Tim Davie, new Director General of the BBC, announced last week his intention to decontaminate the schedule of “woke” political comedy. The commentariat, and its attendant groundlings, at once began to froth and heckle with tiresome, reheated observations about the correlation between comic genius and political persuasion, and the impossibility of finding any “right wing” talent to balance things out.
Typical was the sentiment expressed here by chronically disappointed Prophet of Brexit Doom, Ian Dunt:
“Comedians are generally left wing. Some kind of personality type/professional instinct thing. The only way you’re going to ‘balance’ that is by hiring a bunch of shit comedians to make shit right wing comedy.”
This, I can assure him, is nonsense. In fact, when it comes to “professional instinct”, comedy is a fundamentally right wing exercise. It seeks no state support and rebuts any attempt at collectivisation. It has no five year plan. It exists to say the unsayable, to demand license – license normally withheld by guardians, and indeed the Guardian. And the stage is the least egalitarian place imaginable. Hierarchies emerge under the spotlights before the end of the first pint and no comedian seeks to eradicate them. It’s about as left wing as a game of Russian roulette played in a Brothel.
The truth is that the vast majority of comedians are apolitical, borderline-sociopathic narcissists. Virtually all comedians start out as amoral chancers, sniffing around for a niche. Like Ian’s near namesake, Arthur Dent, they play the percentages and look for a gap in the market. They discover early on that, contrary to popular myth, people to do not like having their beliefs and values “challenged”, let alone ridiculed, in comedy clubs. Or indeed, at cricket lunches. People laugh much more freely when their deepest suspicions and prejudices are confirmed.
Comedy clubs of course attract a range of views and affiliations in the audience. But a big part of the compere’s job is to herd them into a single battalion capable of consensus – a laughing unit that can be then taken down whatever comic avenues the acts have in mind for them. Everyone will have a much more ecstatic and cathartic evening if they are filled with esprit de corps as early as possible.
We have, of course, had the debate about who is and who isn’t allowed to be funny before. Most infamously it was women. Every year at the Edinburgh festival, from about 1990 to 2005, some hapless broadsheet correspondent would be sent North to find out if women could actually be funny. Thoughtful men of letters, of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens, came to the comfortable conclusion that they simply weren’t, probably because they didn’t need to be. In terms that would be unsettlingly familiar to Ian Dunt, they effectively concluded that:
“Comedians are generally male. Some kind of evolutionary-psych thing. The only way you are going to balance that is by hiring a bunch of sh*t female comedians to make sh*t comedy about periods.”
This of course turned out to be nonsense. Mercifully in 2020, sharp-witted female comics abound – acts that draw audiences not on the basis of their gender but their ability to tap into the public mood.
So it is with “right wing comedians”. Audiences don’t look to comics for political insight; we’re not aiming to place ourselves in any particular ideological camp. We rinse hypocrisy and inconsistency for laughs, which are universal. And more usually, we go after funny accents and hairstyles and unfortunate mannerisms. And, by and large, we sniff the wind.
The main danger of the present Left Wing hegemony, the triumphalism, the imbalance, is not bias per se, or even audience fatigue, it is that it does not provide enough of a sharpening stone for comics. There’s nothing subversive about today’s TV comedy; by and large, audiences know exactly what they’re going to get. Nothing whets the blade like a decent opponent. Every Gladstone needs his Disraeli. If you can get away with just punching audiences in the face, there is very little incentive to master advance sword play.
This is what many, from the centre to the Right but also on the Left, feel has happened to satire of late. And it is remarkable how many Left Wing commentators seem to be genuinely oblivious to the weariness half the fee-paying country are feeling about this state of affairs.
As to whether Davie will succeed in his objectives, who can say? But if they are looking for a dyed-in-the-wool fascist to take over the hosting of flagship panel game or two – well, Mr Davie has my number. So to speak.