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Comedy and politics: the great debate

During the Edinburgh Festival the Political Studies Association organised a Festival of Politics which included a public debate about the relationship between comedy and politics. I was there as someone who studies the representation of politics in fiction and my fellow panelists were comedian and Ab Fab regular Helen Lederer and comedy writer Tim Telling of the Daily Mash.

Prior to the session Martin Kettle wrote this about the subject, quoting Helen and myself . Martin’s view, that satire was damaging our politics was contested in the New Statesman by Helen Lewis Hasteley.

In the session at Edinburgh, Helen, Tim and myself generally agreed about the difficulties comedians have in talking about politics and questioned how much influence they had. If that sounds a bit dull we did have some interesting things to say – although there was a very rude man in the audience who thought we were all talking rubbish.

Irrespective of that strongly held view, this is what I said to kick off the debate:

Potentially comedy and satire can perform a very useful function in our political culture. This is because if democracy is to work it needs, as John Stuart Mill said, the public to be vigilantly skeptical about their political representatives. The last thing they should be is deferential.

In theory at least, in satire, all vices are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals and society into improvement. In satire, therefore, wit can be a political weapon.

Satirists and comedian can also say more about politics than a journalist or academic – they aren’t bounded by reference to sources and the need to be descriptively true to the facts. They will also often have a larger audience – certainly compared to academics!

As a general rule however, comedy mostly invites us to laugh at politics: it is too often anti-political. Comedians encourage audiences to laugh at politicians, to ridicule them as an end in itself. Politicians are depicted as being: financially and morally corrupt; liars who will say and do anything for votes; who are all the same, no matter to which party they belong; and who do not represent us, only themselves.

Undoubtedly some politicians lie, cheat and steal: politicians have always lied, cheated and stolen. However, the impression that comedy gives us about our representatives as a class – that they are morally inferior to the rest of us – is just wrong. It is however a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not responsible because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.

The idea that a corrupt elite is screwing a noble people is powerful and pervasive and by no means new. It is therefore no surprise that it is reflected in comedy. It is certainly a view of politics that is popular amongst neo-liberals. It was at the heart of the popular 1980s situation comedy Yes Minister which repeatedly showed viewers that their political leaders and civil servants were feather-bedding themselves at the tax-payers’ expense. This was why Margaret Thatcher loved the series: it expressed her view that, as representative politics was a moral hazard, it should be replaced as far as possible by the market.

Few comedy writers and performers are neo-liberals – some even attack politicians from a left-wing perspective: many were disappointed by New Labour’s failure to significantly reduce inequality and alienated by Tony Blair’s role in taking Britain into the Iraq War. However, the cumulative effect of the same jokes ridiculing politicians and highlighting their supposed foibles can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit – and neo-liberals are amongst the nicest of those forces.

Comedy has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots careful with their money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.

In the 1930s Graham Greene defined ‘a humorist in the modern English sense’, as someone ‘who shares the popular taste and who satirizes only those with whom the majority are already displeased’. This led to what he disparaged as ‘safe and acceptable’ comedies.

The picture of politics that emerges from comedy today illustrates Greene’s point. For comedy now holds up a mirror less to the reality of politics but to our own prejudices about politics.

Clever comedians – the funniest comedians if not the most popular comedians – subvert stereotypes and prejudices. They make audiences reflect on why they think the things they do. It is however a brave comedian who does that – their audience is their income after all, so it is natural that they want to please them. Michael McIntyre doesn’t make his millions by asking audiences awkward questions of themselves.

Yet, comedy can do more than confirm our prejudices about politicians. While in Edinburgh I saw Matt Forde who told audiences about how he grew up in working class Nottingham and became interested in politics, acquired a rather strange fascination with Tony Blair and worked for the Labour MP Paddy Tipping. In his act, representative politics was presented as almost ordinary – not the domain of a vampiric morally deranged class of freaks.

In 1965 the BBC broadcast Dennis Potters’ play Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton. This was about a leftwing Labour candidate whose agent forces him to drop his ideals in the pursuit of votes. Viewers are meant to see the agent as a cynical manipulator. You might not think there were many laughs there, but there were. By the end we come to realize that the agent is as much the frustrated idealist as is Nigel Barton. For he turns to the camera and tells the viewer: ‘You may despise me but don’t blame me because it’s all your fault’. That is perhaps a truth not many appreciate hearing – and for that reason it’s not one many comedians articulate.

For, just as politicians are the prisoners of their voters, so most comedians are the creatures of their audiences.

Steven Fielding

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