The formats of BBC radio comedy seem stuck in the past. A comedian takes a sideways look at something. A panel of half-famous people rummage about in the news, with a funny song at the end. Then a sitcom where everyone is either clipped home counties or foreign. The foreign accents usually range between hammy and borderline offensive. And then it’s time for The Archers.
Many comedians find Radio 4 exasperating, but we don’t say anything because radio is such a crucial rung on the ascent of any professional joker. Radio 4 and 4 Extra now control pretty much all radio comedy. Only the most exalted of alternative comics, Stewart Lee, has dared to mock the station’s cadences: ‘Radio 4 comedy, where every joke goes up at the start of the sentence and then down at the end. Where pitch and rhythm are regarded as acceptable substitutes for content and wit.’
About half of Radio 4’s output is produced in-house, much using writers and directors with long track records. But comedy needs to renew itself constantly to find an alternative to last year’s alternative.
For this reason the BBC were in force once again at the Edinburgh Fringe, the annual comedy trade show that leaves behind a city full of flyers, ticket stubs and broken dreams. There were 947 comedy shows this year, more than ever before. Most of these played 24-day runs across the city, and those in ticketed venues stood to lose between £3,000 and £10,000 for the privilege. The possibility of being noticed makes the cost worth it. There’s just a chance that one of Auntie’s producers will walk into your Stygian pit and see something they like.
Yet for all the BBC drinks at this creative wellspring, it never seems refreshed. The writer James Cary, whose TV credits include Miranda and Bluestone 42, told me: ‘The BBC is desperate for new comedy voices. That’s why it returns to the Fringe each year. But because getting on to Radio 4 is an achievable aim for a Fringe performer, many shows, perhaps subconsciously, are written for radio. They’re made to be picked up and slotted in without anyone having to rethink them. So a lot of things sound like Radio 4 even before they get aired.’
This isn’t the whole story, of course. Radio 4 sounds the way it does because it is well aware of its main demographic: affluent fiftysomething white folk in the southern shires who dislike swearing or blasphemy. It seems perverse that Radio 4 should depend on the creativity of so many sweary left-wing atheists, and that it is now the only conduit for comedy. Does not comedy, as the fool that speaks truth to power, need to challenge and provoke?
Alas, it seems that the comedy industry has itself become like Radio 4 — left-leaning and agnostic and unable to run any sort of flag up a mast. Of those 947 Fringe shows, only 29 promised any kind of political comment; about a third of this number billed themselves as satire.
Most of the Fringe is, to quote the Canadian surrealist Tony Law, ‘young guys noticing things’. Most comics have a pop or two at Cameron or religious belief, based on the received wisdom that these things are inherently wrong. Few ever feel a need even to explain that point of view the way, say, the young Ben Elton or any of the church-baiting US comics like George Carlin once did. They’re not engaged with these things because they don’t feel there’s any argument to be had.
The Guardian’s Brian Logan, while admiring the talent on offer this year, lamented a lack of ‘shows and gags taking on austerity, or the hollowing-out of the state, or the corporate capture of politics’. Personally I’d liked to have seen some contrarians championing austerity — maybe in an arch, Swiftian way. Or suggesting that we do away with the state, as the US comic Doug Stanhope does.
I also wondered why, when comedians in Egypt and Burma risk death and torture to expose the state’s corruption and incompetence, hardly anyone at Edinburgh has taken a stab at the wretched city bureaucrats who, with their trams and their bylaws, have made parts of the city uninhabitable for three years. I mean, there were 947 shows — there should have been a furious buffet of ideas.
But comedy has stopped being about change, or society. The Beeb is not shopping for passion. John Cleese has blamed the ‘executive class’ that now runs the BBC for the narrowing of comedy horizons — the desk jockeys who have never produced or directed comedy but deal in abstract nouns and negatives. Some commissioning rounds don’t want anything set in the near past. Or anything set in an office. I once worked on a script that was rejected because they didn’t want ‘anything cvonceptual’. I remarked to James Cary that his play about a vicar and a scientist would make a great sitcom. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Rev was about a vicar, so there’s no room for vicars on TV. And Radio 4 won’t have religion in its comedy.’
Comedy must be ‘dippable’, too: anything that doesn’t make sense when the listener tunes in halfway through is out. For this reason we lost Bigipedia in 2011, a sort of surreal aural Wikipedia that was both very funny and very different.
What remains is the paradox of ardent youth talking about itself, then being raked over by well-meaning thirtysomething socialists who live in corridors full of buzzword-covered whiteboards to see if there’s anything there to appeal to people in contented middle age.
Radio 4 does well to make anything at all in such circumstances. In lieu of a revolution, comedy needs a bigger crucible: Radio 1 gave us brave things like The Mary Whitehouse Experience and the sketchwriter’s nursery The Milk Run. The politically incorrect Henning Knows Best, which the German comic Henning Wehn wrote with myself and Kent Valentine, was the last thing BBC Radio 2 made before losing its comedy budget. In the current climate we can probably expect more pitch and rhythm. And young guys noticing things.
Liam Mullone is a comedian and writer.