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17 September 2015updated 06 Sep 2021 2:28pm

When politicians make us laugh, are we the audience, or the punchline?

Comedy can sugar the pill - but it doesn't mean the pill is good for you.

By Rebecca Higgie

Last Friday, Boris Johnson visited Brunel University in his new electorate of Uxbridge and South Ruislip for a discussion and Q&A with Brunel’s Professor of Contemporary Thought, Will Self. As a newcomer to the UK, and resident in Johnson’s electorate, I was interested to see the politician in person. Whenever I’d mentioned my research in political comedy to local people and colleagues, they’d instantly say, “Oh, like Boris Johnson on Have I Got News For You?” Regardless of their politics, most people liked his appearances on the comedy panel show, commenting on how well he did, what a good sense of humour he had. This is quite remarkable given that the last time Johnson appeared on HIGNFY was almost a decade ago in 2006.

Johnson appeared on Have I Got News For You seven times, four times as the host. Despite any jibe from regular panellist Ian Hislop, Johnson brushed it off and bumbled along humorously. His appearances on the comedy show contributed to his enduring image as the affable, slightly buffoonish clap, softening his status as a wealthy Etonian politician and journalist.

This became clear to me when I visited a local pub (a prerequisite for settling in London, I’m told). I chatted to a friendly builder about our local member and he said, “I like Boris, I voted for him. He seems like an ordinary bloke, a good person to have a beer with. Good sense of humour.”

A few minutes later, he mentioned how wrong it was that politics was filled with rich, public-school educated men who never understood what it was like to live an ordinary life. How did Boris escape the same criticism?

At the Brunel Q&A, I was determined to ask him.

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At the session, I started to question how comedy might help Boris escape the public’s cynicism towards wealthy politicians, partly due to his hapless, lovable “man of the people” persona. Before I could finish, he interrupted to insist that he tried to be more of a serious statesman, but that “there’s nothing wrong with going on comedy shows if you can get your point across. There’s no harm in using jokes.”

Will Self suggested that maybe my question was alluding to comedy as strategy, asking if maybe, as Jonathan Coe had argued, Boris was a self-satirising politician who disarmed criticism by spoofing himself in advance.

Despite Johnson’s insistence that this was not the case, there are documented cases that suggest Johnson uses comedy very strategically. In Sophia Purnell’s biography, journalist Andy McSmith relayed a rather telling anecdote:

“When he was culture spokesman he made some minor gaffe and one journalist phoned him up and got the whole buffoon spiel. He printed it word for word in his newspaper. What so amused us was that another lobby [political] journalist had also phoned him up and got exactly the same bumbling routine, word for word, and recorded it. The two routines were identical. Boris put in a very well rehearsed performance, both times – it shows it’s all a construct.”

In a 2003 GQ interview, Johnson himself admitted, “I make what I think is a very cunning calculation. If you clown around, you may be able to creep up on people with your ideas, and spring them on them unexpectedly.”

In another interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, “Humour is a utensil that you can use to sugar the pill and to get your point across.”

Johnson’s success at “sugaring the pill” may explain why politicians increasingly participate in comedy programs like HIGNFY. Comedy has become an integral part of how the UK does politics and politicians increasingly use comedy programs as avenues to cultivate their public image. At the last election, Ed Miliband did an online interview with Russell Brand, resulting in the comedian/activist encouraging his followers to vote Labour. Before Nigel Farage filed a complaint against HIGNFY with the police, he appeared as a guest and laughed along as he was made to play a game that involved saying whether particular UKIP members were fruitcakes or loonies. Tony Blair asked Catherine Tate’s Laura Cooper if he was “bovvered”Even Margaret Thatcher wrote and appeared in a Yes Minister sketch.

Back home in Australia, politicians regularly want to come across as the ‘ordinary bloke’, willing and able to participate in the art of ‘taking the piss’, a practice much beloved in both our countries. Class is clearly more pronounced in the UK – though Johnson may be likable, even relatable, a lot of his charm comes from his adherence to the very English image of the toff – but comedy is a great leveller in both countries, and politicians who engage with comedy often get taken to task and mocked. Those that can take the mocking, and play along with the comedians, often come across as more relatable, more ‘like us’. Though politicians may complain that comedy is unfair or cynical in relation to politics – David Blunkett wanted to have HIGNFY, Mock the Week and other political comedy program reclassified as current affairs to face tougher scrutiny – they also benefit from playing along. Boris Johnson is one example.

Another fascinating example occurred in January this year with Nick Clegg’s appearance on Channel 4’s the Last Leg. In his interview with comedian Alex Brooker, Clegg admitted he wanted to slap David Cameron, he felt terrible about tuition fees, and that Johnson was more twat than statesman. He used a Nando’s analogy to describe why it was important to vote, saying, “if you go to Nando’s and get someone else to go up to the counter and order for you, you can’t complain if they come back with a meal you don’t want.”

The response on Twitter was remarkable. The hashtag #cleggleg was so popular, it trended third highest in the world. Though there were the odd tweets that decried it as a cynical publicity stunt, most tweets were positive towards Clegg. People saw him as honest, genuine, an underdog, funny and “just like one of us.”

In an article for the New Statesman, host of the Last Leg Adam Hills explained why Clegg had been so successful: he didn’t talk bullshit.

In a world where the overwhelming feeling among voters, young and old, is that “they’re all as bad as each other” and more often “they all talk such rubbish” perhaps “not talking bullshit” could be a revolutionary tactic for politicians.

Because we want them to be real. We want them to talk to us. Actually to us…We also know when someone is talking bullshit. And we appreciate it when they don’t.

It’s a sentiment we can all get behind, but is that what happened on the Last Leg? Was Clegg “real” and “honest”? Did he simply stop talking bullshit? What is it about taking a joke on the chin that makes someone appear more human, more real? Comedy comes across as an honest medium, where you “tell it how it is”. While I’m sure there are many instances where politicians do indeed “stop talking bullshit”, politicians who use comedy well can appear to be refraining with bullshit without actually doing so. Comedy can help Nick Clegg look more honest. Comedy can help make Boris Johnson relatable, even lovable.

There’s no denying that comedy has an important part to play in politics. It can call people to account, it can mock the powerful, it can make politics more accessible to a wider audience. But it’s important to consider how it can also be used by politicians in the manufacturing of their public image. Do we realise what we’re taking if they’re so adept at sugaring the pill?

Rebecca Higgie is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Comedy Studies Research, Brunel University London. She will be speaking at the free Parliament Week event “Comedy and Politics: Putting the Mock in Democracy” on Wednesday 18 Nov 2015, 4:00pm – 7:00pm. For more details and to register, visit the event website.

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