Tag Archives: comedy

Anyone for right-wing comedy? Not for me, thanks.

Jim Davidson: the archetypal right-wing comedian.

Anyone who was listening to Radio 4’s Feedback on Sunday will have heard some listeners complaining about Jeremy Hardy Speaks To The Nation. One listener complained that the show was a “party political broadcast for the Labour Party”. Another listener bemoaned the fact that there aren’t any right-wing comedians on Radio 4. Right wing comedians? Really? Do I really want to hear right-wing comedy on Radio 4 or anywhere else? Needless to say, the complaints weren’t so much about the show rather than an apparent left-wing bias in the station’s comedy content.

Readers, I have read complaints like these before on Telegraph blogs and on The Freedom Association’s (TFA) website. The issue isn’t so much comedy itself, but with what the Right perceives to be the BBC’s “cultural bias” and, in the absence of any salient examples,  they will often cite the employment of what it sees as “left-wing” comedians at the “licence payers expense”.

We have seen complaints such as these from the Right since the 1970s. The political fringe theatre companies that were funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain, for example, came under attack from Tories like Teddy Taylor, who singled out CAST for special treatment. CAST, it seems, upset him more than most. He said,

“It is an outrageous waste of money. I’d like all grants withdrawn from this theatre company and intend to make representations to the authorities”.

Taylor had an ally in fellow Tory, Norman Tebbit, who complained bitterly of left-wing radicals practising their subversive arts on the taxpayers’ farthing. Thanks to their efforts, the Thatcher government appointed William Rees-Mogg (father of Jacob) as Chairman of the Arts Council in 1983. Under his command, funding was withdrawn from CAST and many other left-wing theatre companies. Consequently, the majority of fringe theatre companies were forced to either fold or change. Ever resourceful, CAST revived the variety form first on their New Variety circuit and then a couple of years later at the Hackney Empire. But funding cuts to local government and the abolition of the Greater London Council would continue to threaten CAST’s and the Hackney Empire’s existence until the mid-1990s.

So what is right-wing comedy? If you have a knowledge of right-wing political ideologies, then you will more or less understand the themes and the butts of its humour. In the 1970s, we had  Granada Television’s The Comedians. Jim Davidson, unless I am very much mistaken, is a right-wing comedian and a supporter of the Conservative Party. Davidson used to work for the BBC fronting such programmes as Big Break and The Generation Game. To the best of my knowledge, he has never graced the Radio 4 studios. Just as well, really.

Commissioning editor, Caroline Raphael defended Jeremy Hardy and reminded the complainants that satire can only work if it attacks those in power. This is axiomatic of political satire, but in the mind of the Right such self-evidence is met with derision. Why would anyone want to challenge the powerful? Aren’t they superior because of their social position and circumstances of birth? Although, they may not speak these words aloud, the underlying social Darwinian sentiment is there.

If left-wing comedy (well, political satire) attacks those in power, then right-wing comedy attacks those without power. It regards ethnic minorities, women, gays, lesbians, trans people, the homeless, the working class, drug addicts and others as objects of ridicule. It does not speak to power because it is power. In the master-slave relationship, it is the master. It presents life as a series of banal and insulting representations. It denies history because it seeks to create mythologies in its place. It is a sad day, indeed, when comedians like Jimmy Carr are described as “left-wing” by right-wing commentators.

The truth of the matter is that there are right-wing comedians, but their politics may not be evident in their comedy. Those who sit on the political Right are more likely to come across as ‘apolitical’ and play for the troops in the Falklands or Afghanistan. Judge them not by their words, but by their actions.

One of the complainants opined that “the BBC is a non-political organisation and yet it is paying for broadcasting what appeared to be a party political broadcast for the Communist Party”.  First of all, the BBC is not a “non-political organisation” and this is evident in it news coverage, which displays a right-wing bias. Secondly, those who complain that Hardy’s show was a “political broadcast for the Communist Party” ignore two things: 1) the Communist Party does not and has never made political broadcasts for the BBC and 2) Hardy is not a member of the Communist Party. But then, this is how the Right regards anything that doesn’t conform to their views. Even the Labour Party is “Communist” in their eyes.

But if right-wing comedy is like anything else that they’ve produced (think of nationalist poetry), then it’s bound to be pretty poor. I think it was Hemingway, who when asked if he preferred right-wing poetry to left-wing poetry, replied by saying right-wing poetry was “boring”. Right-wing comedy is bound to be, not only boring, but abusive as well.

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Filed under allegations of bias, BBC, Media, Tory press

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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Filed under Comedy, Society & culture