It’s not enough to be funny – these comedians believe comedy has to mean something. Photo: Ed Schipul/Flickr/Creative Commons
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Political comedians aren’t funny any more – and that’s a good thing

Feelgood gag-and-punchline stand-up is bigger than ever, but a certain stratum of comedians have already moved on to a place where the audience is laughing inside rather than out, or not at all.

Will this year’s winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award be funny? It’s a serious question. Last year, Bridget Christie won the Eddie (as it’s called, since no longer being the Perrier) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a show that resembled a sociology lecture with just a few more moments of comic relief than you might expect at a good university. And she was a deserving winner, representative of where comedy’s vanguard is headed.

While feelgood gag-and-punchline stand-up is bigger than ever, with Michael McIntyre and John Bishop and Sarah Millican filling arenas, a certain stratum of comedians have already moved on to a place where the audience is laughing inside rather than out, or not at all. Their leader is Stewart Lee (coincidentally or not, Christie’s husband), essentially a sarcastic monologist who makes use of comic techniques to make a social or political point. Others have found their own way to a similar position, with differing degrees of pill-sweetening gag-telling. Rob Newman uses humour to illustrate historical analysis, Mark Steel and Josie Long to leaven grassroots politics. Robin Ince talks about science. Russell Brand prances between speaking for his generation and talking about his “winky”, enraging and delighting and confusing as he goes.

What these performers share is a root in the alternative comedy of the 1980s, and a view of comedy as art rather than craft. Whether they’ve reached their current act through choice or necessity (some, you sense, just weren’t very good at telling jokes), they all believe comedy has to mean something; it’s not enough to be funny. Without the Comedy Store generation, they would have been politicians, novelists, satirists or, in Brand’s case, a rock singer or cult leader. They might have been restricted to a pitch on Speaker’s Corner.

The desire to do more than crack jokes comes from them, but they’ve also been driven off their patch by the increasing ubiquity of comedy. Politics and public life now necessitate having, along with a favourite pop band and type of biscuit, a “sense of humour”. Politicians must win over the audience on Have I Got News For You, then out-wit haters, pedants and professional writers on Twitter. Newsnight feels the need to interview Muppets and insert comic dances. Radio 4’s PM programme is conducted throughout in a tone of arch dryness. Comedy’s reaction is either to go with the flow (the arena-fillers), go to extremes (Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr) or go somewhere else. Jokes are devalued currency. Hence Stewart Lee’s dripping self-loathing whenever he approaches anything like a joke or Josie Long’s exaggerated surprise when she stumbles on a gag.

Oddly, a group of American comics seem to have reached a similar position by other means. Louis CK’s show Louie can raise a laugh – stand-up segments of the show prove that – but he increasingly doesn't seem very interested in doing so. Instead, he makes films about losing his daughter on the subway, or remembering his teenage dope-smoking experiences. Marc Maron, whose own show Maron begins on the Fox channel on 14 August, is a similar semi-autobiographical sitcom, but even lower on chuckles. You might laugh at his inability to live at anything below the most heightened levels of anxiety and paranoia, but you won’t feel great about it. Like Lena Dunham’s Girls, these are “comedy shows” only because we’ve been told they are.

Compared with their British counterparts, they’re more about self-reflection, looking deeper inwards rather than further out, more spiritual than political. At first glance they seem shallower, but they may well turn out to tell us more about how we’re living in an age of stress, self-obsession and technology worship. In Britain, the progression has thrown up a circle of interesting, eccentric and varied performers but the ultimate destination could be a dead-end: comedy as political or moral lecture. The American reaction is, essentially, to chain Michael McIntyre’s crowd-pleasing observations about the minutiae of everyday behaviour to an anchor of existential dread. Imagine that squeaky giggle tipping into hysteria, the stage-pacing given a manic edge, the gentle observations magnified into loathing. That’s a show to win the Eddies, surely.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit