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Funny Business

Andrew Graystone suggests that stand–up comedy has become a powerful cultural force – but with a strangely limited moral vision. 24/08/2023

The Edinburgh Festival is drawing to a close, and as is the tradition, one show has grabbed the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Last year it was veteran stand–up Jerry Sadowitz, banned for exposing his penis. This year it was writer and performer Graham Linehan, cancelled for exposing his opinions.  

Comedy Unleashed, the promoters of Linehan’s show, specialise in giving platforms to comedians with politically unpopular views. But even they felt the need to hide the identity of their star guest. The Father Ted co–writer has an enviable track record in comedy. He devised, wrote and occasionally appeared in a string of successful sitcoms. But his scheduled appearance in Edinburgh was kept secret until the last minute, because the promoters knew that Linehan’s gender critical views have a toxicity that can provoke extreme reactions. They were right. With just a day’s notice the Leith Arches, a beyond–the–fringe venue that is well–known for events within the LGBTQ+ community, announced that the sold–out event would not be going ahead. It was, they said, a commercial decision. “We believe that hosting this one–off show would have a negative effect on future bookings.” Their usual clientele had made it clear that if Linehan appeared, they would go elsewhere. In the event it was Graham Linehan who went elsewhere, performing his set in the open air outside the Scottish Parliament building.  

The fuss centred around Graham Linehan’s outspoken stance on trans issues (including critique of gender self–identification) which has been enough to see almost every one of his former colleagues and employers shun him. Once one of the most prolific writers in the entertainment business, he has barely worked in a decade.

This begs the question who has the right or the duty to decide what can and cannot be said on a comedy stage? At one level, comedy is a simple contract between performer and audience. The comedian tries to make the audience laugh. If they do, they have succeeded. If they don’t, they have failed. If you don’t want to hear what a comedian has to offer, don’t buy a ticket. But 21st century comedy is a more complex business. There are promoters, venues, agents, producers and all kinds of other intermediaries who have a stake in deciding what is permissible. Often it’s not a simple question of taste or truthfulness but ticket sales. In a highly commercialised sector very few comedians can afford to rock the boat. Instead, in choosing what they will say to make us laugh, mainstream performers tend to reinforce mainstream views on what is acceptable, who and what is important, and what we should believe. As a result, they exercise the kind of moderating cultural influence that hymn writers did in the 19th century, and pop stars did in the mid–20th century.  

The narrow base that contemporary comedy sits on is both economic and political. The limited cache of comedians who make it in the mainstream are solidly middle class and almost all from the political left. The few right–wing comedians (Geoff Norcott, Andrew Maxwell, Simon Evans), tend to make their heterodoxy part of their identity. For the most part, successful comedians occupy a powerful but unspoken set of centre–left values: they are anti–religion, sexually liberal, cynical about politics, body positive, university educated but anti–intellectual.  

Arguably the modern age of stand–up comedy dawned 30 years ago, when Rob Newman and David Baddiel sold out the 12,000 seat Wembley Arena, becoming the first stand–ups in the UK to perform in a venue on that scale. It was the beginning of a new era in comedy, but also the end of an old one. Up to that point, if British comedy had a cultural home, it was not the arena, but the Northern working man’s club, where comedians like Bernard Manning, Jimmy Tarbuck and Tom O’Connor ground out a modest living telling jokes with proper punch lines that were often racist or sexist. Live comedy was a working–class phenomenon. When the new, university–educated, politically aware stand–ups came along, they sucked the oxygen out of the club circuit. Mother–in–law jokes and seaside postcard humour were not only ruled to be unfunny – they were placed firmly beyond the pale. But in gaining momentum as an industry, has popular comedy lost its ability to shock, provoke and crucially to challenge? Has it gained the world but lost its soul? 

With the benefit of hindsight, the shift of the centre of comedic gravity from the working class to the middle class looks uncomfortably like cultural appropriation. Peter Kay is one of the comedians most aware of this, and yet some tickets for his O2 Arena shows cost upwards of £200. If you want to put on a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is the only way to break into the UK mainstream, you either need a wealthy sponsor, or the capacity to lose several thousand pounds a year for the first few years.  

If you do break through, there can be a lot of money in the business of comedy. A successful arena tour could earn a top comedian £20 million including ticket sales, merchandise and streaming rights. It’s been said that comedy is the new rock and roll, and in some ways that’s literally true. Live at the Apollo was hastily conceived to fill a gap when the BBC dropped Jonathan Ross over an incident that was deemed to be in bad taste. It is parked in the same cultural and scheduling slot that Top of the Pops once filled. But arguably the world of comedy is significantly narrower than the world of pop music ever was. A small number of powerful agencies, notably Off The Kerb, PBJ and Avalon, dominate the comedy mainstream. If you have heard of a comedian, they are almost certainly signed to one of those three companies. Sure, there are a thousand tiny comedy clubs that offer the kind of exposure to unknown comics that back rooms in pubs used to offer to upcoming bands. But the mainstream is dominated by no more than a couple of dozen names who provide the cast for almost every radio and TV panel show going. Whether they like it or not, these people are disproportionately influential in shaping the culture and moulding the popular imagination. Their place in the huge comedy industry pushes them – perhaps reluctantly  – towards blandness.  

At its best, comedy has a moral vision that can challenge us and shock us. At its worst, it has a purely numbing effect. Much mainstream popular comedy now exists by looking as if it is transgressive, whilst actually reaffirming the audience’s beliefs – reassuring them that they were right all along.  A strong unwritten code determines what can and cannot be said, and it is more about compliance than resistance. As a result, most contemporary stand–up is as challenging as an airport novel. Even those comedians who trade on making an audience gasp (Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Gary Delaney) still do so by picking at spots with which the audience is largely comfortable to be uncomfortable. As Graham Linehan has discovered, that doesn’t include jokes about gender non–conformity. 

I’m not sure whether I agree with Graham Linehan on that issue or not. But I demand the right to be offended.

 


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Image by re:publica from Germany, CC BY–SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Graystone

Andrew Graystone

Andrew is the Public Engagement Lead at Theos. He has been a journalist and commentator, a BBC TV producer, and has also written and presented many programmes for BBC radio. He is the author of ‘Bleeding for Jesus’ (DLT, 2021), and ‘Faith Hope and Mischief’ (Canterbury, 2020).

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Posted 25 August 2023

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