Battle in Print: Social critique by stealth: why a subversive heart supplies the veins of all good comedy

Anna Travis, 23 October 2008

Laughter is a serious business and there will always be a higher purpose for it than tittering at toilet jokes. Yet we should rarely, especially today, look to comedy for radical politics, but rather seek out the rebellious heart within the art itself. The Greeks understood that comedy (the gods’ view of life) is superior to tragedy (the merely human). But since the Middle Ages, Western culture has invested the tragic with far more value than the comic.

Most humorous concepts, at their creative inception, rely on recognition of universal character traits and, in more sophisticated works, the joys, frustrations and truths of existence. A case needs to be made for comedy’s superior standing within the dramatic arts. Overtly political comedy may be flagging (bar the scorching attack of The Thick of It), but the best writers and performers are still mining the deep critical riches of the form. Those at the top of the game produce characters, situations or ideas that can be incredibly exacting, heart-warming and sophisticated critiques, or contemplations, of all that makes us human, or has gone awry in the world. As with all art forms, bad works can blind us to the power and importance of a genre. But a year of poor stand up can never negate the splendour and profundity of the burlesque narrative arc of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, for example.

Today the lazy gags of Have I Got News For You? tediously affirm the tired norm of cynicism towards authority. This process is mirrored on shows like Question Time, filled with comedian panelists, symbolic of the ideological emptying of politics itself. So where does comedy’s radicalism now reside? Although the interwar years of Weimar Germany and 1960s Britain appeared to be golden moments for anti-establishment mirth, it is easy to miss the insubordinate heart of satire that is still beating as strongly today, as thoughtful humour is so often social critique by stealth. We needn’t turn to explicitly political comedy for insights into social ills, or the state of satire, just as we wouldn’t simply use policy documents to gauge the (cold) temperature of the political classes.

Classless comedy

Some put the case for a magically political age of class ridden comedy, particularly in post-war Britain to accompany more antagonistic times. Yet, since the apparently classless late 1990s, chavs are seen as fair game and characters like Little Britain’s stroppy council estate teen Vicki Pollard are cited in Parliamentary debate. Class is still a key theme; it’s just the humour and disdain is far less gentle. Within the middle class spectrum, snobs are classically funny because they trade in misplaced self-importance, and consequently they have littered comedy history. Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character exemplifies these qualities with the most comic prowess. Ricky Gervais, producer of The Office, argues celebrity has trumped class as the aspirational aim and weakness to mock, ‘up until Basil Fawlty, comedy was all class, and now it’s celebrity. Before, people wanted to be part of the aristocracy; now, they want to be famous’ (quoted in Hattenstone).

Ironic stalemate

In an un-ideological age of celebrity surfaces what you perceive others expect you to believe becomes more important than your actual beliefs. Appearance is all. This relativist moral stance complicates everyday use of irony today, arguably ripping out its subversive heart and reducing it to a game of sarcasm, where nobody is allowed to call anyone’s bluff. Julian Baggini has dubbed elements of this phenomena ‘post-ironic peverse sincerity’ (or alternatively how about ‘Call My Kitsch’)? and first spotted it amongst the ‘cultural elite’ at Edinburgh festival::

‘I met two writers who both claimed to love the much derided film Sex Lives of the Potato Men. One had seen it six times and claimed it was in his top three all-time films. They claimed that they didn’t enjoy it ironically…So how does one get the sense of cultural superiority one used to get from irony? Consciously or not, I thought these guys were getting it from being sincere about things people would not believe you could be sincere about. Call it post-ironic perverse sincerity…often you get a competitive sense among such people that what you like will say something about you, and you want to make sure it says something at least interesting. It needn’t even be a matter of what you like, but how you like it.’

(2007: 200)
Cathartic offence
The most pertinent question regarding the political nature of comedy today is whether self-censorship is holding back our funniest jokes. Many new orthodoxies do seem to be disturbingly beyond attack, such as environmentalism, certain aspects of religion and the politics of behaviour. When some of Frank Skinner’s terrorism gags recently fell flat, he turned to an older comic for advice: ‘He knew the modern comedy crowd sensibilities…their safe ground and their thin ice… “It’s hard with terrorism stuff,” he said. “People are a lot touchier than they were ten years ago, and not just about that…paedophile jokes, gay jokes, all best left alone”’ (2008).

This summation is bleak for freedom of thought and speech, but good for comedians whose shtick has always been sick. You could even put the case for a flowering of satire in an age of increasing taboos. Comedian, magician and self proclaimed ‘psychopath’ Jerry Sadowitz is a man specialising in hate speech. He flies in the face of Richard Herring’s recent ‘Comedic formulae’ in the Guardian: ‘joking about such topics as paedophilia, racism, rape or cancer can go horribly awry. It is best avoided completely as a novice, but if you insist on trying then do not be offensive just for the sake of it, try to make some kind of point. And know what that point is, so you are able to justify your material’ (2008). Justify to whom? One wonders with a chill. In fact, Sadowitz’s recent stand up routine makes an interesting counter case for jokes as social rituals, full of cathartic laughter that permit the expression of forbidden thoughts. His shower of spittle and bile sprays upon every touchstone taboo going.

