‘A real comedian – that’s a daring man,” Eddie Waters, an old standup turned evening class tutor, tells a group of would-be comics in Trevor Griffiths’s brilliant, mordant 1975 play, Comedians. “He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express.”
Comedians was an early shot in an early form of what we would now call a culture war, when, to the soundtrack first of punk and then the discordance of Thatcherism, a phalanx of “alternative” comedians stormed the citadels of BBC “light entertainment”. Four decades on, those young revolutionaries, and their professional progeny, have become the old guard, fatted and sated, and apparently ready for a cull.
The BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie, told his staff last week that the corporation’s comedic output is too dominated by leftwing performers and that it needed more Tory-leaning comics, a Geoff Norcott for every Nish Kumar. Cue a debate that was, over the past week, what the Last Night of the Proms furore had been to the week before. On the one side, a clamour of voices denouncing the BBC as hurtling into a “wormhole of wokeness”, on the other, the smug belief that rightwing comedians cannot be funny.
When Comedians hit the stage – and later our screens as a BBC Play for Today in 1979 – it was the high tide of BBC “light entertainment”. “Light” because it was designed to be inoffensive. But “inoffensive” is relative to the norms of a culture. British culture in the 60s and 70s was racist, sexist and homophobic in a way scarcely imaginable now and so was much of the comedy.
The title of Griffiths’s play was a deliberate nod to ITV’s 1970s series The Comedians, which, in the shadow of Enoch Powell, featured the likes of Bernard Manning, who laced his routine with jokes too rabidly racist to print here. Yes, he was, as his defenders insist, a master of comic timing. He was also a bigot. And it wasn’t just Manning. Virtually every TV comedian of that era, from Jim Davidson to Bob Monkhouse, and every sitcom from Love Thy Neighbour to It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, traded on racism.
All comedy requires, as the philosopher Simon Critchley observes, a “social contract” between performer and audience, “some agreement about the world in which we find ourselves as the implicit background to the joke”, and an “implicit shared understanding as to what constitutes joking ‘for us’”. As societies change, the social contract changes and inevitably humour, too. This is what happened with the demise of old-style light entertainment and the rise of alternative comedy in the 80s.
But if there must be a certain set of shared assumptions for any form of social interaction to work, the best political comedy also has to take risks and make the audience a bit uncomfortable, daring “to see what… listeners shy away from, fear to express”. Otherwise, it becomes what comedian Chris Gethard calls “clapter”: “This idea that you just say a thing that you know everyone in the room is going to agree with, so they’ll start clapping… Like, yeah: if you slam Trump in front of a New York City crowd, they’re all gonna start cheering. But you knew that.”
Back in the 70s, the old TV comedy had settled into a routine of eliciting clapter. So, too, has much contemporary comedy. Whether on The Mash Report or Have I Got News for You, you know every punchline before you hear it. It’s a comedy that reflects rather than challenges cultural fractures. The old racist prejudices have given way to new prejudices about the racism of working-class people or of Brexiters. It’s ironic that rightwing comedians, like rightwing politicians, can now promote themselves as champions of working-class sensibilities.
Yet this is not simply a problem of leftwing comedy or of the BBC. It’s a problem of our culture, a culture that discourages the taking of risks or of making people uncomfortable. In a more polarised society, politicians, writers, artists – and comedians – all play simply to their audience. And so we get the comedy of echo chambers.
This is why the idea of solving the problem by introducing more rightwing comedians to the BBC misses the point. Tory comedians are as much playing to their audience as liberal ones. It just happens to be a different audience. A string of anti-woke jokes is no funnier than a string of anti-Trump jokes. Each is safe in its own way, each a case, as Waters says in Comedians, of “handing out sweeties”. It doesn’t matter how you label the sweets. It’s the addiction to sugar we need to address.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist