“What the hell,” I asked my husband at the weekend, “is that awful noise coming out of your phone?” For once, it turned out not to be the kind of obscure Sonic Youth track that sounds like a cat trapped in a washing machine, but a parody song about Brexit. The hee-larious ditty featured a ukelele – the comedy tie of musical instruments – and was recorded in that unbearable sweary-yet-twee style of a Radio 4 regular who is excited at last to be able to say “wanker” .
It made me think that among its other crimes, Brexit has killed comedy. When was the last time that you heard a joke about Brexit that was even a distant second cousin of amusing? After 1,000 days of negotiations, there are no jokes left. I know this, because clickbait newspaper websites regularly run posts of the “best Brexit jokes and memes”. They are about as funny as an embolism. “The B in Plan B stands for bullshit,” went one.
It’s become a cliché to say that the current situation is “beyond parody”, but it clearly is. Last year, one satirical writer told me that he was sticking to period dramas and sci-fi for the moment, because the present was unbearable. In private, comedians despair about the slim pickings offered by Brexit and the absurd reign of Donald Trump.
The first problem is the sheer length of the negotiations. Here topical comedy is suffering the same problem as every department in Whitehall: Brexit has sucked all the oxygen from the room. Since 2016, it has taken attention away from every other policy area, the way a telly with the sound down in a pub mesmerically distracts you from any attempt to make conversation.
“It’s hard to do Brexit-related comedy with originality and optimism,” agrees Andy Zaltzman, who is nonetheless trying with a special Brexit-themed version of his improv show Satirist For Hire at the Soho Theatre in London. “It can be hard to be constructive about it. It can be hard to be funny about it. Now, three years on from the start of the referendum campaign, to find anything original is a real challenge.” For Zaltzman, the best comedic approach to Brexit is the “comedy of awkwardness”. Think The Office, but with Mark Francois as David Brent and Steve Baker as Gareth. (“He’s thrown a kettle over a pub,” you can easily imagine Steve Baker telling Dominic Grieve. “What have you ever done?”)
The next problem is that Brexit moves at two speeds. The daily bulletins are dominated by soap opera froth: ERG spats, Theresa May’s statements to the nation, a steady trickle of ministerial resignations, and Labour’s contortions about its position on a second referendum. But there has been little forward movement, as all sides have expected their opponents would compromise, but only at the last possible moment.
The cartoonist Martin Rowson finds the current political moment “infuriating but not fatal” for exactly this reason. “It seems like forever that the week has proceeded thus,” he tells me via email. “Monday: recovering from last week, nothing happening, have to second guess what’s coming; Tuesday: everything is going to happen, except it’ll happen after the deadline; Wednesday: what happened makes no difference, but now nothing’s happening; Thursday: something else happens, but now everything was just where it was; Friday: do a cartoon looking back on the week before; Monday: it’s fucking Monday again and nothing’s happening, except that everything’s about to happen.”
Then there’s the “punching up” problem. It has become conventional wisdom among progressive comedians (ie basically all of them) that humour should only be directed at the powerful, rather than targets such as minorities, gay people, mothers-in-law and foreigners with funny names. But here the homogeneity of the comedy industry itself becomes an issue, because there are at most a handful of Brexit-backing comedians. Any humour directed at the 52 per cent who voted Leave therefore inevitably risks feeling tribal and potentially sneering. I found the signs at the People’s Vote rally on 23 March funnier than most professional comedy on the subject – seriously, someone went along with a croissant on a stick – because they felt self-deprecating, and because they were held by normal people rather than paid professionals. The playing field felt more level. Of course, the shameless way that elite politicians such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have interpreted criticism of them as attacks on “the people” are part of this.
On the other hand, for those rare Brexiteers in comedy, mocking Remainers is excellent fun. “The social dimension of Brexit can be a gift,” says Geoff Norcott, who claims to be the first openly Leave voter to appear on the BBC’s Mock The Week. “Anecdotes for grandkids about witty banners might not cut the mustard. ‘I tell you lad, we were fearless in our deployment of sarcasm. I spent hours deliberating over puns. Didn’t stop Brexit, though your Nan appeared in a list on Buzzfeed.’”
Finally, Brexit has killed comedy because politicians have usurped the role of comedians. They are simply too ready to make fun of themselves. Instead of a dynamic where funny people comment on serious people, the whole of politics sometimes feels like it is conducted through a heavy layer of self-aware irony. Early in his tenure as the Conservatives’ election strategist, Lynton Crosby gathered MPs together and told them to stop sounding off: “You are not commentators, you are participants.” He was right. I don’t want politicians to pretend to “laugh at themselves”. That’s our job.
Luckily, as Brexit drags endlessly on, there is one joke that never gets old. It’s the tweet by @david_cameron from 3 May 2015: “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.”
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty