Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014: Political advisors are turning stand-ups in 'revenge of the wonks'

Alice Jones has noticed odd clusters of former careers among comedians

There are odd clusters of former careers among comedians. One-time doctors are ten-a-penny - Harry Hill, Simon Brodkin, Adam Kay, Paul Sinha, Mike Wozniak, the late Graham Chapman. There are plenty of ex-lawyers - Susan Calman, Demetri Martin, Al Lubel. Even marketing has its funny alumni in the shape of Jimmy Carr, Noel Fielding and Rhod Gilbert. Civil servants? Not so much.

Until now. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, several former political advisors are taking to the mic to spill the beans on life inside the Westminster village. Call it the revenge of the wonks.

In The Michael Gove Expose, ex-civil servant Gareth Morinan sheds light on his time working in the Department for Education, while in 24 Hour Political Party People, Matt Forde, an advisor to the Labour party for many years, casts an insider’s eye over what today’s MPs are getting wrong. Meanwhile Robert Khan, a Labour councillor for Islington is back at the Fringe with Kingmaker (co-written with Tom Salinsky), a satirical drama about a familiar bumbling Mayor running for the Tory leadership. 

While a few comedians have gone into politics - Beppe Grillo in Italy, Al Franken in America, John O’Farrell and perhaps one day Eddie Izzard in the UK - there has been little traffic the other way. The less said about Lembit Opik’s stand-up career, the better.

These new shows are a step up from the standard political satire found on the Fringe. Their performers have been on the front line, sat through the meetings, cooked up the policies and chewed over the statistics. There’s knowledge behind the gags, which makes them uniquely interesting, as well as funny.

Morinan was an analyst in the Department for Education for two and a half years, working under both Ed Balls and Michael Gove, until he became a comedian in 2011. His show is a rather bleak insight into how government works - “Most policies start from a soundbite, rather than what is needed”, he says. “They have something they want to push throughand work backwards from that.” He chose to focus on Gove because, “This is the year he’s hitting peak hatred. I’m giving the people what they want.”

Forde meanwhile has been obsessed with Parliament for almost as long as he can remember. Now 31, he joined the Labour Party aged 15 and studied politics at university, after which he worked for his local Labour MP Nick Palmer and then for the party in various guises until he left to pursue comedy full-time four years ago.  In London, his monthly comedy chatshow at the St James Theatre, The Political Party, has already welcomed the likes of Alastair Campbell, Nigel Farage, Jack Straw and Stella Creasy.

“I used to do fairly run-of-the-mill, quite laddy stand-up - drinking stories, everyday stuff and a few impressions. But I wasn’t massively enjoying the material”, he says. “I don’t why it took me so long to wake up to the fact that I had this whole area of passion and knowledge that was absolutely ripe for comedy.”

That passion and knowledge feeds a focussed and funny hour of political material. There are impressions of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, analysis of the speech patterns of Cameron and Miliband and a comprehensive demolition of his fellow comedian Russell Brand’s call for revolution. He also deconstructs many of the absurd details of modern politics. Why does Chris Grayling blog like Alan Partridge? Why is Cameron is only ever pictured talking to the people in front of heavy machinery or pallets filled with loaves of bread? Why does Miliband point with his knuckle? It’s astute, obsessive stuff - the kind of stuff on which elections are won or lost. 

With the 2015 vote looming, there has never been a better time for disillusioned advisors and analysts to cast off their back-room roles and take to the stage. “It’s about giving politics all the respect and disrespect it deserves,” says Forde.

Matt Forde and Gareth Morinan are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe to 24 August

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