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Feedback: Does comedy tend to be left wing or is it just anti authority?

Friday 8 March 2013, 11:33

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Roger Bolton Presenter of Feedback

Does comedy tend to be left wing or is it just anti authority? Discuss.

That sounds like an exam question, and, if I was answering it, I would try to make a distinction between comedy which is about individual human behaviour, and that which is about attitudes and organisations. I would try.

(I wonder, even as I write, if some young academic is writing a thesis about the promotion of capitalism and entrepreneurship in 'Only Fools and Horses'!)

These rudimentary ruminations are the result of a feature in this week's Feedback programme in which we examined allegations that much BBC comedy tends to be left wing. The most recent piece of 'evidence' for this view is 'Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation', a four part series which has just begun on Radio 4. Previously some listeners claim to have detected such a bias in The News Quiz, particularly under the chairmanship of Sandi Toksvig. Jeremy Hardy is of course a regular on the show where he is sometimes outflanked on the left by Mark Steel.

It would be hard to argue that Mr Hardy is anything other than a left winger and that much of his comedy reflects his political position. Does that matter?

There is a thrill in making fun of authority. I remember so well first listening to the songs of the American satirist, Tom Lehrer, as he took on the Roman Catholic Church in the 'Vatican Rag', nuclear weapons advocates in 'We will all go together when we go', and then the space industry and its amnesia about World War 2 in the song about Dr Wernher Von Braun. "Once the rockets are up – who cares where they come down? That's not my department says Wernher Von Braun".

Lehrer also talked memorably about "sliding down the razor blade of life". I know how he feels, although presenting Feedback is more like sitting on a barbed wire fence.

For people of my age BBC televison's "That Was The Week That Was", presented by the then radical David Frost, was a blast of fresh air as it blasted the Establishment in all its forms. But of course establishments come in many different forms, the BBC liberal establishment being one alleged example, which some listeners think amounts to a conspiracy. (Frost himself, now Sir David, is undoubtedly now an establishment figure, married to the daughter of one of Britain's premier Dukes.)

However, is comedy which is anti authority inevitably left wing?

Does this alleged left wing bias matter, or is it only of concern because of the relative absence of right wing voices? And is the BBC really interested in finding, and indeed training, such voices?

I put some of these questions to Radio 4's commissioner of comedy, Caroline Raphael.

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Roger Bolton talks to Radio 4's commissioner of comedy, Caroline Raphael.

By the way, whisper it not, but I think spring is about to arrive. Time to buy my Easter Bonnet.

Roger Bolton


Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

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    Comment number 1.

    The problem with the right-wing, is that despite all of its constant propaganda in most of the press for decades, on TV in its relentless pursuit of money-making in witless programmes and advertising and its unquestionably central stranglehold on the constitution of this nation, is its miserable lack of humour. It's as though through all this drip-drip, quasi-brainwashing agenda that they're still always on the defensive and being 'found out' by incisive countering, threatens its by-definition, cosy, Conservative status quo, which for millions, represents the self-satisfied and privileged whose reluctance to relinquish their good-fortune, places them fore-square in the firing-line and 'rightly' so. If you place yourself both morally and politically above your peers, then get ready to duck. However, by way of balance, I do find its wounded bleating, as represented by the Feedback callers, really quite funny...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    J. Hardy and M. Steel are hardly just left-wing, they're considerably more extreme than that. Both were recently members of the SWP, which openly supports a revolution to install a Marxist-Leninist regime, and is very vague about the amount of violence that will be needed.

    Here's a quote from their website:
    "At what might seem the opposite extreme, terrorism is a self defeating tactic. Rather than rely on mass activity, it relies on the dedication of a heroic few.

    So terrorism is the tactic of a heroic few?

    Hardy has himself said that after the revolution it will be necessary to use force on those unwilling to accept their idea of society.

    To balance Hardy & Steel politically, you'd almost need a comedian from the BNP, yet both have been panellists on NQ at the same time.

    (N.B. all this doesn't mean they're both not very talented and funny, just swivel-eyed politically)

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    Comment number 3.

    In one way it is easier to be anti-government, since the point of humour is to point out what isn't working quite the way it was planned.... you could have Right-Wing humour since the Labour government was taking the money that people had earnt off them, so that it could give them the money back and create jobs for people in the process!

    In the Coalition way of thinking, we'd rather leave it in the hands of the people earning it... and save money by not needing the extra bureacracy that Labour and Socialism like!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Hardy and Steel provide some balance to the BBC axiom that capitalism and religion hold the centre ground. Any listener to Radio 4 Extra cannot help noticing how much comedy used to be based on knocking nationalised industries and public services. Lazy civil servants, taxation as something to be avoided, British Rail sandwiches being unusually bad and so on. It's refreshing to hear another point of view.

