Why does contemporary comedy so often skew to the left? Why do the arts as a whole lean in that direction? Do these questions only make sense if you are asking them from the abhorred centre?
This week, the Daily Telegraph reported that Tim Davie, incoming director general of the BBC, was set to “tackle perceived left-wing bias” in the corporation’s comedy shows. As long as the Earth turns, controversy will rage as to “perceived bias” in that harried organisation. For decades the attacks came almost exclusively from the political right. Christine Hamilton, wife to former Tory MP Neil Hamilton, may not have been the first to utter the words “[offensive epithet for homosexuals beginning with “b”] Broadcasting Communism”, but she took particular relish in using them on that very service (you will have to work the b-word out for yourselves). In more recent years, many on the left, smarting at alleged mistreatment of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, have preferred “The Boris Broadcasting Corporation”.
The BBC’s political output remains a sort of Rorschach inkblot. Peer closely and you can see whatever you want to see.
The cosier, golf-happy TV comedy of the 1970s seems to have been largely a right-wing preserve.
The suggestion that Davie (deputy chairman of Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party in the 1990s) may consciously direct entertainment programmes in any one political direction has generated justifiable anger. No comic should have to worry about expressing legitimate views of any political complexion when joshing on Mock the Week or The Mash Report. It is, however, hard to argue with the proposition that such shows favour left-of-centre opinion. The late Jeremy Hardy, reliable staple of The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, was a supporter of Corbyn. The tone of that show in later years was almost exclusively anti-Brexit. On TV, Nish Kumar, host of The Mash Report, is certainly on the left. Have I Got News for You?, which notoriously featured Boris Johnson as bumbling host in his emergent days, often features Tory MPs, but the visiting comics unquestionably incline towards the progressive.
In 2013, Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s commissioning editor for comedy, talked about her difficulty in finding right-wing comedians to balance the left-wing voices on shows such as The News Quiz. “Producers spend a lot of time in the comedy clubs looking for people with a range of views,” she said on Feedback, the BBC’s slot for listener comment, in response to claims that a Hardy show “appeared to be a party political broadcast for the Communist Party”.
Much the same is true in the United States. The mordantly unfunny Saturday Night Live barely attempts satire when addressing figures such as Kamala Harris or Hillary Clinton. Audiences whoop and cheer as Maya Rudolph (feisty Kamala) or Kate McKinnon (awkward Hillary) offer only mildly altered portraits of politicians the show clearly admires. McKinnon’s sickeningly lachrymose elegy for the Clinton campaign – warbling Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah shortly after the 2016 election – could have been an official emanation of the Democratic Party. Late-night talk show hosts including John OIiver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah occupy similar territory. Bill Maher is a divisive figure among progressives, but he still supported Bernie Sanders in the last two primary campaigns.
In these increasingly polarised times, many will argue that the median point on the political spectrum for broadcast comedy is not – despite what complainants to Feedback might argue – any sort of hard leftism. Some will prefer “left of centre”. Others would go for the dread “liberal”. Whichever term you use, you will struggle to find a Trump-supporting equivalent of the Americans listed above. Pro-Brexit or pro-Johnson humour on the BBC’s News Quiz is practically non-existent.
This is not to suggest there have been no funny right-wing British artists. Evelyn Waugh, arguably the greatest comic novelist of the 20th century, once expressed his disappointment that, after receiving his vote in repeated elections, “the Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second”. He supported hanging for a bewildering number of offences. Yet the jokes in his novels Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust are as ruthlessly funny as any in the language. Kingsley Amis, his immediate successor as comic novelist in chief, began his career as a communist and ended it as a near-demented admirer of Margaret Thatcher. His comments on her “beauty” in his otherwise hilarious memoirs should not be read without easy access to smelling salts. “This quality is so extreme that, allied to her well-known photogenic quality, it can trap me for a split second into thinking I am looking at a science-fiction illustration of some time ago showing the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2020,” he wrote. The Old Devils, published deep into his reactionary years, is no less amusing for its author’s apparent hatred of – to quote Waugh in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold – “everything . . . that had happened in his own lifetime”.
Nor is it correct to suggest that British television comedy has always been the preserve of Labour voters. Eric Morecambe, Jimmy Tarbuck and Leonard Rossiter – all born into working-class families – were also supporters of Thatcher. Indeed, the cosier, golf-happy TV comedy of the 1970s seems to have been largely a right-wing preserve.
So, whatever we may choose to believe, the gift of comedy is not granted to the left alone. It is, however, undeniable that the current mood in broadcast satire on British TV leans towards that pole. The successors of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Jeremy Hardy outnumber those of Bob Hope, Bernard Manning and Roy “Chubby” Brown (I trust Davie will allow me a biased “thank heavens”.).
That is what happens when the right secures ascendency for decade after decade. Forty years ago Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan abolished the post-war consensus and swivelled the establishment tiller back towards starboard. Opposition parties such as the Democrats in the US and the UK Labour Party eventually responded by adjusting their own navigation devices in the same direction.
Political comedy thrives when deflating the powerful and standing up for the overlooked.
There have been occasions when this successfully takes in attacks on nominal leftists. The US TV series Portlandia brilliantly skewered privileged liberals in the Pacific northwest with their preposterous fads and self-regarding virtue signals. For the most part, however, the arena has, in recent decades, been dominated by necessary resistance to conservative orthodoxies. One can scarcely imagine a story more suited to such satirical dissection than that of an incoming BBC director general seeking to flood the airwaves with right-wing humour.
Let’s see how that works out.