You can’t laugh at that! How the middle class liberals have hijacked British comedy

I don’t know when it happened exactly, but at some point during the last decade I stopped watching British stand-up comedy. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a dawn get-a-way, tiptoeing with stealth and acuity out of a dodgy hotel room you might leave a whore in (I’ve been told) or a heap of hung-over drunken sailors after a night of debauchery. It just stopped-being-funny and became more of an angry pedantic lesson on how to think and what political beliefs were and were not acceptable in polite society.

Take, for example, ‘alternative’ comedian Stewart Lee in last night’s episode of Comedy Vehicle entitled ‘Migrants’ – go on, I bet you can guess what Mr Lee’s views are on migrants? Go on try it. You’re going to be right. You are right. He has exactly the same views on migrants as every other dinner party liberal; same as he does with UKIP, Islam, the Tories and a whole host of other stuff that preoccupy this narrow minded sub-strata of society. You know what they’re going to say before they utter a syllable and it’s boring.

In fact, Stewart is such a stereotype that he even has a regular column in the Guardian – the bible of the faux left chattering classes. It’s a shame, because he was, once, actually very funny and genuinely alternative (watch his stuff from the 90’s). Now, he seems to have fallen in line with every other comedian: stand-up saturated with rigid political orthodoxies, right-on, faux left and generally mocking of anyone who doesn’t share his twisted liberal view of the world – particularly the common muck.

Stewart, bizarrely, spent 20 minutes of his stand-up routine mocking Spectator and Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle (who is side-splittingly funny, by the way); which is fine, only, it wasn’t funny at all – which is a bummer if you’re a comedian. What is revealing is that he chose to mock not only Rod’s political beliefs per se but also his working class roots and ‘plebeian’ background (as he sees it); which, I assume, he believes is responsible for all of his awful uncivilised views.

Embarrassingly, the pompous wanker could barely conceal his utter contempt for the working class, as he rounded off his tiresome pageant of Rod being covered in gravy, angel delight, suet, jelly from a pork pie (not anything as middle-class and foreign as pate, he insinuated) and Tunnocks teacakes. The last ten minutes was particularly cringing as he mimicked Rod eating a poppadum in an Indian Restaurant – it went on and on, until I actually started to feel sorry for the guy. But hang on Stewart, isn’t that racist? You could’ve at least chosen an English chippy – you’re supposed to resent the culture you come from, right?

Anyway, Stewart Lee has spent his career being the anti-hero of comedy, but now, unbeknownst to him and his legion of smug Guardianista fans, he is no longer alternative but rather the choirmaster of a seemingly endless chorus of ‘comedians’ who advertise for the liberal establishment – there’s nothing alternative about him. He’s totally mainstream. And the same goes with practically all of them – except maybe Ricky Gervais – at least not yet.

Whether it’s the cross-dressing Euro-nut Eddie Izzard who used make brilliant surrealist observational comedy, but is now content with moronic jokes comparing Nigel Farage to Hitler. Or star of the brilliant Peep Show, David Mitchell, who now presents ‘soap box’ videos for the Guardian Website – guess what gets on his nerves the most? Go on guess. Even his co-star Robert Webb, again used to be funny, but now writes a weary column for the Guardian’s big brother – the endlessly tedious and humourless New Statesman.

Then, there’s Marcus Brigstock, who loathes working class culture and mocks ‘overweight women who tuck a copy of a women’s magazine under the pizza in their shopping trolleys’ and lazy builders who ‘need eight gallons of tea every five minutes’. (Maybe some of those builders are Polish – the coward wouldn’t dare mock them). Even risqué standup Frankie Boyle has a Guardian column in which he slags off the Tories and hurls insults at Americans – the only nationality you can mock without being called a racist – again, another coward.

So, you see there’s something a lil’ bit fishy going on; but don’t be fooled – this isn’t just a troupe of annoying elites spitting bile at anyone who has the audacity share an opinion other than what they deem acceptable; no, this is much darker and has more wider cultural significance.

A few years back I attended a Christmas party and as is the norm on these occasions I, along with my co-workers, got pebble-dashingly pissed faced. The conversation turned to British Comedy and why it isn’t funny anymore – because you can’t laugh or joke about anything – a wry and fellow piss head observed; someone even suggested that Thatcher put an end to jokes about the Irish – this, though, has yet to be proven.

Anyway, I can’t entirely recollect what happened next, but I recall putting a serviette on my head and performed my embarrassing gay Jesus routine – this went down well (everyone was hammered); then I pretended to be Mohammed and the scene turned nasty – that’s offensive, that’s racist, stop it, they all cried – even though nobody was Muslim and everybody was, supposedly, a Christian.

Make of that what you will – but when society at large, and increasingly the state, starts to police jokes, we’re in very dangerous territory indeed. Old working class pub stand up, Bernard Manning, was probably a bigot, but I’ll take him any day over this new breed humourless, PC, patronising bien pensants.

