Just as I couldn’t work myself up over what anyone sings at the Last Night of the Proms – it’s not my world – I am amazed at the reaction to Tim Davie. The new director-general of the BBC is going to get rid of all leftwing comedy apparently – though he didn’t say that exactly. Now you can manufacture a culture war in your lunch hour. Twitter assumes we will now have wall-to-wall Roy “Chubby” Brown and Jim Davidson. All criticism of the junta will be banned.
Davie is a Tory (boo!) with the impossible job of holding together a wobbly coalition if the BBC is to continue to be publicly funded. The Beeb has to be more representative in every way. An outfit that broadcasts Mrs Brown’s Boys and I May Destroy You is a broad church. Surely the dumping of few panel shows is not a huge issue?
The blokey format of such shows (for instance Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week) are tired. Comedy does not stem from predictability, but then jokes aren’t my thing. Knock, knock! Who’s there? Another performative wham bam thank you mam merchant.
In the 1980s, alternative comedy was a reaction to the racist, sexist, homophobic comedy that preceded it. But the best of it was often apolitical , bonkers, surreal mania that could end badly. Jerry Sadowitz – whose self-loathing and nihilism makes Frankie Boyle look like Lorraine Kelly – was never going to be a comfortable night out.
The relationship of “good” alternative comedy to “bad” working mens’ club comedy, though, was always closer than is acknowledged. You can see that in a John Cooper Clarke set that spans these two eras with his gags about Alzheimer’s disease and eating disorders.
Brexit has put a spanner in the works. The punchline to even the best comics riffing on this is always the same. Everyone who voted for it is a racist piece of shit. Watching this applauded by an Islington audience, as I have, leaves me cold. For some of this is about class. This is the subtext to what Davie is saying but we can’t talk about it. Class is why most Radio 4 comedy is, to my ears, like being at some interminable dinner party. We are not amused.
Not everyone watches TV comedy to be made aware that the Tories, Trump and Brexit are all stupid. From Peter Kay to Matt Berry, Diane Morgan to Vic and Bob, we watch for silliness and acute observation. The greatest sitcoms are full of self-important fools being vile: Peep Show, Frasier, The Office. At the moment, the challenge to convention in both style and substance is coming from fantastic female writers: Lucy Prebble, Michaela Coel, Sharon Horgan. Julia Davis did it all some time ago.
If you want “edge”, the panel show is the last place to go. When performing live, Boyle is a genius, but he has indeed punched down (gags on disability) so on TV he appears to lead a sociology seminar as a penance.
The question then, is not whether Geoff Norcott or Nish Kumar is funny but who it’s all for. As Tom Lehrer said: “The audience likes to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be.”
It is this dull satisfaction that is being defended now. The right is no joke, but neither is the self-righteousness of parts of the left. But then I would rather than be offended than bored because I do not find words or even awful jokes to be “literal violence”. The orthodoxy now, with its tick-box of taboos, renders standup dull. It is in other formats that all of this is being busted apart. Let Davie do his worst. The status quo absolutely depends on satire that can never actually ask why, if it is so biting and true, the left is not in power. Punching up these days looks a lot like treading water.