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

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching LabourDemocracy.net, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a Change.org petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.