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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.

It’s not enough to be funny – these comedians believe comedy has to mean something. Photo: Ed Schipul/Flickr/Creative Commons
It’s not enough to be funny – these comedians believe comedy has to mean something. Photo: Ed Schipul/Flickr/Creative Commons

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.