for so long, the idea that it could ever fall from grace sounds preposterous.

That was 10 years ago. Little, it seems, has changed. Clubs have come and gone but then, they’ve always come and gone. There are plenty of hacks cluttering up the bills but then, there have always been hacks on the circuit. So why the anxiety? Well, the live scene is regarded by many punters as an adjunct of television. “Is he on telly”? some will ask, while the promoters, looking to put bums on seats, may only book those acts who have been on television and have some DVDs to flog after the show. It’s all about profile. And yes, television has played its part in transforming stand-up comedy, in particular, into another commodity form to be sold alongside package holidays and insurance policies.

We can trace much of this back to the mid-1980s and the popularity of Saturday Live. I can remember posters advertizing gigs, with a strap reading, “As seen on TV” beneath the name of the headline act. It was a way of getting bums on seats. But I also remember the circuit suddenly being flooded with stand-up comedians, all of them observational and all of them with little or nothing to say for themselves. These comedians displaced the speciality or spesh acts. I mean, when was the last time you saw a juggler at a comedy club?  You haven’t because comedy clubs never feature jugglers or poets… or fire-eaters, or … you see what I mean.

In November 1989, Time Out’s Malcolm Hay, noticed how safe the cabaret circuit was becoming. He asked,

 “Where did all the odd acts go? In the early days of alternative comedy, we’re told, the stand ups would rub shoulders with a rag bag army of eccentric acts and assorted crazies. We live in a more professional (that is to say, more tedious) times. Many comedians are so busy being funny that they fail to convey much sense of joy – or any sense of danger. Very few comics allow themselves to be silly”. (1005: 71)

The article also mentions Chris Luby, an eccentric sound impressionist, Randolph the Remarkable, a silly ‘stuntman’ and oddball musical act, The Amazing Mr. Smith.  Luby continued to perform into the 1990s but his appearances on the circuit were often limited to Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club and later Up the Creek in Greenwich. The Amazing Mr. Smith still performs and Randolph was last heard performing at Covent Garden.

A month later, Janet Prince of East Dulwich Cabaret said,

“The cabaret circuit has developed into a high professional standard. But it’s now verging on a conveyor belt style of comedy. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was more room for acts to relax and for more experimentation”? (1009/10: 77)

In the same article, Pete Harris of Screaming Blue Murder said, “Audiences have become more demanding and acts have become safer, less experimental” (1009/10: 77).  The dark clouds of commercialism were looming and there was nothing anyone could really do to stop them. But was it possible to resist the forces of commercialism? Well, no, not really. After the success of the Saturday/Friday Night Live, the machinery of the cultural industries began to work overtime to accommodate the new comedy. Once these industries have appropriated something, they will dilute it, repackage and promote it relentlessly.

When Vic Reeves appeared on the circuit in the mid-1980s, it was only a matter of time before television producers snapped him and his Big Night Out up. Reeves and Mortimer were a godsend to television because their style appeared to hark back to a lost era and, in our postmodern age, nostalgia is a highly fetishized commodity form.  The Reeves/ Mortimer schtick was an affectionate pastiche of old variety that had been immersed in the absurdism of The Goon Show (but without the democracy between its participants). It was ideal. It appeared to have no politics. More importantly, it was seen as a rejection of ‘political correctness’.

The watershed moment came when Jo Brand appeared on Question Time in 1998. After that, television ran rampant with stand-up shows. It could be argued that producers had finally understood what stand-up comedy was about and had worked out how to shoot it. It was now presentable;  just cut away to the audience laughing even though they aren’t laughing and it works as good as canned laughter.  The audience at home will never know the difference. Laughter is community-forming after all!

Television and radio aren’t interested in danger or experimentation. The media never leads, it always follows. It can do nothing else. Safety guarantees advertizing revenue and that translates into bonuses for the executives and dividends for the shareholders. The live circuit, in its turn, feeds off the power of the media exposure of its headline acts and in the years since Saturday Live, many promoters have responded by giving the audience something that they think the punters will want.

But all is not lost! There is something happening outside the mainstream. Variety is making a comeback through the likes of Martin and Vivienne Soan’s Pull the Other One Cabaret, for example. I will be opening my own venue at The Tramshed in Woolwich this autumn (fingers crossed). This venture is the offspring of my Cake Shop Cabaret clubs that ran intermittently from 2005 to 2008. The club was the victim of myopic pub managers – but that’s a subject for another blog.

