Features

Send in the clowns - how comedy ate British politics

It’s not just Al Murray: British politics is increasingly about who has the most popular joke. The consequences won’t be funny

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

Something funny is happening in this country. Our comedians are becoming politicians and our politicians are becoming comedians — and public life is turning into an endless stream of jokes. Last week, the comedian Al Murray announced that he would be standing at the next general election in the constituency of South Thanet, the same seat that Nigel Farage is contesting. Al Murray performs in the persona of ‘The Pub Landlord’. A sexist reactionary, never pictured without a beer in his hand, forever declaiming ‘common-sense’ solutions to Britain’s problems, Nigel Farage has welcomed the additional competition. Murray has refused to say what, if any, serious intentions lie behind his announcement — and election pundits are unsure whether it will benefit Farage, by splitting the anti-Ukip vote, or hobble his campaign by taking away voters attracted to Ukip’s anti-politics stance. And it may just come down to revenge on a man who stole his shtick. But, as with Rufus Hound standing for the National Health Action Party in the European elections, and Eddie Izzard dropping hints about the London mayoral race in 2020, it is indicative of a new trend.

Politicians, meanwhile, are travelling in the opposite direction, and it’s easy to see why. Britain’s two most successful politicians, Farage and Boris Johnson, are entertainers above all else. They rely on jokes, or rather jokiness, rather than their track records for appeal. They seem able to laugh off gaffes that would sink more ‘serious’ politicians. David Cameron and Ed Miliband are desperate to show their lighter sides, and Prime Minister’s questions is now not about who can win the argument but who can deliver the best zinger at the dispatch box. In last week’s PMQs, the only debate between the party leaders concerned the forthcoming debate between the party leaders, and who should be allowed to take part. It is unsurprising that the post-match analysis was mainly around who had the better line about the other’s cowardice. Ed Miliband lost points since the keyword in his punchline — ‘he is frit’ — relied on the audience recalling a comment made by Mrs Thatcher to Denis Healey in 1983. Having said that, the Prime Minister had already used the word ‘chicken’, so Miliband couldn’t use the joke he had prepared and which he wheeled out a couple of days later: ‘Why did the chicken cross the road? To avoid the TV election debates.’ Would that quip would have made the difference at PMQs? It is impossible to tell.

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Boris Johnson stuck on a zip wire in Victoria Park.

There’s nothing new about politicians dabbling in comedy — Labour’s Gerald Kaufman wrote for That Was the Week that Was; Ian Lang, John Major’s minister for trade, was in the Cambridge Footlights; and Tony Blair did a few gigs as a stand-up when he was at Oxford — but the idea that being a comedian could, of itself, qualify a person for public office is new. And it is not unique to Britain: the former Saturday Night Live writer Al Franken is one of the senators for Minnesota; Icelandic stand-up Jón Gnarr last year finished his term as mayor of Reykjavík; and the Italian comedian Beppe -Grillo is leader of the largest opposition party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

It has never been the British tradition, however, that making jokes disqualifies one for public office, which was once the case in America. At the same time as James Garfield’s political adviser insisted that he must ‘never make the people laugh. If you would be succeed in life you must be solemn, solemn as an ass’ — advice from which the 20th US President never wavered — Benjamin Disraeli was making some of the best jokes ever heard in British politics. (When told by another member of Parliament that he would either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease, he replied, ‘That depends, sir, whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.’)

But there was always a sense that jokes were only one weapon available to the parliamentarian. G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1911 about ‘a young and rising politician’, described how he had mastered the secret of public speaking: ‘When he thought of a joke he made it, and was called brilliant. When he could not think of a joke he said that this was no time for trifling, and was called able.’ And for a long time these remained the basic tactics: when William Hague, as Conservative party leader, fired off a wisecrack against Tony Blair, and Blair did not have a comeback ready, he would dismiss Hague as ‘good jokes, bad judgment’, turning Hague’s great strength into a weakness. And Hague’s facility with a joke never translated into any threat to Tony Blair’s position in the polls.


But as time has passed, we have begun to prize what Chesterton called ‘brilliance’ — or, at least, the ability to fashion a one-liner — above ability. In part, this focus on a sense of humour is a reflection of the narrowing of political differences: when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, it didn’t matter whether Michael Foot was wittier or Neil Kinnock made better jokes (never a high bar to vault anyway), since so much else was at stake. But when politics ceases to be a battle of ideas, it doesn’t take long for it to descend into an entertainment contest.

