Festival of Politics: The Politics of Comedy Review

During the 80s comedy was frequently used as a political ‘weapon’. But is comedy today equally political, or has its increasingly commercial nature dulled its campaigning edge?

And what now is deemed ‘politically acceptable’ comedy material?

A panel of heavyweights from the comedy industry came together in the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday (27th) to discuss the serious politics behind what makes us laugh. The event was part of this year's Festival of Politics.

The panel

  • Simon Fanshawe, Perrier Award winner, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Board member
  • Tommy Sheppard, owner of The Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow
  • Kate Copstick, The Scotsman comedy critic, stand-up and writer.
  • Chaired by Trish Godman MSP, Deputy Presiding Officer

Comedy as a political weapon

All three quickly agreed that there had been a golden era of political satire with roots in the sixties and a renaissance in the Thatcherite eighties. What had exercised the satirists was the ability to effect change in politics. The Spitting Image puppet of David Steel in David Owen's pocket had seriously impacted Steel's career. Times are now very different.

  • “Hope for change through satire died with Blair; the end of satire” Kate
  • “The power of alternative comedy in the eighties has been eliminated by the centrism of politics today. Everyone fights over the centre ground” Tommy
  • “Political satire is still effective in the USA;The Daily Show with John Stewart, Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin” Simon 

Popular TV shows now like Live at the Apollo and Mock the Week (MtW) are too mainstream and just fluffy stuff. Frankie Boyle left MtW because half his gags were being cut.

All agreed that humour is lightly veiled aggression.

  • “If po-faced comedians self-censor then the outcome is a secretly nuclear armed Israel and no-one is allowed to say anything” Simon

Politically acceptable comedy

What can comedians 'get away with'? Is it the context?

  • “The word comedy above the entrance door of The Stand means that everything heard inside must be taken with a pinch of salt.” Tommy

Base instincts are released in a comedy club. Women comedians make sexist jokes. Disabled comedians shock audiences with self-parody. Black comedians crack racist gags.

The furore over the Jonathon Ross/Russel Brand prank phone call made to Andrew Sachs showed how some artists think they are bigger than the show. The producer could have edited the item. Nevertheless the context was a radio show with an audience of mostly under thirty year olds who failed to understand the fuss that ensued.

Platform context comedy

Questions from the audience.

A question from a comedy student highlighted the platform context in comedy. In a healthy Scots accent and an Asian appearance, she asked about comedy double standards.

On radio no-one would know her ethnic roots; further, on an audio podcast, there are no limits, no censorship and no taboos. Future and current new platforms could have a vital role in liberating comedy.

A Belfast woman suggested that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to set an Irish version of Chris Morris's Four Lions.

The Review

The intimate stage design of easy chairs as in a TV chat show was unassisted by poor sound and the lack of a projected large screen. The panel were lost in the huge, magnificent main chamber which was only a third full. The panel members frequently spoke over each other which got some laughs from the front row audience. Unfortunately, the main chamber is structured for formal debate. Next time the show should be produced in a Committee Room. I'd certainly be there.