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When the world is beyond satire, is silliness and surrealism the answer for comedy?

How comedians are responding, not always effectively, to the political madness of 2017

Martin Willis
Monday 27 November 2017 15:18 GMT
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Kat Bond at Objectively Funny Festival
Kat Bond at Objectively Funny Festival (Victor Preda)

Present-day politics moves uncompromisingly fast. With myriad news stories arising each day (many from one Twitter account), it is nigh on impossible to simply be reactive as a stand-up. Trust me, I’ve tried.

I felt inordinately proud of a piece about the President’s cabinet when I wrote it in January. Come April, I’d had to cut out some of the snappiest jokes. In the summertime, half the motley crew got replaced. By the time I’d lost “What’s Steve’s Ban On”, I couldn’t work out if I was happy he’d gone or distraught I’d lost my best pun. I packed the set in.

Despite the required rewrites, I wondered, isn’t every joke still “a tiny revolution”? It’s hard to believe that Orwell would have written that today, faced with the never-ending series of comics (yes, me included) telling underwritten Trump jokes on London’s circuit. It feels more like every one of these represents devolution, lumping politics onto the same hack pile as masturbation and Tinder.

Obviously, politicians on both sides are ludicrous. Just look at Boris Johnson, for crying out loud. These oddities represent such extremes and hypocrisies that they are almost unsatirisable by even the most talented of hands. How do you continually exaggerate individuals that speak exclusively in hyperbole?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, rather than make jokes about the ludicrous state of affairs in which we live, many comedians are turning ever more to surrealism, abstraction, and straight-up stupidity to subvert our expectations.

One just need look at the Weirdos collective, a ragtag bunch of absurd acts whose day-to-day work is often in prop-comedy or character shows. They recently performed a full-length play on a real-life ice rink. It was, of course, utterly ludicrous. But it was fun-filled too, and it sold out Alexandra Palace’s 700-seater. A huge feat for an intentionally niche comedy crew.

But satire remains important, both as a social entity and to the ticket-buying public. It’s with this dichotomy in mind that I started a new comedy night in London, Satire vs Silliness. At the heart of it is a simple question: would we, the audience, rather interrogate the world around us, or simply escape from it?

Perhaps it is not Trump comedians should be looking at but the basket of bread before him (AFP/Getty)
Perhaps it is not Trump comedians should be looking at but the basket of bread before him (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

I put this question to Bec Hill. Beside her TV and stand-up work she founded the Pun Run, a monthly night where only wordplay is allowed – a joyous, warm escape from the frankly frightening geopolitical landscape outside. As far as Bec’s concerned, “the world is silly”, and this informs her light-heartedly absurd joke-telling. She says that there isn’t necessarily a political purpose to comedy, though it’s “certainly moral”.

Being a good egg onstage and off could be seen as a rebellion against callous idiots everywhere, and Bec’s determination to show off her kind heart is a statement in itself. As she puts it, “comedy should either help people realise an uncomfortable truth, make the world a better place, or make people happy”.

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These aspirations are also shared by Kat Bond, whose recent show Loo Roll was a multi-character cavalcade of curiosities. She looks to create comedy, she says, that “brings people together in a moment of relief.”

Like Bec, Kat creates comedy that reflects the weird, wider world. Her larger-than-life characters are in many ways truer than the everyday. “I think that there is a sense of ridiculousness in my comedy that reflects the sheer confusion we are all in,” she says. “Silly comedy challenges the norm and refuses to conform, and that is political in a way.”

So does a playful avoidance of “big P” politics really change the way that we view the world, or interact with it? Or, indeed, is that the job of satire? After all, rather than just pull the audience’s mood up, satire drags the ridiculous back down to earth.

Danielle Grufferty, a comedian who has worked for the Labour Party, has lamented the lack of decent satire in Britain. Hence she co-founded 3 Line Wit, a monthly political debate show and one of the circuit’s few solely satirical gigs.

Part of the problem, says Danielle, is that the act of creating satire is itself seen as a socialist’s game. She told me, “I worry that satire is seen as something that these days is owned by the liberal elite. Which is ironically what the illiberal elite love to tell everybody – it mirrors the whole ‘we’re tired of experts’ nonsense.”

Martin Willis is the comedy programmer at The Albany and founded a Satire vs Silliness night in London (Victor Preda)
Martin Willis is the comedy programmer at The Albany and founded a Satire vs Silliness night in London (Victor Preda)

But this isn’t a new phenomenon. “People have always taken satire too literally,” she continued. “People got offended by Peter Cook’s impression of Harold Wilson – one lady told him ‘that’s not what you are for’. But they were totally fine when he satirised Tory leaders. It’s interesting, you know. I think the response you illicit is often the comical thing.”

It is a pertinent point. Innumerable comics are lambasting Brexit negotiations, Trump’s Russian collusion or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s silly top hat. Because, of course, innumerable comics are politically left-leaning. But some aren’t, and more importantly, a hefty chunk of the public isn’t, either.

Interestingly, it seems that, despite the sense that satire is solely for socialists, comedians from the centre ground generally seem to produce the most scathing and hilarious work. Acts such as Alfie Brown and Fin Taylor have recently been tearing up trees with shows that are relentless in their assault, taking aim more frequently at the screaming idiocy of the masses than the clowns at the top of the chain.

With this perspective, it may be no surprise that Fin Taylor believes satire’s relevance is ever-growing. His career’s unfaltering rise in many ways reflects that – he made waves in 2016 with Whitey McWhiteface, a show (unsurprisingly) about white privilege, and continued that take-no-prisoners approach this year with the target set on moaning lefties.

“If anything, the sheer stupidity of the current crop of Western politicians has meant audiences now crave critical thinking more than ever. I now feel my preposterously blunt sense of humour is finally relevant,” he told me.

However, it’s not the politicians that end up in his crosshairs. After all, he says, “Gaffes don’t mean anything anymore. Young people are much more politically engaged than when I started stand-up, but they’re not engaged with politicians, they’re engaged with identity politics.”

But, crucially, he says, whoever the joke is on, “Silliness is the most important thing. If you forget to be silly then more often than not you forget to be funny.” He’s not wrong. Of course, (and it’s hard to admit this given the question at the heart of this article) without silliness, satire is just news. And often, the sillier the satire, the more potent it is.

Case in point; on Thursday 23 June 2016, the day of the referendum, I performed with my double act at a comedy night in Peckham, south London. Michael Brunström, a neo-Dada act whose last show was about parsley, engaged the room in a vote. They could choose between life-giving vitamin A, and horse-riding necessity, a stirrup. Two concepts we knew nothing about. The room was divided; backing their side; shouting to the very end. Completely absurd, it was the perfect representation of the baffling, divisive referendum and accompanying hysteria. To this day, I still can’t believe the stirrup won.

So, satire needs silliness. Maybe, even, silliness needs satire. Either way, we need both. After all, as the hardest-hitting political comedy and most escapist surrealism shows: we, the masses, are the most illogical entity of all. More than any individual politician or any loony party, we ourselves are the most ridiculous. And long may we be ridiculed.

3 Line Wit takes place on Tuesday 5 December at the Albany, Great Portland Street, to benefit the Jo Cox Foundation. Tickets here and more information at objectivelyfunny.com.

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