This trend, for politics to be reduced to who has the best jokes, has been exacerbated by social media. The chief executive of Twitter has claimed that the maximum length of a tweet — 140 characters — was chosen as being the length of the perfect joke; and while this has no grounding in truth whatsoever, it is true that 140 characters is enough for a joke, and not for a sustained political argument. A joke doesn’t have to be that good to go viral — Russell Brand’s description of Nigel Farage as a ‘pound-shop Enoch Powell’ during his last appearance on Question Time, and variations on that tired formula, filled my Twitter timeline for a week, before being replaced by Ed Balls’s description of Brand as a ‘pound-shop Ben Elton’ — but a snappy joke is going to have a far greater reach than a line of reasoning that cannot even fit into a tweet.

Moreover, the effect of a decent joke will be amplified. Consider two of the best jokes made in US presidential debates — the first, by Ronald Reagan in his debate against Walter Mondale in the 1984 campaign, in which questions had been raised about his ability to govern at the age of 73: ‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ (At 139 characters long, very nearly the perfect joke.) While it was a great line, it didn’t win the election for Reagan, as Mondale later claimed; but it did prevent him losing it because of his age, and the campaign focused on the economic recovery, where he had the advantage.

When, 28 years later, Mitt Romney attacked President Obama for not prioritising national defence, Obama replied, ‘You mention the navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.’ (141 characters.) Again, a great joke, and an effective joke — John Kerry believed that it ‘sank Romney’s battleship’ — and it was widely repeated. And easily expanded with what comedians call ‘a topper’ — a hundred pictures of cavalry charges, from sources varying from the Bayeux Tapestry to the film War Horse, superimposed with captions like ‘Romney’s military’, spread before the two candidates had left the stage — so that a somewhat abstruse point about American naval strength became a widespread symbol of the Republican’s hopelessness.

The main reason, however, that jokes have become such a big part of politics is that political comedy has become such a big part of politics. It may have waned since the satire boom of the 1960s, when Peter Cook worried that Britain was in danger of ‘sinking giggling into the sea’; and it is still not as ubiquitous as it was under Thatcher. But Have I Got News for You still has ratings roughly twice as high as those of Question Time — unless, of course, the latter has Russell Brand as a guest.

And the most successful contemporary politicians are those who have accepted this, and become part of the process. It is not just that Boris Johnson has appeared on Have I Got News for You — he has, in effect, done the comedians’ job for them by caricaturing himself so brilliantly. Gerard Mulligan, who led David Letterman’s writing team, believes that ‘most [political] comedy is based on reducing somebody to two characteristics and ignoring the rest’, and Boris seems to have understood this. Rather than waiting for two characteristics to emerge from what he said and did, Boris presents a character — dishevelled, bumbling — which is immediately absorbed into the culture.

It is not just that the self-caricature is appealing; it also affects the way that his critics are characterised. If he is a character from Wodehouse — and with every stutter and ‘piffle’ he self-consciously reinforces this image — then anyone criticising him for his lack of attention to detail is forced into the role of Aunt Agatha ticking off Bertie Wooster. Likewise with Nigel Farage: the more he plays up to the role of Arthur Daley — and no one would choose to wear that coat unless he were playing Arthur Daley — the stronger the impression that his critics are nothing more than the tedious and joyless policemen from Minder. These are comic archetypes; caricatures used to be a commentary on mainstream politics, now, they are the mainstream politics. Perhaps that is the point of Al Murray’s intervention in South Thanet — the only way to defeat a comedy character is with another, better, funnier comedy character.

I like jokes; I write and perform them for a living. But I do not believe in Orwell’s idea that every joke is a tiny revolution. Most jokes, especially political jokes, are essentially conservative, reinforcing the ideas and prejudices of the listener; if they did not rely on shared premises, they would not work. But politics is pointless if we can’t move on from the beliefs we share with our tribe and reinforce through tweets to people who follow us anyway. The strange blurring of politics and comedy only makes people more disengaged, since our only response to a joke is to laugh, or not, and no one is prepared to say that this is no time for trifling. But every routine must come to an end; at some point, we will all stop laughing.

Andrew Watts is a stand-up comic. His show ‘Feminism for Chaps’ is at the Lantern Theatre, Liverpool, next week, and in Nottingham next month.

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