There’s a scene in the sitcom Outnumbered from 2011 in which a group of school children ask a German exchange student to name his favourite British comedians. “Ricky Gervais,” he says “and that man who plays a funny character, the fat politician, the blond one, rides a bike.” “The mayor of London?” “Yes, that’s the one!”
The show’s writers, Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, work mostly at Hat Trick, the company that produces the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, and have seen Johnson up close. Britain’s longest-running topical show (it debuted in 1990) has often been blamed for creating the popular comedy persona that may be about to make Johnson prime minister. But regardless of which shows he appeared on, comedy was always going to be his strongest route to power.
Topical comedy has been around for a while — the irreverent Oxbridge japes that spawned Private Eye and the Establishment comedy club were not party political, more an elite poking fun at itself. The alternative comedy of the 1980s, defined by its refusal to countenance racism and sexism, was dominated by left-wing comics, while Spitting Image was best known for its animosity to Margaret Thatcher — but comedy wasn’t divided down party lines until the late 1980s, with the emergence of Ben Elton as a TV stand-up star and a cheerleader for Neil Kinnock.
This was when topical comedy and party politics came together. With Ken Livingstone already established as a chat-show darling, and panel shows multiplying following the success of Have I Got News, producers looked beyond the cabaret circuit to Westminster in search of larger-than-life characters.
Around this time I was writing for many topical shows on radio and TV. Those devising jokes were now joined by Edwina Currie, Neil Kinnock, William Hague, Stephen Pound and, of course, Boris Johnson. Most were polite and engagingly funny for just long enough to survive the show’s edit. Johnson was unfailingly the rudest and most unpleasant during preparation — but as soon as the microphone was switched on he exuded charm and, unlike the others, often stole the show.
No wonder comedy producers kept inviting him back. He reminded me of a few of the comics I’d worked with in my stand-up days: insecure, self-obsessed, bullying, difficult to be around, but the moment they walked on stage they became lovable stars. Johnson’s shambolic persona is more real than some suggest (he once mislaid a large carrier bag of unwritten Christmas cards and parliamentary papers in the green room at a recording of Have I Got News) but this is fused with a ruthless ambition to succeed. In his teach-yourself book, Be a Great Stand-Up, the comedian Logan Murray notes: “It’s not the most funny that survive, but the most thick-skinned.”
Johnson’s first appearance on Have I Got News in 1998 was predictably chaotic: he was forced to admit that he’d been asked by his Eton schoolmate Darius Guppy to arrange for a journalist to be beaten up (the proposed assault never took place). His vindictive response after the show was what we now know to be typical. He wrote a petulant Spectator article accusing the Have I Got News producers (falsely, of course) of writing Ian Hislop and Paul Merton’s material. The only written element of the show is the chair’s script.
We think of Johnson as someone who never learns, or never feels he has to learn, from his mistakes. But this was a rare instance in which he did. He observed Livingstone and copied him. Back then, a caustic Ken crack was always immediately followed by a request for forgiveness: Johnson learned quickly that he could be as rude as he liked and that, should he overstep the mark, a smile, a Hugh Grant “oops” face and a funny, self-deprecating apology would keep the panel show invites flowing.
The persona worked well, bolstered by the Michael Crawford slapstick he brought to the mayor’s office. It’s true that the boring grind of a boring old job as boring mayor of London took some shine off the persona. But what harm did that do to the brand when everyone’s abiding memory of that awful eight years is of a flag-waving buffoon suspended in mid-air on a zip wire?
Will “good old Boris” be able to joke his way out of trouble if — no, let’s not kid ourselves — when he becomes PM? Possibly. Three years ago, Johnson seemed, by some distance, the worst conceivable political leader. But this was before Trump, before Rees-Mogg was a thing, before comedians won elections (most recently in Ukraine). The bar has plummeted so low since we voted for Brexit that there are still people in this hideous contest who could be worse.
You might think that Johnson has already done as much damage as he can by leading the Leave campaign. Whichever of the magic unicorn salesmen becomes prime minister, nobody truly knows how to deal with Brexit. And with talk of no-confidence votes and an imminent general election, Johnson could become prime minister and may be gone in time to take up the job most suited to his skillset: performing in Christmas panto.
Dave Cohen is a comedy writer who has contributed to Have I Got News For You
This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series.