Examining a Multicultural Country and Stand-up Comedy

This was originally for my final paper in Multicultural London, a class taught by Dan Wheatley, while I attended the London abroad program with Syracuse University, Spring 2011.

Comedy, or more specifically, stand-up comedy, has become one of the most integral and active components of British cultural life. It is an art form that has exploded into a booming industry for amateurs and professionals, alike. Currently, there are over 200 comedy clubs, 30 festivals and numerous televised and marketed performances. Like many art forms, stand-up comedy is a reflection of the current events of the time, the individual’s and the public and political opinions and discourses, as well as the standards the audiences hold for what constitutes as “funny” and “entertaining”. Stand-up has also been intensely affected by historical changes that are evidenced by the subject matter. From the “Traditional” comedy of the 1970’s to the modern social commentary and wit that has come to define current stand-up comics, the comedy is a reflection of the multiculturalism that exists in Britain. This statement requires a qualifier, however, in that stand-up comedy and the public and political impact that multiculturalism has on British culture is not an indication of causation, but rather an ever-evolving mutual relationship in which one factor impacts the other.

In the 1970’s, the emergence of Traditional or “Trad” comedy followed the Labour government’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which withdrew the right of entry to Commonwealth immigrants under most considerations and the Race Relations Act of 1965 due to rising tensions between multiple racial communities. The Act applied only to employment and housing, but not police rights. These policies put considerable pressure on immigrant and diverse groups, especially in the wake of the 1971 Immigration Act, which denied immigrant access who only were in possession of a work permit. As a result, the comedy material began to reflect the white majority’s public opinion of immigrants and minority groups. More specifically, Trad comedy at the time had a markedly mechanical method, in which comedians jokes had a tendency to to be quick and primarily focused on minimal joke structures, primarily featuring one-liners, short-jokes, and witty cracks. Culturally, the simple delivery led Trad comedy to being considered as low or unsophisticated. However, there was another aspect of Trad comedy that provoked social criticism, which was that the comic material had an “aggressive subtext, expressing in particular racist, sexist and homophobic sentiments”. According to Billig’s analysis of comedy, he traced the origins of this kind of comedy, as it was possibly established in the “superiority theory” of humour initially expressed by Hobbes. In this case, minority groups are demeaned and degraded under the guise of humour in order to maintain the solidarity and individualities of the majority. Among the comedians who were at the centre of the mainstream success of Trad comedy was Bernard Manning, Frank Carson and Jim Davidson. They were tantamount with this field of comedy and throughout the 1970’s were the most effective in introducing popular Trad humour to the television. The medium of television allowed these jokes to reach a wide audience across Britain, and due to the potentially offensive nature of their humour created the possibility that would make the open mockery of minorities without irony socially acceptable. In 1971, England faced a wave of immigration, primarily from Southwest Asia following the Pakistani war of independence supported by India. The new wave of immigrants quickly became targets for the comedians of the time, in addition to anyone considered foreign or “un-British.” A more notorious joke by Manning captured the tactlessness of the Trad style in the 1970’s:

What’s the difference between an Iraqi woman and a pilchard? One’s ugly, greasy, with bulging eyes. The other’s a fish.

As the Labour Party-run England evolved, the mid-1970’s was highlighted with racial violence and neofascist uprisings. The comedy of this era represented the dominating class’s attempt to maintain power and create solidarity through a “short-cut to community”, which is achieved at the cost of individuals who harbour conflicting and potentially dissident characteristics. The relevance is that in reacting to the rising multiculturalism in Britain, which was overtly changing the dynamic of “Englishness”, the comedians of the 1970’s used humour to construct deep feelings of cultural uniqueness, frequently in the form of majority superiority.

The 1980’s brought along the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, and with it, the inner city race riots of Brixton, Merseyside and Hackney. Immigration acts were put into effect that cut immigrant rights, such as the 1988 Immigration Act — declaring that all dependents of men who settled before 1973 could no longer join them, unless there was evidence of non-dependency. This act directly targeted members of the Afro-Caribbean and Southeast Asian communities. It was a time of growing dissent amongst the Left-wing performers and comedians, as well. Just as the Labour Party began recruiting black voters, a new era of alternative and diverse comedians begin to dominate the stand-up comedy scene. Exasperated by the unacceptable bigotry performed by Trad comedians, a fresh group of comedians developed in

the recently opened Comedy Store in London. These alternative comedians enthusiastically improved the method, style and material of British comedy. Their ideology pushed past the low-brow humour of Trad comedy, often taking aim at the methods of Trad comedians themselves. Their goal was to not only develop the art form of stand-up comedy and incorporate observational, political and introspective humour for a wide audience that was not strictly limited to gentlemen’s clubs. The most well-known comedians of the time included Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Robbie Coltrane, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Ben Elton. Many of these comedians were infused with elements of the punk movement of the 80’s, and reflected it in their material, where they frequently targeted elements of the Thatcher administration. Their material reflected their audience as well, which was comprised of young, radical, working class and (most importantly) multi-cultural. Understandably, the comedians of the 1980’s focused on the issues that were affecting Britain at the time, such as raising consciousness of unemployment, economic depression and the social and racial divisions of the time. For these performers, comedy was not just an art form; it was a social movement that included the use of parody to reveal prejudice hidden in lower forms of comedy. Tony Allen once said:

Ok, stand-up comedy, I know what you want…there was this drunk homosexual Pakistani squatter trade-unionist takes my mother-in-law to an Irish restaurant…says to the West-Indian waiter, ‘Waiter, waiter, there’s a racial prejudice in my soul…”

The emergence of black comedians was influential in breaking social barriers as well. Targeting the prejudices of the audience, Lenny Henry both mocked and celebrated Black culture (himself being of Caribbean descent) and was a trendsetter for future black and minority comedians alike. During a time of tumultuous race-relations, poor economic conditions and frustration with the government, the alternative comics, many with socialist leanings, found unity with audiences comprised of like-minded people. Such solidarity stemmed from an active participation in anti-racist movements, with a heavy emphasis in Southall. Following the end of the Thatcher era in 1993 brought in a new Labour government, with hopes that Britain would grow economically and adapt to the growing trend of immigration. With such changes came a new breed of comedian.

In the 1990’s, Britain reached new levels with immigration. Quickly, it became one of the most important issues debated on both local and national levels. Despite attempts to curb immigration (such as the introduction of the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Act, which stipulated certain countries to be refused asylum automatically), recent immigrants slowly found their voice through the medium of comedy. These humourists played to ideas of concerns of the high diversity levels, especially in London. Frequently, relationships between the different groups were examined, namely to address the use of the term “community”, and its context to Britain as a whole. Community came to have a dual meaning, one that could either imply that the minority group is more centralised or that the majority group is therefore more detached. While there was certainly a rise of more absurd and observational humour, made popular by Bill Bailey and Eddie Izzard, other comedians responded to not only the growing multiculturalism of Britain, but the public’s response to it as well. Omid Djalili, who became active in stand-up in 1995, often takes the stage at the beginning of his act as a generic Middle Eastern character and often segues into observational and social commentary. Stephen K. Amos, of Nigerian descent, has a similar routine on occasion, in which he begins his set with a thick African accent, and follows it up by revealing his natural English accent while calling the audience out for laughing at his stereotypical Black jokes. Much of their work in the 1990’s was a reflection of the public’s reaction to immigrants in their communities and what it means to be “British”. Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, socially conscious comedians began to target institutionalised racism. Strong attacks from the Right-wing media followed, accusing those who took offense to perceived racism and sexism as overly sensitive and too Politically Correct. Comedians such as Stewart Lee went on the offensive to criticise such people, claiming hypocrisy on their part. It was in part a defence of multiculturalism and an attack on the use of shielding hate with the message “Political correctness gone mad!” Lee observed:

Pundits on the Right like to imagine we live in a PC dictatorship, but the fact remains that in a high-street bookshop it is assumed that any book with PC in the title must be a hilarious attack on PC, rather than a book in its defence, because the only time you ever see PC mentioned is when people are complaining about PC. For money.

What many of the prominent comedians of the 90’s (and today, respectively) are doing is commenting on the reductive strategies used to conceptualise culture, and in turn observing the British culture’s formation of what is ethnic and racial identity, and why it can be laughed at as long as the messages of tolerance are not overlooked.

Modern day British comedy has become a vast industry. Hundreds of comics perform every evening across England. In today’s world, they are of diverse backgrounds, made up of every colour creed and culture. Topics range from breakfast to Iranian women’s rights. Britain is a multiculturalist state, as emphasised by the Prime Minister’s address of how Britain must evolve. As Britain evolves culturally, so too will the stand-up comics of each generation.


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