    Comedy has to have an element of truth in it: perhaps that's why there are so few right-wing comedians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Brilliant, lets have more.

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    Comment number 6.

    First, comics are entertainers, and so want as wide an appeal as possible. Humour's quite often at someone else's expense, so if it's at a privileged elite's rather than most people's that will help.

    Then there's the essence of humour itself. Sometimes that consists of exposing illogic in someone's behaviour or thinking. In our democracy, somehow, elitist political ideas still flourish, and it's hard to see how there cannot be some illogical assertions in all this, giving a rich vein for the comic to quarry.

    (Incidentally, it's been a hard trawl to find any thread open for comment on the BBC's site in general. HYS seems completely closed for instance. This one, with the absence of character limits, is very welcome).

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Same old right-wing whine that the BBC is left wing. It isn't, it's steadfastly middle-of-the-road, obsessive about giving a balanced view and rather stuffily middle-class and shockable; clue, it's known as Auntie. The problem with the right is they can't stand criticism, and have no arguments worth listening to. Humour is always disrespectful and targeted at power, and power is usually right-wing, no matter how they style themselves. camorrhee So was Peter Hitchen, I don't think membership of the SWP when young means anything other than searching for an identity, it's those who remain in this youth group you need to worry about. Neither Steel nor Hardy are extreme to my way of thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I'm sorry to fragment, but it occurs to me that since humour is cultural, the power of organisations like the BBC to define what is cultural and what is not is much diminished, in the globally Internet-connected world of today, with online humour such as The Daily Mash etc.

    There was a time, when as someone said, the comedy output of the BBC relied on axioms, false or otherwise which it caused, in part, to be culturally accepted: overstaffed Gas Board and public sector generally; vindictive and irresponsible trade unions and so on.

    With hindsight it does seem to me that this was paving the way for the Thatcher Government's reversal of much the postwar Labour administration achieved, and intentionally so.

    If the BBC's power to control what we find risible has now been taken away from its masters I think that's a very good thing indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    'So terrorism is the tactic of a heroic few?' yes, much as you dislike it, there are many who regard them as heros, and we have not had heroes who sacrificed themselves for the cause? Define hero if you disagree. Or is it the case that we have heroes and 'the enemy' have villains?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Stewart Lee has made a good point regarding comedy which I think is a good litmus test in discussions such as this. He basically argues that in order to judge whether what a comic is saying is valid or useful, it's important to identify whether the pressure they are applying is upward or downward.

    A comedian should always be trying to apply pressure upward. This is the difference between a comic making a joke about, say, David Cameron's upbringing and Frankie Boyle making a crass broadside about people with Down's Syndrome.

    As such, a majority of 'good' comedians would identify as anti-establishment because a position of outsider is much more suitable for satirising, analysing and (sometimes) ridiculing institutions and members of elites.

    With regard to the notion of comedy being somehow inherently left-wing, this is patently false. There have been plenty of successful (and egregious) right-wing comics - Jim Davidson and Roy 'Chubby' Brown spring shudderingly to mind. It is true, however, to suggest a majority of comedians today would probably identify themselves as, at the very least, 'not conservative' and there are plenty of decent reasons for this. Comedy should, as previously mentioned, apply pressure upward. Those on the left generally do just that. Despite the incessant right-wing grumblings of a leftist BBC bias, prevailing establishment currents are anything but.

    Also, the success of comedy in its current form is largely the result of an alternative comedy boom in the 1980s in which comedians would perform as opening acts for bands etc. A lot of these comedians would draw their material from the Thatcherite political climate which, neo-liberal destructiveness aside, was profoundly culturally illiterate.

    Finally, I think we need to draw a distinction between the comedy of many BBC 4 Radio shows which can broadly be defined as 'satire' - analysing and poking fun at topical issues and events, and the rest of the comedy world which encompasses completely absurdist, apolitical acts such as Ross Noble etc. Not all comedy has an 'agenda'. Not all comedy is left-wing. Many comedians draw sharp lines between their on stage character and themselves. Foremost, comedy is performance.

    And it's just meant to make us laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    10: in trying to discern whether "upward" or "downward" pressure is being applied, it's important to indentify the precise point in which the humour rests. For instance a one liner, such as "it's right they leave the Blind Discus until last at the paralympics: it encourages the crowd to go home" does not apply downward pressure on the paralympians (or should we say upward anyway?), but rather upwards on the crowd and event organisers, so is not offensive to the fair-minded.

    I think excluding any group, from contributing to the construct of any humour whatsoever, is a form of oppression and isolation of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    It also gets a bit muddy when comedians are self-deprecating; where is the pressure being applied there? It's not something that can be universally applied, though it is useful in trying to determine whether a joke is in good taste, acceptable or not etc.


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