Alexei Sayle: The vanity that unites politics and comedy

One member of the double act begins to get more attention, the other sinks into rancour
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The Independent Online

I struggle to understand the psychology of politicians. They control my life to such an extent and they drive me so crazy with the cruel and unjust things that they do, that I reckon if I can just figure out what drives them then at least I will be able get some kind of closure. I will be able to regard them not simply as evil individuals acting out of pure malice but as flawed human beings like the rest of us.

I struggle to understand the psychology of politicians. They control my life to such an extent and they drive me so crazy with the cruel and unjust things that they do, that I reckon if I can just figure out what drives them then at least I will be able get some kind of closure. I will be able to regard them not simply as evil individuals acting out of pure malice but as flawed human beings like the rest of us.

My attempts to comprehend the mentality of our rulers does not go as far as actually meeting any of them. I have spent a little time in the company of MPs and government ministers, and I would advise the average citizen to stick their head in a bucket of acid rather than pass half an hour with a politician. What I try and do instead is to relate the behaviour of those involved in politics to a world I have spent years involved with and which I think I understand perfectly. That world is the comedy business.

However before we get onto the similarities, there is one fundamental and crucial difference between the world of comedy and that of politics. While the stories comedians tell are fictional and the characters they torture imaginary, the characters who are tortured by politicians are real human beings. To me this adds a level of seriousness to the actions of politicians which makes it even more reprehensible that, in my observation, it is essentially the same force that drives politicians and comedians. This force is of course ego, vanity, a need for power, fame and control. The fact that the assembled humorists of Britain voted as their favourite comedian Peter Cook, a man who is safely dead and therefore no threat to them whatsoever, tells you all you need to know about the way comedians think.

All successful individuals have an overwhelming and dire need to get to the top. Well-balanced people who are happy with themselves do not have the demented impetus to put up with the indignities of licking their way up the greasy pole of political advancement. The self-serving cant that David Blunkett spouted when he resigned about "public duty" and "serving the country" is merely a mask for his own conceit. He may at some level believe it, but the rest of us shouldn't.

In trying to fathom the personal dynamic that exists between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it occurs to me that the closest showbusiness equivalent is that funny business version of the abusive marriage - the comedy double act.

Over the years I have studied double acts. Although I have always been a lone-wolf solo act, the original Comic Strip Club touring line-up was me, and three pairs of comedians. So I have always been well placed to witness the internal affinities and tensions that power these co-dependent comedy relationships.

In the early days, they start out in hope and a deep and profound friendship. After all, the members of a double act will spend a lot more time with each other than they'll spend with their partners and families. In the early days there is also an equality between the two performers, but then, as they start to become successful, things almost always begin to go wrong. From my experience, one member of the double act inevitably begins to get more attention than the other. The neglected one may indeed be less talented, or they may just be less fashionable, or less adept at smooching journalists.

Whatever the reason, they begin to sink into bitterness and rancour, while the performer who's regarded as the talented one starts to believe that they are truly better than their partner and begins to adopt a "I can't help it if I'm more talented" attitude. They start to waste a great deal of time fighting with each other, to gain tiny crumbs of status over their sidekick. But there is also poison contained within the unhappy realisation that maybe the two of them still need each other, they both fear and suspect that there is some gestalt that exists, that what they do together is greater than the sum of its parts.

The result is that they are locked into working night and day with somebody they now hate. From time to time they will also test the relationship to see if they can break away. Gordon Brown's trip to Africa last week, though his emotion may be real and his desire to help (while not upsetting in any way any of the giant corporations he serves) may be genuine, the overriding impulse, like Ronan Keating doing the odd appearance at a charity event alone before leaving Westlife, is to promote his solo career.

I suspect it'll never happen, though. In 20 years' time Gordy Brown and Tony Blair will still be touring round some sort of politicians' nostalgia circuit but in separate tour buses, not talking to each other off stage and refusing to share a dressing room.

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