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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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad