Tag Archives: stand up 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.

 

 

Advertisements

5 Comments

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

3 Comments

Filed under comedy, Popular 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

11 Comments

Filed under Comedy, humour, Society & culture, television

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!

4 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Society & culture