Comedy under attack

With performers facing pressure from all sides, and working against a backdrop darker than the darkest satire, how to rescue the art form?

October 13, 2020
Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

What does it take to be funny about politics? From newspaper columns to television panels, those who manage to turn current affairs into gags have long performed an important national service, but times are tough.

Have I Got News for You has grown increasingly stale, the new Spitting Image is so far more miss than hit, and even Twitter, once the ideal repository for quick wit, is now more boxing ring than stand-up gig.

“The humour has got darker and darker to the point where sometimes I feel that you probably can't even see it,” says John Crace, the Guardian’s sketch writer. “I've had to readjust what a sketch means, really. In the good old days, you would just lightly take the piss, but in the age of coronavirus, that doesn't work so well.”

Because the news is so consistently harrowing, comedians are left with two less-than-ideal options: either attempt to make a global pandemic that’s killed over a million people funny, or decide to try and be funny about something else entirely, thus looking like they’re ignoring the one thing everyone cares about. It also presumably doesn’t help that the whole entertainment industry currently looks like it may not survive the next few years. It is hard to be amusing when you’re not sure you have a career anymore.

Still, the problems didn’t start with coronavirus; over the past few years, debates have raged over what is funny and what isn’t, who gets to joke about what, and what sort of humour the BBC should be promoting. This culminated in reports last month that new BBC Director-General Tim Davie intends to "tackle perceived left-wing bias" in comedy programming.

It is unclear the move would solve much, but it is clear there is a wider problem in comedy—just ask Gráinne Maguire. After years of political stand-up, the comedian decided to leave it all behind in 2016. “After Brexit, it just felt like there was a real sea change; before Brexit you could talk about politics, people would engage with it. But something happened with Brexit and everything became so personal. It didn't feel like you were attacking political beliefs; people thought that they themselves were being attacked, and you just felt such tension in the room.”

“It's ironic because people would think 'Oh, Brexit, this big national debate, everybody has an opinion on it, it must be brilliant for stand-up,' but it wasn't. Everyone has such an emotional reaction to it that it became very… difficult to talk about it and not just change the atmosphere in the room.” Throw in the viciousness of the Labour forever wars under Jeremy Corbyn, and Maguire realised she was done with political stand-up.

If it has become impossible to lightly mock a range of different views, then perhaps a way forward is to go in harder on those in power. In an interview he gave last year on Channel 4 and that periodically goes viral on Twitter, Chris Morris, behind The Day Today and Brass Eye, explained why he had little time for current political humour.

“I don’t really see the point of comedy unless there’s something underpinning it. I mean, what are you doing? Are you doing some kind of exotic display for the court to be patted on the head by the court, or are you trying to change something?”, he asked Jon Snow.

“I think we’ve got used to a kind of satire which essentially placates the court. You do a nice dissection of the way things are in the orthodox elite, and lo and behold, you get slapped on the back by the orthodox elite who say ‘jolly good, can you do us another one?’”

This brings up some interesting questions: what is political comedy for? Must it exist to attack the powerful? If so, does it ever really work? If not, what does it strive to be? For radio producer Ed Morrish, there is a risk of confusing two very distinct strands of political humour.

“Topical comedy and satire are different things. Topical comedy is just jokes about the news; satire is attempting to undermine the argument, it's a rhetorical device,” he explains.

“People who get angry about satire not having teeth are sort of missing the point that most topical comedy is there for people to switch off on Friday night and relax. Have I Got News for You comes from entertainment at the BBC, its job is not to bring down the government.”

The natural conclusion, then, would be to treat different kinds of comedy differently: some producers and comedians will only ever aim to draw a warm chuckle from their audience, while others actually want to try and take a bite out of the government. Entertainment does not need to have an ulterior motive to be valid. Sometimes, being funny can be the endgame.

The one issue with this is that it does not quite address Maguire’s point; for comedy to be successful, enough people must be able to enjoy it. While milquetoast attempts at balance can be a problem, the fact that we live in increasingly polarised times is what may kill topical comedy altogether.

As Morrish explains, “In topical comedy—whether satire or not—the news story is the set-up, and you're looking for the punchline. The punchline is, broadly speaking, the least logical, logical thing… It has to be a logical rejoinder, otherwise it's a non sequitur—but it has to be the least logical thing because it's the most surprising.”

“It’s a formula, but the set-up has to be the same for everyone. So if I'm coming from a news ecosystem where the vote to leave the EU is a project of bankers who don't want regulation, or if I'm a product of a news ecosystem where it was a grassroots revolution that threw off the yoke of tyranny, the set-up is different. The least logical logical thing doesn't work anymore. What's the set-up there that pleases both those people, and what's the answer? What's the solution that makes sense to both those people?”

In a nutshell: it is not just about people taking jokes about their political tribes personally, but about people no longer agreeing on the very facts jokes are based on. In this context, it appears nearly impossible to please enough people to make a programme worthwhile, especially if balance is also something you need to be constantly aware of.

It isn’t clear what the way forward should be. Perhaps topical comedy should simply embrace the culture wars and stop trying to be all things to all people. Left-wing comedians will always find their left-wing audiences, while Brexiteer comedians, whoever they are, can do the same. It may only end up entrenching differences between political clans but then again, expecting comedy to bring everyone together was always going to be a bold request.

Satire, on the other hand, feels needed now more than ever. As Crace puts it, “there are people dying and there is incompetence on a grandiose scale, so I feel that the satire has to resort to its old-school principles of holding power to account. Being able to, in a way that news reporters often can't, say "so and so is lying".”

As for the BBC—best of luck to Tim Davie.