It pains me to say it as a Conservative voter, but the Left have finally scored a decisive and real victory over the Tories – not the re-election of Corbyn, but in the battle for laughs at party conference. It wasn’t just the quality; it was the sheer scarcity of overt attempts at humour at the Tory Party conference this year. The gags that did come out were on the awkward side, and, as a comedian, I’m slightly disappointed.
Andrea Leadsom at least had a go. She made a gag about poor wi-fi being a barrier to accessing her Pokemon Go account; it didn’t go down well. The problem was as much to do with intended audience as it was the quality of the joke. The Conservative party faithful don’t look like a Pokemon Go crowd. They probably wouldn’t have even known what Pokemon was the first time around, let alone its recent rebirth as an app. Their version of a good hunting gag probably involves Beagles, horns and the word “tree-hugger”.
Philip Hammond had a couple of good starts. Comparing the process of Brexit to a rollercoaster was a nice analogy but he needed to round it off with something like, “And Article 50 is that terrifying bit where they lower the shoulder brace and you start sweating as you realise there’s no escape.”
He also had to navigate the choppy waters of abandoning the surplus and committing to the kind of capital spending that would’ve had his predecessor laughing, but in a hysterical way. I’d have gone for an illustration of this U-turn using a relatable human example: “Austerity was like sobriety. We gave it a good go. We didn’t feel any better and no one was having any fun so we’re officially getting right back on it!”
Then there was the gag he did use. A contrived Ed Balls/Strictly Come Dancing/Corbyn “two left feet” effort. It might have been OK, but you could see him losing faith with every word. It was partly down to the set-up being too long. Comedy is terrifying enough as it is; if you’re asking non-comics to do jokes, give them as little time as possible to bail on the idea.
And he’s right to be afraid: with social media being what it is, his belly-flop could be a Cassette Boy mash-up with a million hits by the time he left the podium, full of slow-mos and those close-ups of the eyes which make everybody look like a psycho or a d*ckhead.
Given the ongoing malaise within the Labour Party I was hoping for more sly digs towards the left. Whatever the noises they are making about “unity”, the Labour conference seemed less like renewing vows and more like the first stage in a marriage guidance counselling process both parties are entering into just so they can tell the kids they tried.
I don’t know if it was an edict handed down by Theresa May, but the party seemed reluctant to go for their leader. Liam Fox went ever further, declaring, “There’s nothing funny about Jeremy Corbyn.”
I beg to differ. Corbyn looks like Albert Steptoe if he’d had dental insurance. He reads out emails like a supply teacher permanently on his last day before retirement. He genuinely thinks we should reopen the pits, a deluded romantic initiative up there with your Dad saying, “Kids! I’m thinking of getting the band back together.”
So it was left to Boris to do most of the comedic heavy lifting. Given his obvious headliner status it was odd that he was on so early. Any comedy promoter in the land would tell you that Boris should be on at the end.
He took things in an oddly surreal direction this year, quoting Snickers Ice Cream as the pinnacle of free market liberty. He could’ve gone further and imagined the limited range of ice creams on offer if a Momentum-led Labour ever got into power. Even the humble Choc Ice would be seen as a “bourgeois extravagance” and anyone mentioning pistachio and ice cream in the same sentence would do six months hard labour in a Gulag.
Theresa May herself surprised no one whatsoever by laying off the zingers. We all experienced the odd chill of her “REMIND YOU OF ANYONE?” gag in her first PMQs session.
When you look at Theresa’s speeches, it’s hard to see where the appropriate junctions for humour would occur. She has mentioned her abhorrence to modern slavery. I guess if she was feeling really bold she could leave it a beat and say, “But old-fashioned slavery on the other hand? Absolutely fine!” before waving her arms in a “What am I like?” gesture.
May did get an indirect laugh out of me by attending a building site and not opting for the ‘high-vis and hard hats’ approach favoured by Cameron. It was a subtle sign that she’s not really up for showy nonsense. It also showed up the fatuous idea that building sites with the Prime Minister present wouldn’t be able to stop throwing breeze blocks around for long enough to ensure safety for the most powerful person in the country.
And it was reasonably brave of May to allow Ruth Davidson the floor prior to her final address. I enjoyed her assessment that Scottish Conservatives were now “out and proud”. In comparing right-wing politics to the gay community there was a suggestion she might challenge Boris’ headliner status in years to come.
You get the sense, however, that the general lack of levity trickled down from the PM. She’s aware of the gravity of the post-Brexit situation and would hate to be seen as flippant.
So conference had the feel of a wedding where a well-loved relative had died days before the event. Everyone wanted to have a good time, but when it came down to choice between champagne or a glass of elderflower juice, most opted for the appearance of sobriety.Reuse content