A popular comedian makes a political joke.

Here and across the pond, which ever stripe you subscribe to, things have got decidedly unhilarious. This is despite the clownish antics and gurning from both of our wild-haired leaders. And where straightforward political commentary fails — and, man, does it fail (step forward BBC & CNN) — I wonder if Comedy could be the tonic that cures us of this current malaise.

It’s not escaped my notice, or the notice of others, that many of our news outlets don’t appear to be very honest. John Cleese, a while ago, pointed out Britain’s continual last place in an EU report about ‘trusted news sources’. Many of the broadsheets and tabloids are losing sales hand over fist. Is it any surprise, then, that many get their news from memes and comedians on TV shows? Journalism of the kind Woodward & Bernstein practiced or even editor Harold Evans presided over — doesn’t really exist anymore. Instead, too often, we have puff pieces or, effectively, press releases from those in charge. No one really speaks truth to power.

Satire or fiction CAN cut through the flannel, often, to explain a political truth that might be hard to explain, opaque or even hidden in plain sight. Orwell knew that — as did George Carlin, Bill Hicks and a host of other vitriolic truthseekers and comical visionaries. Political laughs and where to get them, though, are not in short supply. So many shows: Have I Got News For You, Russell Howard, Mock The Week, The Last Leg, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, etc. Definitely a case of shits and giggles when Trump, Bojo, Cummings are the punchline. But do the comedians that populate these shows have the razor-sharp insights required to cut through the BS and really show what’s going on — say, in the spirit of Hicks and Carlin. Who can match the riotous postulations of Hunter S Thompson or the more dry and right-wing P J O’Rourke? Where is the journalistic equivalent of, maybe, a Chris Morris?

The trouble with political comedy in this climate is that our mainstream media feeds us and instructs us to think in terms of orthodoxies and narratives (set by them), and what passes as satire are just riffs and references on what passes as ‘the news’. Reportage, now, is a far cry from its golden age which certainly resides back in the last century. So there are certain misconceptions, in my opinion, that mean comedy or satire serve no solutions. Satire should punch up not down, they say; but when there are so many spurious, widely-accepted narratives being offered by the mainstream — effectively we’re hitting ourselves in the face.

Narratives that form the foundations and groundsoil of comedy are commonplace: Trump is controlled by Russia, the Labour Party are endemically antisemitic. There are lots. Let’s take Trump. While it might be funny (and maybe a little homophobic) that Trump is Putin’s bitch. Nothing, really, has ‘conclusively’ proved yet that this is the case. Remember Mueller revealing the findings of his Report in jaw-dropping, ‘senile’ slow motion?! Or reading Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi or Pulitzer-winning Glenn Greenwald on the flaws within ‘Russiagate’.
Yet Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show continued to mine this old and clawed-at seam and hilarity ensued. A more acutely observed take on US politics is from US comedian Jimmy Dore, who’d skewer the US’s unhinged Russia obsession and point out Trump and the DNC’s failings — and innate corruption from both — without resorting to the kind of Russia hysteria that would have good old boys searching under their neighbour’s beds for Commies !
You see billionaires don’t continue to give money to inept politicians — unless, of course, Russia is wot did it. Comedian and Ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart got this, but Colbert, Noah & SNL still liked their red-baiting. It got big ratings.

I don’t know. Centrism is perhaps the problem. Centrism, by the way, is a belief in tough decisions (for other people), bombing in moderation and accepting the Status Quo — regardless of how bad it is. ‘Centrists’ or ‘Moderates’ decided to give themselves a good name, a while ago — as ‘right-wing’ or ‘Neo-con-lite’ didn’t sound so nice.

Back in the UK, before the 2019 Election, ‘Centrist’ comedians garnered big TV laughs from narratives that turned out to be false (and clearly were, even then). David Baddiel, Jon Richardson, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Charlie Brooker had all made jibes along the lines that the Labour Party is effectively the Third Reich and Jeremy Corbyn is its Hitler. The audience laughed sometimes. But other times — feeling they were being duped and an issue forced — I noticed them groan uncomfortably.
And this is when comedy becomes dangerous, and satire becomes abused as propaganda. In reality, the Labour Party was in no way, shape or form endemically riven with racism and antisemitism — the facts did not bear this out. Rather the facts proved the opposite, that Labour had less antisemitism than other parties and wider society in general. This side of the election we have seen the results of investigations into Labour Antisemitism culminate in ONE person being charged by the CPS (not even a member at the time) and The Jewish Chronicle having been made to pay a substantial amount to a libelled Labour activist. None of this is a laughing matter when the Tories have suspended MPs for Holocaust Denial, been cosying up to Far Right idealogues — and currently have kicked out an adviser for his belief in Eugenics.

So when a panel member on a comedy show makes a joke along the lines that Corbyn is a Nazi: apart from it being somewhat deplorable — this is not revealing or underscoring an unsaid truth. This does not make people see something they’ve never quite noticed before, as with the humour of Hicks and Carlin. This is reinforcing or giftwrapping a lie. This is propaganda pure and simple.

Notable comedians who are genuinely political, satirical and who bust through these false narratives do exist. Alexei Sayle, Francesca Martinez, Frankie Boyle (when he’s in the mood to) and, of course, Mark Steel can still shine a light on media bias and drop the mic on what is really going on. Often the funniest, most acute broadsides can be found scattered around social media by esteemed wits such as Michael Rosen. Jonathan Pie (comedian Tom Walker) is another route to occasionally opening that Overton window a bit wider. Rob Delaney (comedian/Catastrophe) is another comedy mind, who politically sees through the hokum. He officially endorsed Bernie Sanders recently and his clear-eyed, spin-free political insights are ‘like water to someone dying of thirst’. As writer Andre Gide might have said.

We need more comedians like Delaney, Steel and Sayle, who think for themselves — and who prick the toxic bubble of Centrist, right-wing group-think. But please spare me the (supposedly) funny men and women who reside on my TV screen whether I want them or not. Even Plebs (the Roman-themed comedy, I quite like) is a breeding ground for reactionary Centrists. Cue appearances by Tony Robinson, Maureen Lipman, Tracy Ann Oberman. Cue me reaching for the off button. The Last Leg, too often, has been a satirical let down. As quirky, necessary and energetic as the show is: Friday night needed to be filled with radical, progressive takes on what was going in in Westminster and beyond. Instead they often settled for some lukewarm, satire-by-numbers as if they’ve set their comedy timing by Chuka Umunna’s political watch.

Laugh, I nearly found Matt Forde funny.

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A writer and filmmaker, who lives in London. Has written for New Statesman, Q Magazine, Huff Post. Latest film is ‘Upstairs Planet’ about Cleaners From Venus.

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Graham Bendel

Graham Bendel

A writer and filmmaker, who lives in London. Has written for New Statesman, Q Magazine, Huff Post. Latest film is ‘Upstairs Planet’ about Cleaners From Venus.

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