Garry Bushell laments the demise of humour in today's mainstream "comedy".
BBC political presenter Andrew “Brillo” Neil has attacked the Corporation’s comedy shows this week, branding The Mash Report “self satisfied, self adulatory, unchallenged Left-wing propaganda” and Radio 4’s Now Show as “contrived ideological commentary”. For good measure Brillo added that Have I Got News For You “is on its last legs”.
He’s right isn’t he? But it doesn’t stop with the Beeb. The funniest thing about TV satire is it isn’t remotely satirical. Stand-ups such as Nish Kumar and Russell Howard and stale and toothless formats like HIGNFY are more to do with liberal virtue signalling than the tougher business of making viewers laugh.
Week in, week out, The Mash Report hammers Brexit and Brexiteers even though the writers have nothing new or relevant or – heaven forbid – humorous to say.
Last Friday, Nish said of the Spice Girls reunion: “I assume they’re calling it the Brexit tour. Because it relies on baseless nostalgia, assumes a minority is scary and the posh one is nowhere to be seen.” How the studio audience roared. I have no idea why. The gag makes no logical sense. Who is the posh one in terms of the EU debate? He can’t possibly mean Lords Adonis, Heseltine or Howarth, or Viscount Hailsham (the one with the moat).
On HIGNY the same night, panelist Lucy Prebble abandoned any attempt to tell jokes, preferring to make a mini-speech about how well the Democrats had done in the US mid-term elections.
The closest playwright Prebble got to a funny line came when she dubbed Aaron Banks “a Poundland Bond villain”. He’s “a bad dude” agreed American comedian Reginald D. Hunter. Be still my aching sides.
Like Kumar, Sky One’s Russell Humbug seems more concerned with bashing Trump than domestic news, but he did find time to support the so-called People’s Vote march – the largely middle-class bad loser massive that an impartial observer would surely deem worthy of some heavy duty piss-taking.
On Tuesday night, ITV’s dismal two-hour bore-in for Prince Charles’s 70th had Omid Djalili trotting out yet more feeble Brexit-bashing zingers. Time and place, mate. Don’t you know how his mum voted?
TV comics will bash President Trump ad nauseum, and often deservedly, but never seem to notice President Drunker, sorry, Juncker… Is he not equally absurd? Is Macron not?
We have suffered more than two years of pro-Remain, anti-Brexit propaganda delivered in the name of comedy with the token pro-Brexit comic like Geoff Norcott occasionally wheeled on for “balance”. (Norcott is always introduced as “a Conservative comedian”, which simply shows how rare they are in TV circles. There’s no need to introduce Kumar/Howard/Djalili etc as “a smug middle-class left-winger”. It goes with the territory).
In fairness this isn’t just a problem with TV comedy. The same bias can be seen in dramas, soaps and BBC/Channel 4 news agenda. I gave up counting the snide Brexit-bashing digs on EastEnders when they reached double figures.
The Queen Vic was the only East London boozer to respond to the Leave vote by hosting a week of European-themed supper nights. The nitwit writers really don’t get that it’s quite possible to love Europe, its people, culture and cuisine, and not want to be ruled by unelected bureaucrats.
These self-styled progressives see Brexit voters as ill-educated, prejudiced bigots. Like Trump supporters – who they wrongly conflate with Brexiteers – they are viewed as no-hopers and dimwits. Simple-minded working-class fools.
The principled opposition to the EU espoused by Bob Crow and Tony Benn has largely been excluded from the TV debate. As have left-wing stand-ups who see the EU for what it really is.
It never seems to occur to the bold satirists, who see themselves as of the Left, that they are lining up with such bastions of the status quo as senior civil servants, multinational corporations, EU commissioners – what we once would have called the Establishment (or in my Marxist past, the ruling class).
Memo to would-be satirists: your job is to puncture the pompous and powerful. And where is the real centre of power in Western Europe? That’s right, the European Union with its shameful legacy of corruption, contempt for democracy, extravagance, waste, privilege and lack of transparency.
I’ve never heard Ian Hislop mention how many millions the EU has given to the BBC. It must be an oversight.
The Corporation and increasingly other broadcasters want to police what we laugh at. When they’re not busy cutting jokes from old sitcoms like some kind of comedy Stasi, they are creating shows for a fashionable breed of on-message graduates.
There is nothing wrong with university-educated comedians – Peter Cook was sublime. But it’s much harder for working-class turns to get noticed these days. Even harder for young stand-ups who don’t subscribe to the approved kind of politics.
And harder still for old-school comedians with “incorrect” views. We never see Jethro on TV. Pro-Brexit you see. And over-60 – boo! And popular with the great unwashed...
The people who run BBC comedy want to book people with the same views and similar backgrounds as themselves. People like good old Nish Kumar, who specialises in what is best described as placebo comedy.
His material sounds like a joke; it has the right rhythm, the right phrasing. But it’s not in the least bit funny.
Garry Bushell is an author, critic and broadcaster.