It’s tricky to assess a sense of humour’s historical progress. Audiences viewing competent productions still laugh where Shakespeare, or Sheridan, or Plautus intended. Reading The Wipers Times (the magazine produced in the trenches) reveals battle-sharpened satire and fantasy that wouldn’t shame Private Eye. Any interested listener can access archive radio and stand-up with material and delivery that would work today. This isn’t surprising. Human beings are still scared of pain, bewildered by sex, amused by others’ misfortunes, outraged by authority and fond of nonsense.
What has changed is the pressure on those who make comedy their business in Britain. In the last few decades, comedy clubs have proliferated and can offer audiences a wonderful range of acts, but this variety is radically reduced at the next career stage for most performers, when they get a producer. The producer usually tailors the comedian to suit an existing stable and perceived marketplace. This doesn’t necessarily serve the comedian, or audiences who want edge, invention and anything not designed to suggest that a comic could present gameshows at a moment’s notice. Beyond this, risk-averse commissioning in British radio and television means that many scripts don’t survive with functional content, or are driven to repeat formulaic set-ups, while television’s love of sociopathic behaviour adds knee-jerk misanthropy.
In short, the British sense of humour hasn’t materially changed—it is simply offered increasingly standardised products by a savagely commercial and unimaginative system. The vast public affection and enthusiasm for rogue material, internet inventions and performers who triumph over the current environment speak of an enduring British hunger for quality comedy.