Beyond Dapper Laughs: Comedic Realism & The Failure Of Liberalism

In the latest Quietus Wreath Lecture looking back at 2014, Joe Kennedy looks at how comedy is failing to deliver a decent response to the current British malaise

Like many, perhaps most or even all, of you, I won’t look back on 2014, at least in terms of what can be ascribed to the public sphere, fondly. I mean, it’s been worse than 2013 which was, in turn, worse than 2012. Internationally? As awful as can be barring a full-scale, multi-actor armed conflict, and we’ve come as close to this as in any year since the 1980s. Domestically? The surge of the rugby-club right against a backdrop of apparently interminable austerity, the former to some extent a consequence of a campaign of misinformation regarding the causes of the latter. Culturally? Ed Sheeran, and books with titles constructed along the formula The [adjective] [uncountable noun] of [forename] [surname] – The Inexplicable Hegemony of Ed Sheeran, to kill a couple of birds with one stone.

A thread linking the cultural and the domestic-political, and perhaps even the international, can be found in the sort-of-unlikely setting of the British comedy scene. Since alternative comedians wrested their autonomy from noxious Manningesque blue humour and the schematised laughs of light entertainment in the 1980s, then wisecracked their way to dominance in the 1990s, the trajectory has been towards the construction of a broad consensus for a new, liberal-leftish comic mechanics. Said consensus now fully established, liberal comedy has ebbed in political energy and relevance in inverse proportion to its increasing closeness to ubiquity. To examine this phenomenon in detail tells us not only about the moribundity of a particular cultural field, but of the intellectual and conceptual bankruptcy of political liberalism and the near left in regard to the rightwards turn.

The prevailing register of British comedy is also the prevailing voice of British liberalism, and it blends three tones. The first of these is ruefulness – why isn’t everything like it could be? The second is a spuriously enlightened superiority – things could be a certain way if only more people could see the truths I see. Finally, we find a wearied cynicism – if things are not the way they could and should be, why shouldn’t I meet the lower common denominators? You could triangulate the position of most modern British comedians somewhere between these three points; for someone perfectly equidistant from each, the representative voice of the nation’s tickled ribs, just think of Robert Webb.

I invoke Webb’s name here as he was a participant in one of British comedy’s three main collisions with politics in 2014. First, however, I want to deal with two more obvious instances, the more notable of which involves a rare outlier from the dominant strand of complacent liberalese. That would be Dapper Laughs, the South London lad-com act deprived of a second series on ITV when people pointed out, not particularly surprisingly, that strident and unrepentant misogyny is misogynistic. It took little time once the furore began for the mainstays of post-alternative mainstream comedy – a formulation less awkward than it looks on paper – to take their turns shellacking Daniel O’Reilly. All well and good, perhaps, and it’s undoubtedly, if depressingly, necessary for this calling out of #bantz-level sexism to happen if we’re going to reach the radical change in attitudes that we’re still crying out for.

It was the case, however, that O’Reilly had a double role in this drama. He was, undoubtedly, in a position where it would have been wrong not to make a noise about the suppurating grimness of his creation. However, he was also an obvious target of the sort the comedy in-crowd require in order to make it look as if what they do retains political bite. I’m sure many of the signatories to the letter which denounced O’Reilly were heartfelt in their condemnation, but there’s also a certain lack of risk in decrying the pantomime sexism which characterised On The Pull. On a pretty frequent basis, I can turn on Have I Got News For You or Mock The Week and catch someone on the inside track of comedy, their political ‘credentials’ reasonably reliable, slipping into casual sexism dressed up as bonhomie, badinage or even, shudder-inducingly, irony.

The point here may well be that modern mainstream comedy, in the odd position of having inherited both the mass audience of the after-dinner dinosaurs and the sensibilities of 80s alternative comedy, recognises its sellability lies in its being able to position itself as progressive without committing to any form of progression beyond bien-pensant liberalism. It’s not a new phenomenon: the early years of the Millennium were a gift for comedians who effectively made a living out of telling us that George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were bad men (and who yet have very little to say over Barack Obama’s ongoing drone wars). As a consequence, comedy has moved more and more towards a facile progressivism whereby a participant on one of the ever-proliferating panel shows can make a comment about the appearance of a Tory politician (who will invariably be Eric Pickles or Boris Johnson) and frame it as finessed satire.

That the voice carrying the most resonance in comedy is a banal one was identified, albeit for reasons very different from mine, by Andrew Lawrence, who in October dismissed "back-slapping panel shows like Mock The Week". Had Lawrence not then proceeded to start swiping away at "ethnic comedians and women", the nuggets of accuracy in his diatribe might have come into sharper relief. In pointing out that too many comedians are ‘supercilious’ and ‘moralising’ – and there is an essential difference between easy morality and complicated politics here – a good point was made. Once again, the good point was in the service of a dumb one, but one might repurpose the criticism of comics making hay in Nigel Farage’s beery sunshine to say that laughing smugly at UKIP is clearly not making them go away. The conversion of serious political issues into moral-comedic capital which can land you a seat on The Apprentice: You’re Fired – tip to all comedians who aspire to this: Nick, Karen, and even the strangely Pinterian Lord Sugar are all funnier than you – does offer the liberal classes a way out of really thinking about what’s happening in Britain, or their potential complicity in it. Where political comedy once had the capacity to force issues, it now seems more like a paradoxical form of disengaging from them.

