People of a conservative or Eurosceptic disposition should be thankful that the BBC's new director general, Tim Davie, is to address the widely-held perception that its comedy output is disproportionately left-wing. For years, listeners and viewers of the likes of The News Quiz, The Now Show, Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You have been subjected to – and bored by – an endless stream of quips and invectives at the expense of the Conservative party, Donald Trump and Brexiteers. According to a Daily Telegraph report, the BBC is to tackle this imbalance. Some of these shows might even be axed altogether.
Yet this could be a difficult task. Although the liberal-left or woke nature of much BBC satire and political comedy can be grating, it is, alas, intrinsic to its nature. These shows are mostly aimed at herd-minded twenty-somethings, for whom parroting one's anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, Tory-bashing opinions is not only a matter of pride, but serves as generational, tribal glue.
Most stand-up comedians duly cater for these viewpoints, and in doing so, also satisfy their own needs. As the Dave channel series Comedy Against Living Miserably has illustrated, many comedians today conform to the stereotype of the sad clown, the figure who on stage makes us laugh but in private suffers from profound unhappiness. An episode on Sunday that featured Seann Walsh, Suzi Ruffell and Nish Kumar – the latter an obsessive anti-Brexiteer – revealed how deeply insecure they were and how a bad gig would plunge them into a week-long bout of depression.
To judge from Comedy Against Living Miserably, most popular TV stand-up comedians are insecure souls who seek plaudits from strangers to boost their fragile ego and feel better about themselves. And you don't win plaudits from young people by articulating sensible or unfashionable or conservative opinions. Hence the bias we see today. It's the result of a symbiotic relationship between crowd and performers, each seeking confirmation from the other.
This is why conservative stand-up comedians are so rare on TV and radio. Simon Evans and Geoff Norcott are exceptions, with the latter's awkward appearance on Mock The Week only highlighting that show's ingrained liberal-left tendency.
Right-wing comedy is anyway less suited to the vocal, audience-based format in our woke culture, in which causing offence has become one of the most grievous transgressions. Right-wing and conservative humour is less chummy, luvvie and ingratiating, and can often be cruel, outrageous and brutally honest. Think Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle. While both offensive stand-ups wouldn't classify themselves as classically right-wing, both inveigh against political correctness and both are inherently obsessed with man's fallen nature.
Conservative – and thus necessarily pessimistic – satire is better digested in print, alone in the private sphere, where we can laugh inwardly at things we know we can't find funny in public. It's where we can recognise that which we know to be true, when saying what is true might land us in trouble with the law or with our bosses. The best satire is read, not heard, whether it be the misanthrope Jonathan Swift having Gulliver urinating on a queen's home to put out a fire, or Viz having my generation wetting ourselves at the angry feminist Millie Tant and the absurdly right-on Modern Parents.
The foremost written-word conservative satirist today is Andrew Doyle, creator of the preposterous woke caricature, Titania McGrath. And Doyle's monster enjoys a noble pedigree; she could easily have been dreamt up by the late Michael Wharton, who for the second half of the twentieth century and early part of this one, wrote the Daily Telegraph's semi-fantastical 'Peter Simple' column.
Wharton populated his fictional world, 'Stretchford', with liberal-left grotesques: Hampstead intellectuals, barmy social workers, supinely liberal Tories, trendy vicars. The pinnacle of his creation was the psychoanalyst Dr Heinz Kiosk, who invariably concluded his monologues with the bellicose refrain: 'We are all guilty!' This might as well be the actual motto of today's liberal-left.
That the BBC is funded by you and me, whereas print satire is not, is an important matter. So the political imbalance of its comedy panel shows should at least be investigated. But I'm not sure it's going to be a success story, certainly not without alienating the audience that currently does like to be reassured of its anti-Brexit and anti-Trump righteousness.
From Punch in the 19th century to P.J. O'Rourke to Auberon Waugh to Craig Brown to Titania McGrath, if it's grown-up, nuanced political humour and satire you want, refer to books, newspapers, magazines or the internet. Let the lefties have the airwaves. They and their pliant audiences are quite good at it, to be fair. Yet they'll never match the refined and elevated humour of conservatives, who always find comedy in the more cerebral and less conformist medium of the written word.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)