When politics takes the fun out of comedy
23 September 2009
As the political parties square up to one another during conference season, we can expect the usual sugaring of carefully scripted political jokes among the policy statements. The Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather set the tone this week with a rather odd comic routine at the expense of Mark Oaten, the MP whose political career was ended after stories involving a rent boy. To understand the punchline, one apparently had to know the full unpleasant gossip about the affair.
It sounds like a truly contemporary quip – risqué, slightly cruel and delivered with a certain chortling triumphalism. If it had been slightly funnier and better delivered, it might well have worked on one of the satirical news quizzes that now litter the TV and radio schedules.
Until recently, comedy provided an underdog’s view of those in power. It might snarl and growl but, because politics was still more powerful than the media, it was never dominant or superior. That has changed. Today, politicians love to appear on Have I Got News For You, knowing that, so long as they are on TV, laughing sportingly at jokes at their own expense, then their career is in good shape. The greatest crime in our well-spun political world is to be serious.
By allowing politicians to collude in the mockery of public life, those involved in these shows have weakened the power of comedy. It is one thing for MPs and ministers to try and impersonate stand-up comics, but when satirists begin to sound like politicians – smart-arse, point-scoring, cynical – something important has been lost. There is a great divide between ordinary people and celebrities, and they have placed themselves firmly on the same side as their supposed victims.
The same little minuet between politics and satire is taking place in America. The Daily Show, in which crowd-pleasing liberal jokes are made about the events of the day, has for many people become a news rather than a comedy show. The more a public figure is attacked, the more eager he or she is to make a disarmingly good-humoured appearance on the show. Unsurprisingly, there is now serious talk of an American version of Have I Got News for You.
Smugness, as the genuinely funny writer PJ O’Rourke recently pointed out, is the enemy of political comedy. “We’re the ones switching on the kitchen lights and watching the cockroaches scamper. But we’re not going in there to stamp on them. That shouldn’t be our role.”
Above all, there is something impersonal about this new, superior brand of comedy – a smoothing out of individuality. Paul Merton, Jon Stewart, Ian Hislop, Ricky Gervais, Dara O’Briain and Clive Anderson may be different from one another in person, but their perspectives on the world – knowing, sardonic, invariably reflecting correct and popular values – are essentially the same.
A new book, The Wit and the Wisdom of the North by Rosemarie Jarski, suggests a geographical bias to humour. Northern writers and comedians, Jarski suggests, are not interested in trying to be clever at the expense of others. What makes them laugh is the absurdity of their own ordinary lives. “There are no airs and graces, no attempts at one-upmanship,” she says. “They are one of us.”
That sounds right. From Peter Tinniswood to Victoria Wood, from Les Dawson to Johnny Vegas, the humour is rooted in ordinariness. It is unlikely to play well on the platform of a political conference, and is all the funnier for that.
A dominatrix I didn’t expect to see repent
Miss Whiplash has found God. The woman whose name and whose punishment cellar were once synonymous with establishment perviness has announced that for too long she has led a bad life mixing with “rubbish people”. Having survived a horrific car crash, Miss Whiplash, whose non-working name is Lindi St Clair, is attending confirmation classes and is hoping to find someone nice in her life – “someone who reads the Bible and is a good Christian”.
Et tu, Whiplash. There may be more joy in heaven over one dominatrix that repenteth than over ninety and nine which need no repentance; but down here on earth there will be disappointment that another idol of bad behaviour has proved to have feet of clay.
The bad life of Lindi St Clair provided a small and amusing news sideshow over the past two decades. She claimed to have thrashed over 200 politicians and judges. She rented a flat from Norman Lamont. She fought a tax demand on the grounds that the inland revenue should not live off immoral earnings.
Now she wants to be nice and join Sir Cliff Richard and Fay Weldon in the ranks of the celebrity Christians. How sad life can be sometimes.
Who’s next for royal approval?
When, earlier in the month, Prince Charles flogged off his Duchy Originals firm to Waitrose, he took care to add a little sweetener to the deal by making a public announcement that the supermarket was “one of the great British stores”.
Now, in a similar spirit of self-interest, the Queen has posed for promotional photographs on the publication of the official William Shawcross biography of the Queen Mother, a book said to be so cloyingly reverential as to make the most devoted royalist feel queasy.
So much for the Royal Family’s sense of public duty and impartiality. Who will be next on the Windsor gravy train? It might be worth Tesco putting in a call to Prince Andrew with a view to him fronting their next “Every Little Helps” campaign.
Let’s stop fretting about being happy
Bringing together four decades’ worth of surveys from around the world, the American happiness expert Marcus Buckingham has reached a solemn conclusion: women are getting sadder. His report in The Huffington Post shows heartbreaking contentment graphs revealing the female line drooping, while the male equivalent is perkily erect. “Only the most wasted of cynics would deny that something has got to give,” says Mr Buckingham.
Help, what can we do? Perhaps if we all fretted rather less about how happy or miserable we are or should be, that might be a start.