One of the most rewarding things about being a comedian is reading in the papers and in blogs all the time what it’s like, how the industry works, why people have done well, what you’re required to say and do. This goes above and beyond the daily deep shock of someone telling you that you are not funny. It’s amazing what you find out, even in your third decade of being a comedian. It’s never not fascinating to learn that the only reason you are on a 90-date tour is because the BBC have fixed it for you, even though your career is over. And so on.
Lately there has been a disturbance in the comedic force, whereby my noble, misunderstood and sadly undervalued trade has been dragged into the ankle-deep debate of Brexiter/remoaniac chuff. (Don’t panic, we are used to it; all debate about comedy is characterised by its profound shallowness. It’s great to be taking part. That comedians should even have to engage with the annual “are women funny?” thing is our vocation’s journalistic Danegeld.) The debate in the current fetid rock-pool goes as follows: all comedians are liberal London leftie EUSSRBBCLIBLABZIOCON stooges who were desperate to retain their Brussels shackles of serfdom and slavery, and they better get ready for the dole queue because no one likes them and anyway no one ever did, who do they think they are having their own ideas in a landscape of endless opinions? As the deathless phrase goes: stick to comedy, you unfunny bastard.
There are problems with some of these propositions. On social media, an anonymous stranger took the opportunity to embrace the mood. They told me that my recent show in Portsmouth would be a disaster because it was a classic leave area, ha ha! I was staring failure in the face, that’ll learn me etc etc. If there were only 400 people in Portsmouth, I could concede that there might be a problem. Yet some 200,000 people live there.
Now, if you believe that the whole world thinks as you do – an easy enough mistake to make – then why wouldn’t all these choir-preaching comedians be finding it difficult right now? But the whole world doesn’t: the result of the referendum was as near half-and-half as dammit (cue catcalls of “Get over it, you lost!”). When I started writing my current show, Let’s Go Backwards Together, the referendum hadn’t happened. Last June came and went, and a large rewrite was in order – and I will say, hand on heart, that whatever the reasons and whatever the results of leaving the EU might turn be, there are many more jokes to be had out of it than had remain won.
But the EU referendum was as much a cultural question as it was a political one, and even though you might not be interested in the culture war – and, really, I’m not much – the culture war is certainly interested in you. Unfortunately. So what is it like on the frontline?
Maybe it’s me, or perhaps it’s my audiences, but I have not noticed a huge change since last June, although people really, really want to say there has been. It strikes me that this could be because a lot of the arguments around Brexit are being pushed along by the diehards on either side, while everyone else (including what seems to be my audience) is just in the middle, thinking: “Oh great, politicians. They’ll probably screw this up.” This goes hand in hand with the impression I have that those same diehards have not retained their sense of humour, abandoned it even, unlike everyone else. Comedians pay their audiences the compliment of having a sense of humour about most things, including themselves. Even the rude ones. Especially the rude ones.
However, there is a bus-sized grain of truth in the arguments about bias. Comedy does have a liberal or leftwing bias – it would be daft to deny it. It could be because the right knows better than to waste its time telling jokes and is getting on with being in charge. It is not because of some basement at the BBC where they are reprogramming hopeful comics, eyelids pinned back as they watch Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth on a loop in a double bill with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Nor, I think, is it because comics are second-guessing that the only way they will get hired is by conforming. I have no particular taste for conformity, and even less for taking sides, because it compromises your ability to take the piss out of everyone effectively, though sometimes you find you end up having to.
And comedy is supposed to make mischief. Audiences know this; indeed, they expect it. And some reliable standbys aren’t what they want: in a popular direct democracy, where every vote counts, the normal rules of punching up and down no longer apply; political gravity has been suspended, so up is down and down is up, or even sideways. So offering up no jokes about Brexit – or po-faced remainers, come to that – would be a terrible dereliction of duty. And, given that Brexit is a patriotic bunfight, surely it’s our patriotic duty, now more than ever, to laugh at ourselves, one of the chief pillars of ours being the Greatest Sense of Humour in the World? To flick British V-signs, not artless American single fingers, at our lords and masters? Get over it, you won.