Article // Comedy & politics: why are more comedians swapping punchlines for policies?

Eddie Izzard, Sandi Toksvig, Al Murray’s Pub Landlord and Russell Brand have come over all political recently. Three’s a crowd, but four’s a movement. What’s the connection?

Having worked in the dingy underground world of club comedy for four years in Central London, I did get a real sense that this was what democracy looked like. The comedians on stage have no products they’re trying to sell. No-one’s paying them to mention Go Compare or wear Nike trainers; in fact, sometimes no-one’s paying them at all. They could say anything they wanted as long as the crowd was laughing their approval. My eyes glaze with false nostalgia when I remember the grandaddy of comedy, Lenny Bruce (or more accurately, I remember someone older than me remembering someone older than them remembering Lenny Bruce), who spoke the truth in spite of the constant threat of arrest. And in some idealistic, rose-tinted kind of way, I’d see that brand of maverick bravery and intelligent social commentary in all the performers on our stage, even if they were making a grotty joke about blow jobs.

If you compare comedy and politics in a squinty over-simplified and technically inaccurate way, they kind of look the same, don’t they? Apart from the obvious differences that comedy makes people laugh, and politics makes people cry, there’s a lot that they have in common. Comedy and politics both have one person in the spotlight. They have to be in tune with the general public and ideally appeal to as many of them as possible. They must have shared knowledge with the public: either knowing what breaking up with someone is like, or knowing how much a pint of milk costs (Does anyone know? Who’s buying solitary pints? You’re either being impractical or you are very lonely and need a cuddle, pronto). They both have to come across as authentic rather than acting. They both go on Have I Got News For You and Question Time. Sometimes they both stand for the South Thanet constituency. Even the leaders’ debates resembled a panel show format, being mostly scripted, with some room for improvisation on the night. Twinsies?

Of course, I’m ignoring a zoo-full of elephants in the room. Firstly, comedians are often low status; they play the fool, the clown, the joker of the pack. ‘Self-deprecating’ is their double-barrel middle name, baby. Jon Richardson, Richard Ayoade, Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Josh Widdicombe, and Sarah Millican are all spiffing examples of self-deprecation. However, as we’ve seen with the career-crash of Ed Miliband, low status is not a flavour that goes well with politics. As Daniel Kahneman’s frighteningly insightful book Thinking Fast and Slow explains, a politician is more likely to win an election if he has a competent-looking face, with a strong chin and a confident smile, like He Man, Buzz Lightyear or ex-Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzennegger. Politics demands (the impression of) competency.

He Man 2

Now, what about Boris Johnson and the recently resurrected Nigel Farage? They are jarringly clownish for politicians, with performances including the acrobatic ‘hanging off of zip wire holding two flags’ act, followed by the familiar ‘boozing down the pub as if I’m normal’ show. They are funny, but they’re still high status. Boris is the Frankenstein of Eton, having emerged from the Eton bins out of a rotting soup of discarded venison and fragments of Latin homework sheets. Nigel is a publicly educated former banker, and he simply will not accept the Village Idiot status that he’s previously been dismissed with. Any laughter must be with them, not at them. Jokes must be carefully rationed and administered at appropriate times. The funny element to these public figures is the icing on the otherwise very important and serious cake of politics.

Boris 2

Also, comedy and politics clearly live in very different worlds. Comedy is a free form of expression and communication with the general public, spared from the chokehold of the media. Comedy happens in sticky basements all over the country every night of the week with a real audience, as well as being represented on TV. Comedians are able to have direct contact with the general public. When Rich Hall graced the stage at my comedy club, he did have to survive a swarm of selfie-requests, but he escaped unscathed. Politicians can’t wander around London doing 20 minute speeches; there would be no eggs left in supermarket outlets for a radius of 10 miles due to intense throwage. Mainstream politicians currently can’t keep in touch with the grass roots, so they have to use the Murdoch-infested microphone of the media.

The unhappy marriage of politics and media could be the reason why more comedians are becoming politicians. The media demands to know everything about a politician, and with this information will create either a favourable or damning personality profile. This is the age of personality politics, where we play with little party-coloured personality figurines in leaders’ debates. And comedians will always win at having a personality, because they have real, authentic, lived-in personalities; not personalities constructed from a PR team’s mid-morning brainstorm (see David Cameron’s ‘Doh! I forgot which football team I’ve been told I support’ gaffe). The lines between comedy and politics are being blurred because they both involve the fetishisation of the personality.

So it’s personality politics that allows for comedians to cross the Rubicon to politics. Sandi Toksvig made an interesting point when she announced that she helped found a new party, the Women’s Equality Party: “I have made jokes over and over again about politics, and, do you know, this election I’ve had enough … I have decided that instead of making jokes about it, I need to participate”. So comedians are commentating, and politicians are participating. You can’t do comedy and politics at the same time. When comedians become politicians, they’re trading in all their personality points for votes. So it’s an act of sacrifice for comedians to give up their exciting lives and trade it in to do full-time responsible political things, like reducing bus prices and looking at economic reports and using an envelope knife to open wax-sealed letters with an earnest furrowed brow.

I’m rubbing my hands together in glee that comedians I respect to the max are able to capitalise on their popularity and help out, but it’s not necessarily a system I’d defend. They shouldn’t have to step in. We’ve got to accept that politicians can’t be all-singing all-dancing performers and run the country. If the media behaved differently with politicians, maybe we’d stop caring about their painting-by-numbers personalities and start reading political analyses about the decisions they’ve actually been making that actually affect our actual lives, actually.

But whilst we’re sitting tight waiting for the Murdoch empire to collapse, all hail Mayor Eddie Izzard! After all, he does have He Man’s competent chin and confident smile to match.

Eddie Izzard 2

Here’s my sources if you wanted to tuck in to some further reading:

Alexandra Topping, The Guardian. Sandi Toksvig reveals she quit Radio 4 to set up women’s rights political party (April 2015)

Andrew Watts, The Spectator. Send in the clowns – how comedy ate British politics (January 2015)

Daniel Kahneman, 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Lawrence Mintz, American Quarterly. Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation (Spring 1985)

Matt Forde, The Guardian. From Boyle to Farage: why comedy and politics need a bulletproof persona (August 2014)

Nick Cohen, The Guardian. Nigel Farage is a phoney. Scrutinise him and he’ll crumble (April 2014)

BBC News. Al Murray’s Pub Landlord to stand against Nigel Farage (January 2015)


One comment

  1. ‘A politician is more likely to win an election if he has a competent-looking face, with a strong chin and a confident smile.’ Hence Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle… Well OK, complacent smirk rather than confident smile. But you don’t go to the polling booth for the tinpot Tony you want, you go to the polling booth for the tinpot Tony you might just be able to elect.

    Maybe the SNP are missing something. They could try some kind of entryist jigger-pokery with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. You never know who they could turn up.


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