“I don’t struggle for material”: politics keeps providing for Edinburgh Fringe satirists

It’s a laugh or cry situation, and comedians Lolly Jones, Pierre Novellie and Matt Forde are trying to ensure festival goers are laughing more than crying.

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Is comedy getting more political or is politics getting more comical? For the stand-up Lolly Jones, whose show Fifty Shades of May is running at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month, “both statements are true”. Jones has concocted a uniquely satirical take on Theresa May’s first 50 days as Prime Minister: a burlesque dance performance to a soundtrack of pop music and selected quotes lifted from May’s and other politicians’ television and radio appearances. Jones’s own voice does not feature in the show at all, since, as she tells me backstage at the Assembly Roxy, “it doesn’t need to”. 

While the risqué choreography and hilarious costumes satisfy any slapstick criteria, what really makes Fifty Shades of May worth the watch is Jones’s clever arrangement of the quotes to tell a “terrifyingly incompetent” story. Asked why the show adopts this form, Jones explains: “I think it is honestly more effective like this. Theresa May has made so many U-turns and to arrange the quotes which contradict each other next to each other is a good way of exposing those failings.” She adds: “I think if I had impersonated her, then there would be a suspicion that some of what I was saying was exaggerated or put on. By using her own words, it’s clear to see what the truth is, even if it is hard to believe.”

But do comedians, even those billed as political comedians, really bear any responsibility beyond making their audience laugh? Jones believes, “especially in these troubled times”, that satire should “act like a watchdog” to help hold politicians to account. “Theresa May said there was no magic money tree, but then magically found a billion quid for the DUP. Funny, that.”

Matt Forde, a former adviser to Tony Blair’s Labour government and host of Dave’s satirical chat show Unspun, is also performing at the Fringe. Brexit through the Gift Shop sees Forde, an “unabashed centrist and opponent to Brexit”, take an hour-long tour of “the absurdity of UK politics” at the Pleasance Courtyard.

That the set feels so current, and could “even read like a news bulletin”, Forde says, is testimony to the rut that UK politics finds itself in. “I don’t struggle for material, because there is constantly something ridiculous happening in politics, be it about Brexit, infighting in the Labour Party or whatever. Jokes I’ve made at the start of the Fringe are still relevant at the end of it, because these issues are constant and are not being resolved.”

Forde says that modern politics has “essentially become a parody of itself”. He points to the comments of disgraced former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who, when asked about the economic impact of a hard Brexit by Belgium’s ambassador to the European Union in June, reportedly said: “Fuck business”. Forde quips: “A Tory politician saying fuck business is a bit like a Green Party politician saying fuck dolphins.”

Pierre Novellie, the South African stand-up raised on the Isle of Man, is on his fifth Fringe run, with See Novellie, Hear Novellie, Speak Novellie also at the Pleasance. And he agrees with Forde that politicians seem to be doing much of the leg work for satirists themselves these days. He describes the president of the United States, Donald Trump, as a “gift to comedy, if a curse to the world”.

He adds: “Imagine someone writing that the president went out of business running a casino, that he fucks playboy models and cheats on his wife, yet his biggest support base is evangelical Christians. How do you improve on that? If you put that on the back of some dystopian novel, you’d probably get bad reviews and people would say that it was heavy-handed. But nope, that’s actually the news.”

While Forde admits that “as a citizen”, he is “afraid” of the pervading incompetence of politicians “across the UK’s spectrum”, he views satire as a potential means to cope with, and even combat it. He continues: “I think that the absurdity of politics has actually made it more accessible. There is a realisation now, amongst the electorate, that big changes are happening. There is an interest in politics out of necessity now, and you’ll see that audiences, and people in general, are a lot more switched on.”

Where political comedy “may have previously been an acquired taste”, Forde says, “things like Brexit have mobilised people on both sides of the argument.”

Does political comedy, then, need to be categorised into right-wing or left-wing, pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit thinking? Are comedians under any pressure to pick sides? If all comedy is becoming increasingly political, then does that need to be signposted? Forde says: “No, I don’t think so. The person going to comedy can make that decision for themselves, as in whether they want to have their views reaffirmed by someone who likely agrees with them, or challenged by a comic who they know won’t. It’s not on the comedian to adapt their material.” 

Forde insists that his own show “should not be viewed as a manifesto by any stretch”, but does consider it to be a “defence of a particularly centrist point of view that seems to have been lost on the UK’s political compass”.

In predicting the future of satire, Forde suggests “it’s only going to blow up even more”. So, is this a good thing? “I think that the state of politics, Brexit especially, has certainly created the desire for satire. In that respect, it’s a positive for the industry and there definitely isn’t a shortage of material going around. But the tragedy is that satire will always be at its sharpest when the times around it are difficult.” Novellie confirms: “Gallows humour thrives, because everything is going so poorly. It’s a laugh or cry situation, and our jobs [as comedians] are to make people laugh.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.