Where are all the right-wing stand-ups?

Yes, Jimmy Carr avoided tax and the BNP loves Al Murray’s Pub Landlord, but it’s hard to find a comedian who votes Tory.

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Caroline Raphael, BBC Radio 4’s commissioning editor for comedy, recently confessed to difficulty in finding unashamedly right-wing comedians to balance the left-wingers on her shows. I know about stand-up only, not about comedy in general, but in my experience there aren’t really any right-wing stand-up comedians who would fit Raphael’s brief. You can’t programme something that doesn’t exist.

There are wits and humorists on the right, of course. The print-media comedy of Jeremy Clarkson, Rod Liddle and Richard Littlejohn, for example, amuses thousands of people. Under analysis, their prose reveals the reliably effective structures of traditionally funny writing. A demonstrably true political observation is gradually exaggerated for comic effect until it becomes absurd and then a wry conclusion, usually more appropriate to the exaggerated version of the initial fact than the fact itself, is appended to the piece by literary sleight of hand.

There’s no denying that this approach can draw laughs, though usually laughs of painful and bitter resignation, from the readership. Indeed, Clarkson’s right-wing comedy integrity was cemented in 2011 when he was described as “one of the few things worth watching on the Burqa Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)” by the Norwegian neo-Nazi mass murderer Anders Behr­ing Breivik, a man not known for his sense of humour but whose right-wing credentials are unimpeachable. Yet where are all the bona fide right-wing stand-up comedians and could any of them fit the Radio 4 brief?

Roy “Chubby” Brown, a northern club comic with brilliant timing and the ability to tap in to his working-class audience’s prevailing fears, tours vast halls beneath the critical radar. Chubby’s fans imagine that the Marxist media cabal sees him as too “politically incorrect” for broadcast. The BBC, however, is publicly accountable in a way that the label that sells Chubby’s CDs in service stations is not. The punchlines and end points of jokes on BBC comedy shows can be ridiculous for comic effect but the set-ups must reflect real facts or the BBC would face consequences.

Thus, this crowd-pleasing Chubby gag could not be broadcast: “You can’t say anything about religion these days, can you? They say you can’t say ‘Protestant’, you can’t say ‘Muslim’, you can’t say ‘Jew’. Which is a shame, because I like to go in my news­agent on a Sunday morning and say, ‘Here’s a quid. Keep the change, you Paki bastard.’” The set-up is based on an erroneous assumption about religion and political correctness (you can say “Protestant”, “Muslim” and “Jew”) and has no etymological relationship to the discussion of racist language that the pay-off seems to be addressing, though the punchy brutality of Chubby’s performance swiftly and convin­cingly papers over the logical cracks.

Many Chubby jokes about supposedly controversial material proceed from similarly unsubstantiated tabloid myths. Even the most dogmatically leftist Jeremy Hardy jokes have at least some of the BBC’s required basis in news fact. Chubby does have a funny hat, though. Hardy doesn’t even have a hat.

Would any of our popular arena come­dians fit the right-wing stand-up bill? The Daily Mail inexplicably demonises Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle as “politically correct left-wingers”, yet to sensitive souls they appear callous, apolitical nihilists. Carr’s jokes about the disabled and his tax avoidance undermine the idea that he is politically correct. You can’t make sense of their acts politically, but imagine them (and their unseen writing teams) not as rounded characters with backstories but as arch saloon-bar wits, trying out a succession of controversial, sometimes contradictory positions for fun, and they become coherent. Carr flirted with the idea of being a liberal satirist on Channel 4’s Ten O’Clock Live, a former marketing man expanding his post-pub customer base into the Guardian green belt. Perhaps Carr might wear a right-wing hat for Radio 4 if the money was right, which it wouldn’t be, but Boyle is too likely to be bluntly anti-war or pro-Palestinian to help Radio 4 out of its Trotskyite ghetto.

Al Murray’s patriotic Pub Landlord, though a favourite on BNP internet discussion boards, is in reality a satire of the Little England mentality and so he would not help Radio 4’s right-wing quota. Jim Davidson is avowedly right-wing but seems to want the respect and friendship of trendy liberal comics while racially and homophobically abusing them on his blog, and is currently under investigation anyway, due to his links to the 1970s. I doubt his News Quiz seat is being kept warm. Henning Wehn and Liam Mullone occupy broadly libertarian positions and would please the right with their common-sense fiscal comments but confuse it with their views on individual freedom and use of irony.

In the Spectator, Liddle suggested the actor Alexander Armstrong as a right-wing alternative to Jeremy Hardy on Radio 4, presumably because he is a member of the Notting Hill set – but Armstrong hasn’t written any comedy this century and has never performed authored stand-up, being principally an amusing mouthpiece for other writers’ jokes and advertisers’ sales pitches. Is the best we can suggest in a search for a right-wing comedian just a celebrity whose friend’s sister is George “Pencils” Osborne’s wife?

Will anyone make up the right-wing stand-up comedian numbers? Since I started in the late 1980s, there have always been stand-ups who appear to be right-wing, but usually are upper-middle-class liberals who, realising that they can’t help their accents, have chosen to take on the role of a kind of out-of-touch, paternalistic Tory “posh boy”. The slit-eyed Simon Evans, whom you may have seen on a big TV stand-up showcase, is the funniest and the most committed of these, hating football fans, working-class women who dress like prostitutes and anyone who has more than two children. Particularly good over short distances, Evans nevertheless inhabits his stage persona so completely, convincingly and hilariously that I assume it must on some level overlap with his beliefs. Whether he is a real Tory or a pretend one, Radio 4 could do worse than make the unflinching Evans the official voice of the comedy opposition.

The stand-up Jerry Sadowitz’s apparent distaste for Islam, feminism and Nelson Mandela might appear to place him at the right end of the political spectrum and his language would keep him off Radio 4, but because Sadowitz is one of the most complete and perfect stand-ups in history, his exact political position is complicated. By accident or design, he appears to be socially, sexually, culturally, physically and economically at the bottom of the pile. This gives him licence to attack everything and everyone, like a drowning rat swimming desperately up the U-bend. And this tells us a lot about the essence of stand-up.

Stand-up comedians are not the same as wits and columnists and humorists. Strip away the showbiz and a pure stand-up is still a turn, a music-hall act. It’s clowning, and clowns are always tragic figures. Clowns’ comedy came from the inevitability of their defeat, from the gulf between what they want – whether it’s sex with their bored partner or a socialist utopia – and what they are going to get, which is nothing, nothing and a kick in the goolies. Interestingly, in the early years of the Pub Landlord, Murray alluded to how the publican’s reactionary beliefs had been compounded by domestic troubles in his past, lending him a comically effective low status that was inevitably compromised by the character’s subsequent huge popularity. Josie Long is one of the most determin­edly left-wing stand-ups working today, hated by armies of internet trolls. For me, what has improved her act even further lately is her creeping acknowledgement that the character she inhabits is involved in a self-mythologising, romantic and perhaps doomed struggle against capitalism, compromised by her frailties. In her solo show last summer, Long maintained that she’d missed the heroic chance to live the leftist legend and be arrested at a sit-in on an anti-Vodafone demo, having been distracted in Soho by a Thai buffet. Character and failure inform the theorising. And, love him or loathe him, Jeremy Hardy does not sound like a happy or powerful man. His corduroy candy mountain crumbled in the 1980s. He is destined to whinge into the dying of the light. That is his tragedy. That is his clown.

Ultimately, the left will lose. Big business will pollute the planet, capitalist culture will kill off the arts and humanities, schools will all be privatised, libraries will all close, social mobility will cease, the gulf between rich and poor will grow and everything beautiful will die. The left may note little human rights victories – gay marriage and the odd bit of better pay – but the machine is rolling inexorably forwards to crush it.

The African-American stand-up Chris Rock maintained that stand-up comedy should always be punching upwards. It’s a heroic little struggle. You can’t be a right-wing clown without some character caveat, some vulnerability, some obvious flaw. You’re on the right. You’ve already won. You have no tragedy. You’re punching down. You can be a right-wing comedy columnist, away from the public eye, a disembodied, authoritarian presence that doesn’t need to show doubt. Who could be on a stage, crowing about their victory and ridiculing those less fortunate than them without any sense of irony, shame or self-knowledge? That’s not a stand-up comedian. That’s just a cunt.

Stewart Lee has curated “The Alternative Comedy Experience” for Comedy Central (Tuesdays, 11pm). Tickets for live dates are on sale at: stewartlee.co.uk

Illustration: Nick Hayes for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle