“I’m not a baddie, I’m a centrist dad – I’ve got a gluten-free dog!” comedian Alun Cochrane exclaims in mock-frustration. His new show (imaginatively titled Alun Cochrane: Centrist Dad? – the question mark is very important, we are told) is part foray into modern politics, part midlife identity crisis. It’s not the “dad” part that bothers him, uncool though that may be – it’s the “centrist”, which he is bemused to find has somehow become an insult. Cochrane, who has always considered himself vaguely on the left, has noticed something: the Overton window is shifting, name-calling has replaced debate and colleagues on the comedy circuit “seem to see anyone to the right of Chairman Mao as an enemy of progress”.
That we live in an era of intensifying polarisation – in politics and in real life – is hardly a new observation. Nor is the lament on which this show is based: that those looking for things to be offended by have made it very hard to do comedy. Some of Cochrane’s jokes are decidedly tired (“People recently have told me I’m a contrarian – I disagree”), while others aren’t really comedy at all (“If you don’t have books on your shelves that you disagree with, you either need bigger shelves, bigger brains or bigger curiosity”).
That’s not to say there’s nothing interesting or entertaining about this show. Cochrane notes that while calls to censor offensive content used to come from the old, the religious and the right-wing, now the most devout puritans seem to be young and on the left. In today’s politically fuelled culture wars, sometimes it’s useful to wonder when it became progressive to attack people for asking questions. And some of the jokes do succeed in both eliciting a chuckle and making a serious point – on eco-activists disrupting the production of newspapers whose climate coverage they consider negligent, Cochrane muses: “I think Extinction Rebellion may be the sort of people who look at the Nazi book burnings, and the thing that worries them about it is the emissions.”
Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with pontificating about cancel culture. But I can’t help but feel Cochrane has fallen into the trap that ensnares so many comedians when they try to talk about politics: aiming for claps rather than laughs.
Alun Cochrane: Centrist Dad?
[see also: Why the right loves ancient Rome]
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century