Mainstream comedians frequently lampoon Brexit voters, northerners and people who don’t share their view. So, on the eve of the election, four comedians held a one-off gig to re-invent political satire. Ranging in political outlook, they were united in an attempt to create comedy for everyone.
Andy Shaw caught up with two of the comedians, Dominic Frisby and Will Franken, to find out why many comedians have become lazy and predictable.
Dominic Frisby is one of the comedians performing at ‘Stand Up.. For Democracy’
ANDY: Marcus Brigstocke was shocked when people walked out of his shows after ridiculing Brexit voters. He isn’t the only comedian who has felt out of touch with people when touring outside the London comedy circuit. What do you think is going on?
WILL: It’s like Pavlov’s bell. Lots of new people are coming into comedy without bringing anything that new or having a voice of their own. They don’t really know how to make people laugh. At a comedy club they hear a UKIP joke or see comedians making fun of Farage and people laugh. So, they think that’s how you get a laugh. I think a lot of people who make jokes about Brexit don’t know much about it, but they just want to get a laugh. It helps their self-esteem, it’s comedy devolution, not evolution. The comedy circuit now caters for an audience who laugh at the people who aren’t in the room. It’s a shock when they go outside.
DOMINIC: There’s a left wing worldview that has occupied the moral high ground for probably a generation now. And while it has been tolerant of some things, it has been extremely intolerant of views that differ from its own. Convinced of its own moral superiority, it has smeared its opponents. If, for example, every now and then you might suggest that Nigel Farage has a point about something, you are a racist. If you think Diane Abbot is a hypocrite, you are a racist and, probably, a sexist too. And so on. “Spreading hate” is the new one that gets used.
Most people just want a quiet life, so the effect has been to suppress alternate points of view.
With everything that has happened in the world since the financial crisis, more and more people are starting to wake up to the fact that, actually, this worldview may be flawed. The internet has given other views a platform that didn’t previously exist. Brexit in particular has given people confidence to stand up to the puritanical. They are no longer so prepared to keep their mouths shut and be told that their views are evil, bad and wrong.
Marcus is a good comic who argues passionately about what he believes. I don’t agree with him, but I admire him. Back in the 90s I saw him play really difficult rooms beautifully. You don’t forget that as a comic. He’s got more political as he’s got older. What has changed is that five years ago audiences who didn’t agree with him would have just buttoned up. Now they walk out.
ANDY: Good comedy can make you laugh at yourself and think about things differently. Why do many of the current comedy shows seem lazy and predictable?
WILL: ‘Alternative’ comedy is not alternative to the mainstream. Political correctness is a pre-emptive counter-strike to something that never happens. Many people said that Brexit was a racist vote because they fear the motivations of people they don’t have contact with. If this wasn’t so tragic, this would be really funny.
DOMINIC: Comics who trot out this generic worldview are given a platform. Commissioners, who for the most part share the views I’ve described above, won’t give any other view a platform. TV is slow to change. It lacks imagination. Most commissioners are thinking only with their own career in mind and don’t have the confidence to take risks. They just book somebody because they’ve seen them on TV somewhere else or because agents tell them to. It’s very rare somebody outside of the clique gets given a juicy gig on TV.
Will Franken is also performing at ‘Stand Up.. For Democracy’
ANDY: In the bad old days, comedians used to characterise Irish people as stupid and make racist jokes. Nowadays comedians characterise Glaswegians as unhealthy, Scousers as thieves and Brexit voters as stupid. How did this happen?
WILL: I’m no class warrior, but I come from a working class background in the US. I do think that art mostly attracts middle-class people who can afford to go to the Edinburgh Fringe on their own money and employ PR agents. They don’t spend time with people unlike themselves, they don’t interact with working class people.
In my comedy the intelligence and the surrealism appeals to the left and the politics is more to the right. If we could have more intelligent honest alternatives to people like Roy Chubby-Brown that would be the ultimate in hip anti-establishment comedy.
DOMINIC: Caricature has and will always be a part of comedy. What is morally acceptable caricature and what isn’t changes. The inconsistency and hypocrisy of current acceptabilities is crazy. But it is what is. You either go with it, or you stand up and try and fight it and change it, in which case you risk not working. Professional suicide is not palatable to most.
ANDY: Good art, comedy or writing gives you a different perspective on life, why does so much comedy seem like a laugh-along comfort blanket?
WILL: Comedy never used to be like that. In Roman times, satire was used to lampoon those in power. Sometimes the satire was so cutting that senators were known to hang themselves in response. That’s the power of the pen, the real power of satire. Comedy isn’t meant to put people at ease. Current comedy only feels good to the people in the room, because they’re slagging off people who aren’t in the room. Brexit voters brought about an earth-shattering revolution in 2016. They made their voices heard despite the BBC, despite the Guardian, but they’re still kept out of the room.
I think that people are inherently good and resilient and you don’t need to pussy foot around for fear of hurting people’s feelings.
DOMINIC: Yes. People don’t want to be challenged as a rule. Also stuff that stretches the boundaries of taste is much harder from a comedic point of view. It has to be doubly funny, or it will upset audiences and the comic will die.
ANDY: How do we attract people with an interesting perspective to get into comedy?
WILL: Firstly, we have to publicly recognise that political correctness has always been a horrible idea. I became aware of it when Andrew Dice-Clay, a Brooklyn Jewish guy who did a filthy set as an Italian gangster character, dropped off the scene because of political correctness. Art comes from the subconscious, political correctness puts the blinkers on and introduces guilt and self-censorship. True art emerges needs to emerge without a filter.
There was a revolution in comedy when Lenny Bruce took the mic off the stand and ran free.
ANDY: Who do you think is the funniest public figure and why?
WILL: I did a sketch the other night about Jeremy Corbyn unveiling a war memorial to the deserters. He’s the nice guy with a beard who rides the bike? He’s not like Tony Benn, he’s a prime target for lots of satire.
DOMINIC: Boris probably. He’s a clown. Like most clowns, he is also extremely ambitious. Sadly Theresa May is utterly humourless.
© Andy Shaw, 8th June 2017