RIP, Ronnie Corbett


6 thoughts on “You can’t laugh at that! How the middle class liberals have hijacked British comedy

  1. Wrote comedy in the eighties for Les Dawson, The Two Ronnies and many others, Although there was some good so called alternative comedians, French & Saunders, Victoria wood, for example, many just weren’t funny they just attacked the same targets (apart from Spitting Image did anybody ever tell a good Margaret Thatcher joke?) AC started the trend you so brilliantly illustrate. Remove the agenda and most so called comedians are not in the least bit funny physically (absence of funny bones) or verbally. Thankfully sit coms seem to be returning to grass roots comedy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can mainly speak from an Australian perspective, but the laws of supply and demand work in the same way. Taking a left perspective is a safety zone. Comedians are desperate for laughs and will appease their base audience. They also have to groom their prospective TV and Radio careers, by appeasing the whims of whatever TV exec they are out on the piss with after a gig.
    More can be said on this.
    But, I don’t know where to start..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stewart Lee started out as an ‘alternative comedian’, and has evolved into a character actor who has spent the best part of 25 years honing what is now a relatively popular satirical self-parody. Whether or not one anyone finds him funny is a personal choice; I find his shows well-written and hilarious, but that’s beside the point. Rod Liddle is, among other things, a newspaper columnist who is paid to voice controversial opinions, and again, whether or not he is funny is up to the observer, and it needn’t be a choice between Lee or Liddle. Lee’s section on Liddle is knowingly sour, coming as it does from the character ‘Stewart Lee’ (an apparently embittered middle-aged comedian), and is merely a vehicle for laying bare the ludicrous side of language and imagery (a.k.a. alternative comedy, if you will). The Lee character is openly and fully aware of his liberal agenda, and full of self-loathing as well as misanthropy. Defending Liddle in the wake of Lee’s apparent attack is noble, yet misguided, unless of course one is doing so ironically. Liddle is perhaps as much a self-loather as Lee (or the Lee character, which often becomes a muddle), which makes Lee’s pastiche of the Liddle character every bit as likely as Liddle negatively reviewing Lee’s show. Analysing Lee’s act for a hatred of the working class misses the point rather spectacularly, and is perhaps done so outside of the context in which the supposed leftist liberal elitism was delivered. You are absolutely right, he is no ‘alternative’ comedian anymore, a point on which Lee agrees; moreover, he knowingly made and continues to make his unwanted progression from the fringe to the comfort of the middle classes a central tenet of his shows. Whatever criticism you might aim at Lee, it is met with equal recognition. Ultimately, if it makes you laugh then take it for what it is (comedy theatre), and if it does not, then whatever plane of comedy it purports to exist on is simply not to your taste. Papadums, pate, angel delight – the choice of words says more about the knowledge of comedic sound and value than it does about any supposed elitism or indeed racism (Indian restaurants are now so synonymous with British culture as to be inseparable, so accusations of racism are a long stretch here).

    On Izzard et al losing the edge that made them funny, I would actually tend to agree with you, particularly as they appear so frequently on scripted ‘comedy’ panel shows, which Lee steers well clear of. Indeed, Lee himself (the character at least) will take issue with exactly the same personnel you mentioned for exactly the same reasons, so putting him in the same boat is perplexing. Lee a stereotype? If he is, it is because he practically invented his own stereotype – a satirical caricature of a portion of his self and ego – and indeed weaves that very knowledge into each show, displaying as much self-contempt as any other. No only that, but younger comedians consolidate such stereotyping by copying and assimilating parts of his creative works into their own derivatives.

    Bernard Manning over Stewart Lee? I will leave others to form their own opinion on that score, but if open racism (Indiscriminate witless attacks on all? Everyone’s a legitimate target so it’s OK? I question the value of such ‘comedy’) and a total lack of political correctness is what you are looking for, then I am not sure what vision for Britain you have in mind. Indeed, Lee’s own disdain for political correctness, at least in terms of a binary choice, is plain to see, and has been brilliantly and directly addressed in at least one of his previous shows. So, as we mourn the general demise of British Comedy (on this I agree with you), I would argue that one of the few people propping it up is Stewart Lee. Morcambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, and many more are long since gone, and the landscape is so very different now, but clever and incisive writing, mixed with drama and the obscure (yes, Lee combines all that and more, including 3-minute bits consisting of a repeating bodily sound) should be appreciated, and yet in doing so still leaves plenty of room (if desired) for the equally stereotypical right-wing angry comic to pour scorn directly on as many ethnic groups as they wish, as well as the bland comedy which tends to fill the gaps in between. With Stewart Lee, it isn’t so much a case of “You can’t laugh at that!” as it is “Surely nobody would laugh at [food on Rod Liddle]!” Ultimately, to enjoy Lee’s shows is to laugh at the absurd, to lay bare and acknowledge our own insecurities and discriminatory views, and learn something about comedy as Lee disseminates his own routine (and humour in general) in a flash of self-loathing – we’re in on it, and yet we’re also the target of scorn as we are so smug about liking what we are hearing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stewart Lee’s bit on the historical migrations of various groups who bring their skills and their culture with them, going back to before humans had even evolved, is fucking hilarious.

    So is his bit on the IRA being ‘gentlemen bombers’.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I had a strange (and i think genuine) sympathy for you at the end when you inadvertently reveal that the reason you wrote the article was because no-one joined you in laughter at a party when you tried to make them all laugh at a group that wasn’t present.
    I don’t agree with your sentiments at all but I like the way you write.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Rod Liddle? Side-splittingly funny? You remind me of the humourless second lieutenant in Good Morning Vietnam who couldn’t see anything funny about Adrian Cronauer’s comedy riffs and wanted a return to tasteful traditional comedy. Rod Liddle amuses himself by making fun of politically correct Guardian readers, in the most formulaic way possible. His columns always read as if they took about ten minutes to write. And Stewart Lee? He’s funnier than Robin Williams at any rate. It’s a tonic to find any of his performances on Youtube and watch for fifteen minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

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