Doing it for laughs

Comedy - How can you be politically sincere but still funny on stage? Brian Logan meets the overtly

Not a great election for comedy, was it? There may have been the usual glib satirical parries on Radio 4, but if you were looking for comedians to say the unsayable, to engage and enrage, to expose the whole dark farce to the kind of laughter you resort to when otherwise you'd cry - well, you looked in vain.

So let us be thankful for the return of Robert Newman. This shambling hobo of radical comedy arrives at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north-west London, with a new show whose title alone declares its independence from the anodyne mainstream. It is called Apocalypso Now or From P45 to AK-47: how to grow the economy with the use of war.

It is Newman's first new show for two years, in which time he has become an unlikely darling of American letters with his third novel, The Fountain at the Centre of the World. A sprawling Blood Brothers-meets-Trading Places epic set in Mexico and beyond, the novel was dubbed "the talismanic Catch-22 of the anti-globalisation protest movement" by the New York Times. One day, it might make a great feature film and relieve Newman of his financial worries. Meanwhile, he is back on stage with a ukulele, singing calypsonian ditties about the imminent end of the world.

I saw the show at the Red Rose Comedy Club in Islington. It's classic Newman. His brain is overflowing with informa-tion - about Britain's record in Iraq (40 years of war, or occupation, in the 90 years since Iraq's independence), about the decline of the petrodollar, even about the government spying on Wordsworth and Coleridge during a previous "war on terror". (Apparently the home secretary had received intelligence reports of two suspicious figures roaming Dorset "with a Portfolio in which they enter their Observations". Furthermore, they were "very attentive to the river near them".) Pause. "In the 1790s," Newman tells his crowd, "only one thing stopped England being a police state." Pause. "No police." Boom boom.

"These are great forgotten stories," says Newman, in conversation late last month at the British Library - where, I'd guess, he spends a lot of time. "And you think, 'If this stuff thrills me, it must thrill an audience.' You start from the things that you are going apoplectic about. It's good for your psychic health. On the other hand, I'm a bit of a magpie, and I like other ideas just for being shiny."

One of the temptations with truly political comedians is to assume that they are frustrated politicians; that the laughs are an irritating obstacle as they struggle to be taken seriously. "But you didn't think that about The Clash," says Newman. "You didn't think they'd much rather not have to bother with those guitars." Surprisingly, Newman is just as interested in form as content, and considers political comedy "a test of the imagination, to try to make this material both funny and coherent. It's a sort of artistic challenge."

But this is not a man to whom politics is a formal exercise. His humour has clout because it is underpinned by conviction. Newman doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. Having turned his back on celebrity just as his on-stage (bizarre, in retrospect) partnership with David Baddiel was going stratospheric, he's now more likely to be seen Reclaiming the Streets than on TV. To Newman, true democracy is people organising outside of parliament. "What stopped GM crops being planted in this country?" he asks. "The political parties sold us all out, but people's direct action did that."

This year's election, says Newman, is just a distraction. "On Radio 4's The World At One the other day, Nick Clarke got very excited about the machinations between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And he said, 'Well, this is actually quite political, isn't it?' And I was like, no, actually that's apolitical." Politics is about how "you try to increase social spending and the financial markets will just gang-bang your currency. The main democratic decisions are all investment decisions, and those are not in the public domain."

It sounds as if he has washed his hands of Election 2005 - but, characteristically, he can't quite do so. "I probably will vote," he says grudgingly, "and then not tell my anarchist friends that I did."

In 2003, Newman turned down an invitation to appear on BBC1's Question Time, ostensibly because he was to be the single anti-war guest on a panel of five, and because the programme "is not neutral, it's a particular ideological set-up". But he is not only a political animal; he's a human being, too. And he admits: "I'm rubbish at arguments. Perhaps if I went through some big change in life and became really at ease with myself, then I'd be magnificent on those programmes." This unease is possibly a key to Newman's appeal. On stage, on the page, and in person, there's a sense of a man fighting for his life with the big questions, reaching provocative conclusions. "I'm serious that people who fly short-haul should have to do community service. And that there should be Asbos for eating fruit out of season."

Newman's comedy is as honest and entertaining an effort as you will find "to tell a story about society that is meaningful. To put across an angle that isn't heard regularly." And, he says, "to share information that people might not come across if they don't have the privilege of being able to sit on their arse reading all day, like what I do".

Robert Newman is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000) from 9 to 21 May