There is also a small but lively independent comedy movement that aims to exist separate to what is now the mainstream.  While the Edinburgh Fringe is dominated by the big agencies: Avalon, Off the Kerb and others , there is a Free Fringe that exists alongside its massive commercial (and, ultimately, safe) cousin.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The alternative cabaret circuit was male, middle class and mainly white. Most of the acts were in their twenties and some had been to Oxbridge. So much for rebellion.

I hate to leave this article on a low note but I understand Michael MacIntyre is doing an unfinished show at the  Edinburgh Playhouse. Tickets are £31 a pop.  It’s supposed to be a fringe festival.  Doesn’t he have enough exposure already? He plays fucking stadia for crying out loud! He’s like…he’s like a ringer playing for a Sunday league football side!

References

Bergson, H. (1999). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Los Angeles: Green Integer

Hay, M (1989) Time Out, Issue 1005

Hay, M (1989) Time Out, Issue 1009/10

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Hegemony, censorship and satire

Before 1979, much of British comedy (sit-coms and stand-up comedy) was disconnected from reality and isolated from history; it treated every person who wasn’t white, straight, male or English as objects of ridicule. The Oxbridge comedy was little better; produced in ivory towers, all it could do was gaze longingly at its own navel. In the years preceding the Sixties, political satire was often limited to the print media and, in the mainstream, there was little of that. There was Punch and later Private Eye but the less we say about Punch, the better.

Punch’s “Rhodes Colossus”: satire or triumphalism?

In terms of television, That Was The Week That Was is often cited as the starting point of the British satire ‘boom’.  But it wasn’t a boom at all, merely a controlled explosion that was carried out in a car park at BBC Television Centre. It may have thumbed its nose at the political establishment but it was pretty tame stuff compared to the alternative comedy-cabaret of the 1980’s. To get around censorship laws, TW3 was ostensibly a “news and current affairs” programme. Entertainment was seen as a diversion and as such it was supposed to be free of political content.

TW3 did not address social concerns, its primary objective was to lampoon the political establishment. Ironically, the people who did the lampooning were members of the same social class they lampooned. In other words, they fed off each other. David Frost, the son of a Methodist clergyman,  used his suave image to launch a highly successful career as an interviewer and anchor. He didn’t do too badly either. TW3 attacked racism in the US cornpone states and South African apartheid but failed to tackle the endemic racism that existed in Britain. It was as if to say “We’re not racist because we’re British”. The class system was also lampooned, as this classic clip shows (up to 1.02),

Britain is a class-riven society and in spite of feeble attempts on the part of some political leaders to reconcile the classes; the upper classes – the dominant social and cultural classes – continue to have the whip hand. But if class is a massive fault line, then racism and sexism are the deep cracks that run from it. We are still a very long way away from a truly classless society and we certainly haven’t seen the end of racism and sexism as I pointed out in this blog.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair to TW3. After all, it was a groundbreaking programme and it broke through the stuffy, oppressive paternalism of British political system – but only briefly. It also attracted audiences numbers of around 14 million at its peak. But, ultimately,  it failed to ignite a satire movement and the heavy hand of the dominant class was once again applied to the writing and performance of satire on television. Those who remember TW3 with a certain dewy-eyed fondness will forget that the programme was produced by members of the same class as the politicians that were mocked.

When it came to live satire, there was only the Establishment Club, its light burned brightly but briefly but, most tellingly, nothing followed it. We also need to remember that theatre scripts and even comedian’s jokes had to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for inspection. The Establishment Club could circumvent this diktat by virtue of the fact that it was,  for all intents and purposes, a private members’ club.  It was the exception rather than the norm. This crushing weight of cultural hegemony had been around since the 18th century, when the paranoid political leaders of England responded to what they saw as the threat of  a Jacobite cultural insurgency in the theatres and inns of the country and replied by drafting legislation to outlaw the singing of Jacobite songs and the staging of pro-Jacobite plays.  Furthermore, the Prime Minister of the day, Robert Walpole was mercilessly lampooned by satirists like John Gay, who compared him to a leader of the criminal underclass in Beggar’s Opera.  Walpole, unable to take a joke, responded with the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737. The steps that Walpole’s government took to curb dissent in the theatre had a lasting effect on British culture. No talk of religion or politics was permitted in the inns. Indeed, some pubs still proudly display signs at the bar which read “No politics or religion”. But this isn’t to say that there was no satire at all: it continued to exist in print but it was never far from danger as the Oz Trial and countless other cases brought to trial under the absurd Obscene Publications Act (1957) tell us.

