Sunday, 6 March 2011

Comedy and politics

Interesting article from Stephanie Merritt, spurred by the curious fact that the objectionable, arch-Thatcherite Jim Davidson has penned a stage play called Stand Up and Be Counted, in which he stars as a 'bigoted' stand-up comedian who might just resemble himself; who, don' you just bet, will triumph over his 'politically-correct' competitors. Although this follow-up interview suggests at least recognition of defeat for his previously held values.

This sort of comedy is invariably reactionary and right-wing; this man is Davidson's spiritual mentor:

The Manning/Davidson school is appalling and we must move beyond it definitively. Trevor Griffiths' Comedians was written over thirty years ago (and adapted as a Play for Today, TX: 25.10.1979) and sought to criticise the stale, regressive old-school - whilst maintaining some affection for the legacy of music-hall. Clearly the 'alternative comedians' at least initially acted upon its agitational impulse. The desire to undermine evidently bigoted and regressive views. Of course, many of the alt-comedians might have done well to remember that it wasn't all bad in the past - what about Robb Wilton or Frank Randle? There were interesting, unusual figures who emerged from the working-class tradition of music hall.

Much of the early-1970s 'mainstream' comedy was backward-looking, yet an emodiment of a strongly masculine world, before levels of unemployment began increasing rapidly and before the Equal Pay came into effect. You see this in the leery, inconsequential silliness of the Confessions... films and presumably in the Wheeltappers and Shunter's Social Club. It is not a comedy we can or should return to, and nominally progressive or forward-looking comics should be ashamed of offering it up for us today, with their sheepish pretext of 'irony'. Irony is an altogether subtler thing than merely re-iterating the stunted prejudices of your forefathers, Frankie Boyle and Harry Hill.

Comedy and satire is successful when afflicting the comfortable, not in putting the boot into a media-defined underclass. No doubt many will feel personal antipathy to being in close social contact with 'charvas' who match the Little Britain depiction. There might be role for some social satire, but not the same old tired attacks on what is a broad-brush stereotype.

If Michael McIntyre's comedy is non-political - as Merritt suggests - perhaps this is a reflection of our times. It represents the wilful ignorance of many who have never been taught or do not understand the centrality of politics to everything in our lives.

Better 1970s-era comedies tend to be the sitcoms: Fawlty Towers and Rising Damp satirised right-wing authority figures, afflicting them but with some human sympathy. David Nobbs's The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is a middle-class cry of despair against regimented, predictable institutions - work, marriage, consumerism (in the second-series).

There is a practical reason there cannot be right-wing comedy in the mainstream media - there is not the audience for it, nor the 'talent' within the comedy world, as indeed Misterbaxter argues: 'Actually, the comedy scene in this country is driven by a thriving live circuit - venues of 150-500 capacity putting on mixed bills of three or so stand-ups twice or more a week. [...] The audiences are not by any means Guardian-reader lefties. On the whole, they are young-ish, mostly male, working (although not necessarily working-class), fond of a beer or two, usually out with a crew of mates (or work-mates); not especially racist, sexist or homophobic but open to humour that explores those issues. The BBC simply skims off the top of this thriving subculture; the fact is that right-wing comics simply are not emerging from the live proving-grounds. Perhaps it's because British humour favours the underdog. Rich people laughing at poor people isn't that funny. Comfortable middle-class people laughing at struggling immigrants isn't that funny.'

It also ought to be said that our governments have been economically right-wing in the last 32 years, and generally socially liberal - so a right-wing insurgency will not develop in these circumstances. I anticipate some more satire of rootless liberalism; you see some good satire of this Peep Show and David Mitchell seems to be a rare case of a 1970s-born 'left wing fogey'. However, satirising rootless liberalism is clearly a harder task than assailing neo-liberal fundamentalism, which is more likely to be the tenor of current comedy. This is one of Fry and Laurie's most sublimely funny, telling sketches with clear political commentary:

