Alternative Comedy and Politics: is there really No Alternative?

Alternative Comedy and Politics: is there really No Alternative?

Gavin Schaffer’s article “Fighting Thatcher with Comedy: What to Do When There is No Alternative,” highlights that much of the alternative comedy coming out in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain presented itself as the “focal point of leftist opposition” to the Thatcher government.[1] Being cautious not turn this post into a political opinion piece, I would argue that the austerity we have seen under the past 11 years of Conservative rule, and in particular leftist response to the government, is not too dissimilar to the diffracted British society under Thatcher. Having followed the British stand-up scene for many years, I would struggle to name any prominent comedians who identify as being right-wing or have done a set which supports a right-wing agenda. In fact, most comedy which errs on the side of politics tends to be vocally and often radically left wing. Channel Four’s The Last Leg (2012–) began as a special late night show during the London Paralympics, but has since become a home for regular outright criticism of the Conservative Government. Because two of the hosts, Alex Brooker and Adam Hills, are themselves physically disabled much of the critique of the Tories comes from the vantage point of a disabled person trying to access government aid – queue lots of jokes about ‘shit hands.’ In addition, many of their guests, often coming from the stand-up scene, are vocally critical of the government as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbbbJ32V9No – Miriam Margolyes on disability cuts

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn0AHXNt_tg – Miriam Margolyes and Richard Osmond on the 2019 election win

In the second clip, Osman makes a good point about the audience of The Last Leg, at around the 3:13 mark Osman says, “the people that are watching this are the furious ones, right, the ecstatic ones are not watching this, they’re in the pub, or maybe they’re queuing up in A&E going, “hold on a minute – I thought this was supposed to be the best health service in the world?”” This neatly links back to Schaffer’s point that comedy, even though it has very clear goals and intentions, is “inherently unreliable as a political weapon.”[2] It is unlikely that supporters of the Tories will be watching The Last Leg on the eve of their election win, and less likely will their opinion be changed by what they see on screen.

For an example of what happens when you get a left-wing comic in front of a right-wing audience, check out Nish Kumar at a charity gig. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVuC6DRKQgA&t=329s

[1] Schaffer, Gavin. “Fighting Thatcher with Comedy: What to Do When There Is No Alternative.” Journal of British Studies 55, no. 2 (2016) p. 376

[2] Schaffer, “Fighting Thatcher with Comedy,” p.386

4 comments

  1. I think you could also relate this form of left-wing British comedy to Ian Wilkie’s article on the “Pythonesque” and political satire. Python really began the trend of ‘satirical flavour within their comedy’ (2019: 214). They truly started a chain reaction of left-wing comedians becoming more “vocally critical of the government.” Additionally, many stand up comedians add absurd or surrealist flares into their acts, bringing every day material to light by subverting audience expectations.

  2. I think Osman’s point about it being the furious ones watching, is so important. It ties into what we were looking at a few weeks back, with comedy being a coping mechanism. It is almost as if this comedy is not to achieve meaningful change, but rather to be an opportunity to vent. This would also help to explain why Nish Kumar’s comedy bombed so hard in front of a right-wing audience, as to them Kumar’s criticisms are not problems.

  3. I have been thinking a lot about the overwhelming number of left-wing shows/celebrities/comedians and how this often doesn’t represent the diversity of political opinions within a nation. However, a part of me feels like something is inherent to mainstream comedy where it’s often liberal white men “punching down” for a laugh. For example, I just saw a compilation of Letterman, Colbert and Leno dragging Monica Lewinsky instead of Bill Clinton despite their public support for the feminist movement.

  4. This is an excellent example of the potential political power of British alternative comedy, especially in a relation to it being used as not only allowing for representation and destigmatisation of people with disability appearing as core host’s on television. But also using comedy and satirical critique to allow for these unique perspectives that could possibly go ignored if presented in a more serious format. is comedy used as somewhat of an icebreaker to align audiences and allow them to be more empathetic in this situation?

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