So, where did the comedians engage head-on with politics, other than in rehearsed and glib jibes at Farage or at bankers? If they did so en masse in a way which wasn’t reactive – by which I mean the response to Dapper Laughs or to Lawrence – the issue about which they put their heads above the parapet most noticeably was over Scotland. Now, I’d probably best announce my own sympathies here: I’m not writing from a neutral position, should such a thing exist. I was pretty vocal about my hopes for a ‘Yes’ vote and about the machinations of the establishment in bringing about the opposite. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that there’s something in the number of comedians who signed up to historian Dan Snow’s mawkish, barely-not-imperialistic lovebombing of Scotland that is telling in a way which goes beyond the debate surrounding the referendum.

Snow’s letter was characteristic of much of modern British politics in that it came from a place of deep resistance to change while presenting itself as simply rational, objective and even progressive wisdom. Don’t go Scotland! We’re so much better together! We’ve got so much in common and we did all that stuff together which, while not entirely ethically justifiable, we’ve at least expressed a mumble of contrition for! And you’ll be COLD on your own! The signatories were, as one might expect, drawn from the world of goodly common sense, people who are not-old-fashioned-but…, while not being outrageous bigots of the kind that would discredit the project. In fact, it was an exercise in consensuality: light-ent mainstays (Cilla Black), W.H.Smiths Smart Thinkers (Alain de Botton), incipient professional national treasures (Olivia Colman), unimpeachable sportspeople (Tom Daley) and high-profile scientists (Steven Hawking). Just by reading down the list of names, it was clear that it was an assemblage of people who don’t want to rock the boat, a boat which just happens to be sailing in the direction they want it to.

Scottish independence from a political union created and consolidated at the very height of the European Enlightenment has been a cause which has suffered from attendant associations of irrationality. It was thus very easy for Snow et al to present their agenda as an intrinsically sensible one. For the comedians involved – Webb, his Peep Show partner David Mitchell, Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan to name but a handful – there was perhaps a bit more at stake in associating with such a ‘rational’ cause. As I’ve argued above, so much of modern comedy gets its structure from a withering sense of most people not being able to take a rational approach to the world’s problems: if only the man in the street could just see. Comedy nowadays presents itself as the unduped, that which is not taken in and is capable of seeing through pretence. Such an attitude was there in Webb’s riposte to Russell Brand’s suggestion that the effectively disenfranchised should make themselves into the literally disenfranchised: "with the greatest of respect, please read some fucking Orwell". It’s there in every Bush and Cameron joke. It’s there in Josie Long’s faux-naïve, and thus somehow also actually naïve, cartoons for the Guardian G2 on a Saturday, which pulse with a moralising idea that it’s all simply a case of how we need to be kinder to one another: well, obviously.

In this sense, it acts as an affirmation that how things are, on the macro level, is somehow the way things should be: we should work at the level of correcting the flaws within the system, its instances of corruption, rather than the system itself. Read some fucking Orwell, with the greatest of respect. Vote Labour or Democrat. Be nicer. It makes of politics a series of individual moral choices and therefore denies that the very framework of choice is defined by ideology. But laughter is, surely, capable of so much more than this. At its best, it can be a turbulent force which punches a hole in the structuring of things and exposes the very contingency of the rational. Seeing comedy defer to Enlightenment shibboleths of pragmatism, realism and achievability – making the errant UKIP voter see the error of their ways – is not just frustrating, it’s sad.

One of the best things published on this site in 2014 was Taylor Parkes’ essay on how Monty Python has been misread as "something unthreatening and whimsical, a posh boys’ lark, an "icon of Britishness", a zany figleaf for the humourless and the deeply conventional" rather than "a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive… something close to Dada." Comedy can be a radical reordering of sense which defamiliarises what we take to be the ‘rational’ and offers it up as a complex politicised construct. Surrealism managed to show us that it was the conditions of the sensible which were flawed, as opposed to specific acts being nonsensical or irrational, as did the films of Buster Keaton and the writings of Beckett and Kafka. Comedians who work with this legacy of destabilisation in mind continue to work: with Stewart Lee, for example, it’s rarely the content of the show that elicits laughter but in the intense layering, backtracking, waylaying, exaggerating and collapsing of the material, and this laughter is, in Brecht’s sense, non-cathartic politically charged. By contrast, so much of what passes for left-leaning comedy in 2014 allows for a communion of amusement which allows for a purging of the motivated and necessary anger which could contribute towards a true challenging of the reality conditions of the moment.

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