We have a mainstream media that parrots the neo-liberal, right-wing line, and Merritt neglects to mention that there is comedy that does not fit the left-wing tag. As mentioned in CIF, we do have comic minds who are to the right: Ian Hislop is a Tory, though patently of the One Nation variety, hence his preoccupation with things like the scouting movement. We have, of course, Top Gear, a show far from progressive in what it shows or what its participants say. Many of the alternative comedians turned out to be reactionary - or at least happy to associate with some very reactionary people. Of course, there was also Kenny Everett with his "Let's kick Michael Foot's stick away!" at a Tory Party Conference. There is also the self-righteous, right-wing demogoguery of Noel Edmonds, whose television work ought to count as unintentional comedy rather than light entertainment.

Merritt could do with acknowledging that other forms of comedy are heterogenous and deal with left as well as right wing politics: Armando Iannucci's superb The Thick of It assails both Conservative and (New) Labour politics without compunction. It highlights systemic follies and failures, as well as giving a deeply humane portrait of human absurdities and frailties:

There are also 'comics' such as the Viz, which is even-handed in poking fun at those from all parts of the political spectrum.

Likewise, one couldn't easily pigeonhole the comedy of Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python's Flying Circus or The Day Today other than that there are small-a anarchist and small-l liberal tendencies. The impulse may be slightly more left of centre, simply because right-wing politicians tend to be in power and left-wing politicians are drawn to the right when in power. Comedy has to tackle the powerful, and that is where many so-called left-wing comedians went badly wrong in the Blair era by aligning themselves with Blair; obviously, there were exceptions: Linda Smith, Mark Steel &c.

My favourite current stand-ups are the absurdist Simon Munnery and the provocative, Bill Hicks-influenced Stewart Lee. Lee's more abrasive form of left-wing comedy is especially notable as he is willing to attack cultural relativism:

Lee openly advocates something he believes in (William Blake), whereas the likes of Boyle and other amateur nihilists merely peddle a debased 'irony'. On CIF, Dogstarscribe instructively compares these comedians with their traditionalist predecessors: 'Ken Dodd, who's hugely successful in his format with his audience, is another very conservative comedian. So was Manning - although Frankie Boyle would probably kill for the Manning riff, working a Catholic social club, where he looked at the life size crucifix on the wall and asked 'What did he do? Rob the bandits?' (Which probably says a lot about where Boyle actually sits on the political spectrum - there's nothing socialist or optimistic about cynical nihilism that says we're all shit really - that's the language of the right, not the left).'

Comedy should not seek to play to people's ignorance; if Clarkson does not really believe in the reductive views he spouts he should stop: he does harm and narrows horizons with every cliche he utters. Comedy has to reflect human nature, but also has a responsibility not to make things worse. As Orwell explains in the passage below, comedy will always reflect some of the 'lowness of outlook' that exists in society; this need not necessarily be conservative, homophobic, racist etc, but be rooted in common experience. Perhaps the sitcom went onto take over from the seaside postcards that Orwell is ambivalent - but finally tolerant - about.

'It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.

The comic post cards are one expression of his point of view, a humble one, less important than the music halls, but still worthy of attention. In a society which is still basically Christian they naturally concentrate on sex jokes; in a totalitarian society, if they had any freedom of expression at all, they would probably concentrate on laziness or cowardice, but at any rate on the unheroic in one form or another. It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly. That is exactly what they are meant to be. Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed low-ness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever. The slightest hint of ‘higher’ influences would ruin them utterly. They stand for the worm's-eye view of life, for the music-hall world where marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster, where the rent is always behind and the clothes are always up the spout, where the lawyer is always a crook and the Scotsman always a miser, where the newly-weds make fools of themselves on the hideous beds of seaside lodging-houses and the drunken, red-nosed husbands roll home at four in the morning to meet the linen-nightgowned wives who wait for them behind the front door, poker in hand. Their existence, the fact that people want them, is symptomatically important. Like the music halls, they are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue. They express only one tendency in the human mind, but a tendency which is always there and will find its own outlet, like water. On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time'.
(George Orwell, 'The Art of Donald McGill', 1941)

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