What comedians can teach politicians: audiences are angrier than they used to be

There you are: a boy, standing in front of a whole bunch of other boys and girls, asking them to love you. But when times are tough, people need a target and politicians are much too canny to actually go out in front of a crowd, says Keith Farnan.

Being a comedian can give you an insight into the country’s mood more quickly, and more forcefully, than any newspaper or TV report. 

A few weeks ago, I was performing in Birmingham when I was heckled – albeit rather indirectly. I was in the process of pointing out that the love of the Irish only extended so far in England when a punter interjected, “Not everyone on this island loves the English either, mate”. It was a direct reference to the killing of a soldier in Woolwich, which had happened only a few days earlier, and it had the immediate effect of silencing an entire audience. 

Although the heckle wasn’t aggressive, there was anger behind it and a reflective quiet ensued. I politely pointed out that it was unfortunate that immigrants were causing so much trouble, but then explained this had happened 20 years before when another troublesome bunch struck fear into the land - oh, what were they called? That’s right; the Irish.

Regaining momentum and control of the gig by being able to counter anger with wit is something that every comedian learns as they pass through various baptisms of Sambuca-fuelled fires. The difference is that in my early career, the anger more often stemmed from a drunk's inability to get served in the club, or an egotist’s inability to get noticed as his ribald wit went unappreciated. Now, the anger often comes from some vaguer social injustice fuelled by fear and economic strife.

Jimmy Carr found that out at a charity gig recently. During the show for Arts Emergency, a charity set up by Josie Long to defend arts education and help students struggling financially, Carr was heckled with shouts of: “You’re not one of us!” Connecting with an audience in some way is vital for a comedian and a phrase like that pretty much cuts you off at the knees.

Carr is far from the only person to use a legal tax planning loophole, and quite frankly, it's something we would all probably take advantage of if we could. Right now, however, there is a danger that comedians can become the lightning rod for general feelings of injustice and anger that pervade cities up and down the country. Unlike actors, there is no script or character to separate your life from the audience three feet in front of you. There is no suspension of disbelief (unless you start talking about how hard it is to maintain a yacht on only two million a year).

There you are: a boy, standing in front of a whole bunch of other boys and girls, asking them to love you. But when times are tough, people need a target and politicians are much too canny to actually go out in front of a crowd that hasn’t been tightly vetted and controlled so they get the maximum return for their tested and meaningless sound bites.

Comedians are in danger of becoming the canaries down the political coalmine. When one of them doesn’t come back up, you know it’s time to cede control of that voting district to some extreme left or right organisation.

It’s a dangerous time to be at the head of a crowd, because if you’re not leading a revolution and you don’t appear to be part of the revolution, pretty soon your head and your body no longer get to hang out together. I’m not saying there’s going to be a revolution (this is Britain after all, and you haven’t had a revolution since Cromwell), but there’s a shift in mood that’s spreading. Although it might have started with the likes of Occupy, it’s moving into the empty high streets where jobs and businesses are disappearing, creating a whole new movement known as Unoccupied.

As in all times of economic strife, the “outsiders” are being blamed and, while this traditionally and obviously means “immigrants”, there must surely be a cautionary tale in how the comedy clubs of the Weimar Republic were shut down after violent unrest at various 'why did the German cross the road jokes'. (Because zere vas a zebra crossing, ja, it is safe to go now. Ok, I made that bit up; Ireland is now a German-economically-occupied state, what can I say?) 

Whether it’s a strategy or a natural consequence, there has been a rise in surreal and abstract comedy as well as mime-comedy. Mime-comedy is the perfect comedy for any time of social upheaval, because you can’t enrage a crowd when you’re literally saying nothing. If you’re going to play the fiddle while Rome burns, then play the fiddle and shut up about it.

As the heckles from the audience escalate, so will comedians’ need to adapt with their responses. A questioning of your stance on tax evasion cannot be met with the response, “Do I go to your work and shout at you while you serve fries?” as it will make a comedian appear superior and aloof. However, you cannot cede ground as a comedian in the face of this anger, so you need to be able to engage with it and, as even the master of putdowns Jimmy Carr would agree, when someone shouts “You’re not one of us”, that’s pretty much the ballgame right there.

Of course he could come back with the fact that “One of us” was first coined in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic film Freaks about sideshow performers and in many ways he would fit right in, thus deflecting the anger with a little bit of self depreciation. Only time will tell. 

Keith Farnan will be performing his new show, Fear Itself, at the Edinburgh Festival. For more details, see www.keithfarnan.com

Keith Farnan, with a skull.
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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.