The Obscene Publications Act and the Theatre Licensing Act were only two of the weapons used by the state and it agents in the fight against ‘smut’ (a rather wide-ranging term that is/was often loosely applied). Libel laws have also been used to great effect.  Private Eye has felt the wrath of many a litigant and its coffers are deep – they have to be. Certain organizations and groups like The Freedom Association and individual Tories believe that any criticism of them or their ideas or their idols – whether they are expressed satirically or not – should be met with the threat of taking the offender to court. This makes a mockery the overused phrase of “free speech”, which is routinely trotted out by the likes of TFA and the cult-like Institute of Ideas like some kind of mantra. But it’s a myth and deep down all of us know it is.

After the theatres were freed from the dominance of the state in 1968, few attempts were made to put satire on the television or in any live context for that matter. It was only fringe theatre groups like CAST that made any real effort to tackle social issues, which they did through a blend of popular culture, slogans and biting satire. CAST had been around since 1965 and were improvisers by trade and while the rest of the political fringe theatre movement were obsessed with Piscator and Meyerhold and notions of ideological purity, CAST stood alone by making their work accessible to the masses.

Throughout the Seventies, few attempts, if any, were made to produce real hard biting satire for television. Instead, on the one hand, we were treated to a near endless parade of sexist and racist jokes told by fat Northern comedians who tried to cover up their bigotry by using the “It’s a joke” defence. On the other hand, we had the absurd whimsy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the memories of which appear to be entirely formed around a handful of decent sketches. Then there was Mike Yarwood, whose impressions of political figures and union leaders was tame, even toothless.

Here’s Yarwood doing an impression of Harold Wilson for the 1974 Election Special

But there was no satire of any note contained within Yarwood’s work. This was not real life and it was a couple of parsecs away from my own lived experience. At least we had Dave Allen and he was the only satirist on prime time television.

The appearance of what would later be coined “alternative comedy” was greeted with brickbats and insults from the comedy establishment. The bow-tied, besuited fatsos of The Comedians claimed that it “wasn’t funny” and  all that the young comedians could do to get laughs was to “use bad language”. Bernard Manning, the leader of this pack of old farts, was never averse to using salty language. In fact, in his own Embassy Club he frequently swore. In what the Daily Mail presented as  a self-penned obituary from beyond the grave, Manning said,

In their obsession with turning comedy into a branch of Left-wing politics, they forgot that the only point of jokes is to make people laugh.

Manning ignored one thing: alternative comedians made their audiences laugh and those audiences didn’t find Manning in the least bit amusing.

The 1970’s were characterized by social strife and yet none of the comedians of the period made any real references to it, unless it was to ridicule the leaders of the trade unions and striking workers. No effort was made to puncture the façade of harmony and unity, under which lay the ugly realities of urban decay, ethnic tensions and industrial collapse. This was an age when the police could do what they wanted.

This sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News was the first attempt to satirize the police, who had used Sus laws to detain black people on the basis that the colour of their skin made them criminals-in-waiting.

The popular image of the police in the 1970’s was derived from the mythology of Dixon of Dock Green. Television’s treatment of the boys in blue was deferential to say the least.

Here’s Dixon of Dock Green, your friendly neighbourhood bobby who never put a foot wrong.

This image of the police was worlds away from the day-to-day reality for many people. The police routinely fitted people up, fabricated evidence and assaulted, even killed people who were in their custody. They still do it. Ask the families of Blair Peach, Ian Tomlinson and Smiley Culture what they think of the police and they’ll tell you that they get away with murder.

Not the Nine O’Clock News wasn’t alternative comedy but it was a sign that things were, at last, beginning to change. But, on television, this change moved at glacial speed. On the emerging alternative cabaret circuit, there was no aversion to talking about society and politics on stage. In fact, performers were expected to engage with the here and now.

Meanwhile certain Tory MPs had CAST and others in their sights. The MP for Glasgow Cathcart and Monday Clubber, the god-bothering Teddy Taylor, demanded to know why left-wing theatre companies, particularly CAST, were being given public money for ‘political causes‘. This point of view was supported by Norman Tebbitt, who had railed against the Arts Council since taking his seat in the Commons in 1970, calling it “biased” and “elitist”. The Conservative intention then as now was to impose a sort of monoculture on the country; a form of leitkultur as Shreiking Douglas Murray would say. The hegemony must be total.

While alternative acts were ridiculing the political classes on stage, Spitting Image took satire to new levels on the small screen. Its satirical writing was reinforced by its use of grotesque puppet likenesses of the famous people it sent up. Thatcher always appeared as a tyrannical cross-dresser, who bullied her cabinet. Norman Tebbit was depicted as a leather jacket-wearing bovver boy who would rough up anyone who stepped out of line. While Douglas Hurd’s hair resembled, rather memorably, a Mr Whippy ice cream cornet.

While I’m at it, this parody of Tomorrow Belongs to Me from the film Cabaret is particularly savage. This was the closing scene from the 1987 Spitting Image Election Special.

TW3 was denied an election special on the grounds that it would adversely influence voters. It is likely that the McMillan government put pressure on the BBC. Spitting Image got its election specials but they weren’t shown on the same night as the General Election, which meant that the government was still very much afraid of satire and how it might affect their poll numbers.

By 1990, Spitting Image had been effectively defanged and declawed. The reasons given for this change varied from Thatcher’s resignation to the oft-used ‘change in tastes’ mantra.  The image of a grey John Major, with a satellite dish on his head, eating peas seemed to sum up the satirical mood.  Spitting Image’s fire became focussed on the emerging culture of celebrity, it dragged on for a few more years but it was hopeless. In 1996, it was axed. The expense of producing such a show was highlighted as a causal factor in its demise. Latex puppets are rather costly to make so it seems.

There was a gap between 1996 and 1999, when Bremner, Bird and Fortune began its run of 85 shows on Channel Four. But this programme seemed to hark back to TW3 for its rather highbrow approach to the material (Bird and Fortune were involved in the Sixties satire ‘boom’). The satire also relied rather heavily on the viewers’ a priori of the intricacies of the British political system, and for those without a working knowledge of Hansard or a familiarity with politicians (who seem to have deliberately made themselves bland to thwart the satirist-impressionists), it was often little more than a collection of obscure political in-jokes. Bremner, Bird and Fortune left our screens in May 2010, which was, by coincidence, the month of the last General Election. Rory Bremner cited the blandness of the current crop of politicians that influenced their decision to pull the plug on the show but there were other reasons.

Here’s a clip from the programme,

Please try to ignore the foreign subtitles.

These days, political satire is in the shadows. I can count the numbers of satirists on the comedy circuit on one hand (well, maybe one and a bit). There is also an eerie absence of satire on television. It seems as though we have entered a new period of deference and this is what right-wing governments want. In Mussolini’s Italy, satirists were attacked on the streets, even killed (Mascha, 1998). We clearly haven’t reached that point yet.

Satire is counter-hegemonic; it works passively to draw people’s attention to social injustice and political hypocrisy and makes them laugh out loud at the same time. The fact that certain political parties are afraid of it shows a weakness of character on their part.

Britain is crying out for satire and now is the time for satirists to sharpen their wits and plunge their comedic knives into the hearts of the enemies!

References

Gramsci, A., (ed.) (1971) Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Itzin, C. (1986). Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968. London: Methuen

Mascha, E. (1998) “Political Satire and Hegemony: A Case for Passive Revolution During Mussolini’s Ascendance To Power, 1919 to 1925” in Humor, The Journal of The International Society For Humor Studies.

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Filed under censorship, Comedy, humour, Media, satire, Society & culture, Television

OTT: a slice of social history

Thirty years ago this month, OTT, a sort of adult-oriented version of the popular anarchic kids show Tiswas, hit our screens. In those days we only had three television channels to choose from and the fourth was on its way. All the Tiswas regulars were involved: Chris Tarrant, Sally James, Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog.  Tiswas attracted a loyal following of young adult males who, hungover from a Friday night’s heavy drinking,  liked nothing better than drooling at Sally James or laughing like drains at the antics of the Phantom Fan Flinger (who was he?) and the Four Bucketeers.

With Tiswas, Tarrant thought that it would be an easy transition from messy kid’s stuff to television adulthood. It was not to be.  The programme was axed at the end of March after only 12 shows. OTT  featured, among other things, a regular stand-up spot with Alexei Sayle.  He was the only good thing in what was a truly forgettable show. What worked as an anarchic children’s show fared miserably as late night entertainment. There was some obvious objectification of women and some blatant sexism  in the programme.

What is striking about this clip of Sayle is the quip he makes about the riots that happened the year before. “I’m Willie Whitelaw and I’m a tortoise” exclaims Sayle.  He also mentions unemployment, which hit the magic three million in January 1982. This week the figure given for the total alleged number of unemployed was 2.68 million. I say “alleged” because I suspect that the figure is much higher. Sayle left the programme by show 9. Ironically, Bernard Manning would appear in the final show.

1982 was the year that alternative comedy got more political. We’re overdue a revival. Enjoy.

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Muslamic Ray Guns (Remixed)

I want “Britain to be about British”.

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The Comedy of the Spectacle (and its alternative)

 

MacIntyre. Spectacular comedian?

Alternative comedy is dead. Maybe it never actually existed. After all, none of us referred to ourselves as “alternative comedians”. Some of us never liked being called “comedian” either. Comedians wore dinner suits, bow ties and frilly shirts. They told paddy jokes and sexist jokes. They told Paki and coon jokes on prime time telly. It wasn’t funny. Alexei Sayle had an interesting line, “I’m alternative comedian. Which means I’m not funny”! But he was very funny.  A breath of fresh air. We needed it then and we need it now.

Whenever someone asked me what I did, I would often offer “plumber” or “exorcist”. Sometimes I would tell them I was a “shaman”.  I thought of myself as an artist who painted or sculpted with words.  This was the 1990’s. Alternative comedy was dead. Some people said alternative comedy died because it was too “politically correct”. I don’t know what “politically correct” means. Others said it was “outdated” while others conceded that it was “necessary”. The frilly shirts and bow-ties returned to the shadowy world of the CIU circuit. They became the alternative comedians.

When I started doing comedy in 1986, it was called cabaret back then. It was fresh, exciting, dangerous and innovative. Sometimes it wasn’t funny. The audiences knew the score. They came for something different. They were fed up with frilly shirts and bow ties too.

The frilly shirts and the bow ties are back. Well, the attitude has come back. It started around 1992.  Loaded appeared and the jugglers and poets disappeared. The lad was here. Well, the lad never went away. What was alternative was transformed into something mainstream. Something more television-friendly. The clubs became factories that produced commodities. The commodities were fetishized by television companies and magazines like Loaded and is imitators. This is comedy on an industrial scale.

Then some journalist declared that “comedy” was “the new rock and roll”. Avalon took this seriously. They even booked Wembley Arena for their star performers. Kerrrrching! Even the comedy tours of the eighties didn’t take in such massive venues. This was the sort of venue that only the likes of Queen or Dire Straits played. This was stadium comedy to go with your stadium rock. “Welcome to the machine” is what Pink Floyd said on their album Wish You Were Here. Welcome to the machine.

Guy Debord said

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that is directly lived has moved away into a representation.

The lived experience of the alternative performer was gone. Representations of life appeared in their place. The master discourse was renewed and articulated through the comedian. Observations of nothing-in-particular came to signify la comédie nouvelle. The new jokes needed butts. They were found in the Welsh and people with red hair. One was a ‘sheep shagger’, the other a ‘ginga’. People paid good money to hear this stuff. But you can go to a playground on any day of the week and hear that stuff for free. Save your money.

The girlfriend was substituted for the wife or the mother-in-law. The frilly shirts and bow-ties owned those two. Homeless people became the new niggers at the hand of the hack. I once heard someone do a load of stuff about “smackheads”. It was tiresome. Tedious. Unimaginative. Pointlessly cruel. The weak became the focus of the new cruelty. Not the powerful. Not career politicians. The weak. But it’s just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? You have no sense of humour sometimes! It’s political correctness gone mad!

No, it isn’t.

Carr. Cold and clinical

It’s worse than that.

Much, much, worse.

Today’s comedian is like a vending machine. They produce perfectly formed gags like cans of Coke. Each one is the same as the last one. Put coin in, get a can of Coke. Repeat the process.  If we take Jimmy Carr as an example, we see a comedian who is more of  a technician than an artist. Arthur Smith once said of Carr that  “He makes jokes like little clocks. He has no interest in their context or meaning, only that they cause an explosion of laughter. I want a comedian to have a hinterland”.  Even Carr’s shows reflect a certain sterility to his approach. One show was titled “Joke Technician”. You really cannot get more technocratic than that. Such an admission is revealing, it shows us how some acts view their profession: not as art but as a science or a bloodsport. His current show is titled “Laughter Therapy”, which is not only unimaginative, it is also highly clinical.

Nelson David wrote an interesting article for Chortle a few months ago. He says,

I’ve often wondered why many younger generation comedians seem less politically and philosophically engaged with the world around them than their predecessors of 25 years ago, especially as times are so turbulent.

So where is the reaction? Maybe audiences are more interested in observations of naff all.  A promoter once asked me “Why do you do all that political stuff? Why can’t you just stick with your impressions”? Nelson David,

It does seem that exclusively political comedy has become the preserve of the more mature performer in Britain. Sadly for me their number is few, certainly far less than I’d need to be able to nickname them the Grecian 2000. But Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Arnold Brown and Rob Newman for example remain inspirational.

More recently, Bob Slayer, writing for the same website, said this,

Fuckin’ A! It’s been a quarter of a century since alternative comedy turned the industry on its head and it is long overdue another shake-up. Comedy may be booming at the top but there are many signs that it is becoming more than a little middle aged around the middle, it is increasingly choked with clubs promoting generic comedy, established comedians delivering interchangeable material and new acts, that only want to be the next Russell Howard, trying stand up as a career choice.

Bob rightly puts his finger on the industry’s lack of adventure. Pierre Bourdieu reminds us that,

Old style intellectuals monopolise legitimate cultural practices due to the inertia of the institutions of cultural production.

The “old style intellectuals” here are those who control the industry. They are the ones who produce tastes and project them downwards to the masses. These intellectuals come from the public schools and Oxbridge. Many of them are employed by the BBC.  Political satire is one area where production is controlled by former public school and Oxbridge types. A good example of this can be found in Channel 4’s  Bremner, Bird and Fortune, a series that is patchily amusing and often full of obscure parliamentary in-jokes that need to be decoded with the aid of Hansard.  It is a programme for those who have been initiated into the political system. Those who have not been initiated will feel alienated.

The comedy industry like the rest of the  culture industries is not concerned with innovation or inventiveness. It concerns itself entirely with safe ideas, safe products and safe comedy. When it offers danger it tends to be produced without thought or analysis and is done to shock. Recently there have been a series of article about the number of rape jokes being told. Emma Poole, writing for the blog site, Liberal Conspiracy writes,

I watched a recorded episode of ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’ this week – I couldn’t even enjoy the funny bits. The show was fragmented by the host’s jokes about rape and paedophilia. I don’t find them funny. They make me feel sick. They give me nightmares.

Rape and paedophilia jokes have become the new comedian’s stock-in-trade. Rape jokes can be funny but only if the perpetrator is the butt of the humour. More often than not, it is the victim who is the butt of the joke. Alexei Sayle says,

Offence doesn’t reside in the subject matter, but in the power relationship between the comic and the audience.

Perhaps some of the newer comics should take this on board. But the phrase “power relationship” is not one that many of them will understand. Some will try and claim that they are being ‘ironic’ but this is the last refuge of the coward and the bully. The behaviour that would have once been left at the school gates has now accompanied these comedians into adult life.

There is a need for a new alternative comedy. We live in turbulent social and political times. The economic crisis, peak oil and war would have featured in many an alternative comedian’s set in the 1980’s.  Today’s comedians would rather talk about their dicks or talk about disabled people as though they were subhuman. The only way to ensure that there is an alternative to the new mainstream is to create the space for it. But with most pub landlords interested in short term gains, finding a sympathetic landlord is a very difficult task indeed. I should know, in the last three years, I tried to set up an alternative cabaret club and each time,  pub management was the obstacle to progress. The old mainstream acts still had places to play when alternative comedy emerged.  They still had audiences. The alternative acts had nowhere to play once the new mainstream took control but surely they still have audiences? The only real way forward is to have your own space where you are not subject to the capricious whims of a pub landlord. You control the means of production, not the landlord, the brewery or a lads mag.

When alternative comedy arrived in 1979, it disrupted the spectacle. In 1992, the spectacle recuperated comedy and transformed it into a product of the hospitality industry. It’s time to take it back!

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