Sadowitz emerged in the first wave of alternative comedy in 1980s London, and stylistically his work has parallels to the deliberately offensive work of Lenny Bruce or Derek and Clive. His strength lies in his precise readings of the offence-o-meter, which is currently off the scale. Over the years, his card tricks have shrunk to a linking device for the true centre piece, insulting and attacking our moral sensibilities. Watching him recently there was a sense he has had to add a self-consciousness to his act, making explicit his intentions, as he has such an alien and bold purpose within the contemporary mindset, where we have to appear to be offended, regardless of our underlying perceptions. Hence the recurring line, ‘Well, I offend the sensitive, that’s what I do’ (1). Or his very quick-witted response to ambient noise like police sirens at a recent gig: ‘I knew they’d fuckin’ get me, it was the McCann material that did it.’ His usual callous gags on recent natural disasters and the disabled guy in the front row still go down riotously well. Most stand up functions in this territory, but Sadowitz, bulldozes you into releasing your id. Or maybe, more simply, comedy is cruelty.

Sadowitz gets away with his non-stop tirade of hate because of the very indiscriminate and complete range of his targets. For his act to work he must attack all areas of sensitivity and in fact asks his audience ‘is there anything I’ve missed?’. To lose the careful balance, by dominating with a topic, or missing a minority, means the persona collapses and an unacceptable authenticity seeps through.

It does seem that racism is still the final forbidden territory. Although Sadowitz pays lip service to sending up the offended, his current act contains no attack on any particular ethnic identity. Race is only dealt with through the code of terrorism gags, fuelled by a rather tame ‘PC gone mad’ anger that fills local radio. Sacha Baron Cohen is the boldest comedian in this area and, interestingly, it is because he, like Sadowitz, is Jewish that he has permission to make these gags, as he holds the final victim trump card of Jewishness. To his credit Sadowitz mocks this very subject. More immediately he gets away with it by creating a protective shield from criticism, he’s got there first, imitating the whines of the you-can’t-say-that–ers –  ‘Oohh that Jerry Sadowitz, he’s soo racist’ – and with a fence of anger: ‘I hate punters’. It’s ironic that a lot of Sadowitz’s current routine is filled with bitter asides on his washed-up career when, in fact, a stand up who specialises in pushing buttons of offence, in a culture specialising in speech censorship, is clearly having his day; albeit in the sanctioned arena of comedic performance.

Human folly and social function

The communal setting required for comedy to excel adds to its inherent rebellious impulse. Strong comic material is political in the sense that it anatomises balances of power, amongst close individuals or wider groups. Watching with family or friends at home, or the public in a theatre, multiplies the pleasure and significance of comedic ideas and amplifies responses, literally with infectious laughter. The reflex of laughter is an instinctive social signal among primates, but in humans it can flex our most highly evolved intellectual capacities. Laughter communicates: ‘that’s exactly how it is’ or ‘that’s just how some people act.’ The crudest response is to a mimic, but in reaction to something like The Day Today, we could be giggling at the surreality of melodramatic news reportage.

Powerful satire has deserving and often hidden targets. It is the very precision and subtlety of the marksmen, and the inherent assumption of audience sophistication, that marks out comedy as seditious. Satire cannot work unless we recognise the objects of derision and their characteristics; other creative forms like fiction and drama can. Comedy also continually riffs upon social etiquette and embarrassment; therefore it inevitably speaks volumes about codes of conduct and the moral assumptions underpinning them.

According to Rob Lyons, ‘the aim of satire should be to crystallise a vague sense of unease about the world into a clearer understanding of why a policy or a government is just plain irrational’ (2008). The Thick of It and its exposure of Whitehall’s shallow and obsessive policy generation is a marvellous case in point. There is also however a broader, apolitical comedic drive, which is about reveling in the absurdity of things, satisfying the instinctive urge for narrative surprise – what Henri Bergson in his philosophical treatise on Laughter, ‘Le rire’ (1900), thought of as spotting ‘something mechanical in something living’.

But the progressive notes of comedy still ring true. Human vices are held up for disapproval by ridicule, irony, or other methods, ideally from the impulse to cause improvement and highlight truths. As an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit, satire demands a clever association of ideas. This can often entail questioning of conventional wisdom or viewing society without preconceptions (what the poor political satire today fails miserably to do). It is this defamiliarisation process that makes comedy such a potentially effortless form of social critique.

Henri Bergson suggests comedy actually performs, not a primitive function, as theorists like Freud argued, but an evolved social function. Drama provides a glimpse of our hidden nature, kept under wraps for the purpose of participating in civilised society. Comic drama however highlights our antisocial tendencies, which in turn it invites us to laugh at and finally correct. Despite this drive for correction, there is still an intriguing ambiguity in audience responses to comedy. When we laugh at David Brent’s gaffes at the office party, is that laughter about accepting our weaker selves, through recognition of uncomfortable traits, or distancing ourselves from them and the thought of embodying them?


Anna Travis lectures in English literature, contributes to spiked-online and writes reviews for the Brighton Salon. She is currently completing a book entitled ‘Mediocre Man: The Lost Archetype of Modernity’, which this essay draws upon.


(1) Jerry Sadowitz at the Udderbelly, Brighton, 21 May 2008


Baggini, Julian. 2007. Granta. Welcome to Everytown. A journey into the English mind. p200.
Bergson, Henri. 1900. Le Rire
Hattenstone, Simon, 2006 ‘The Lennon and McCartney of Comedy’, Guardian Weekend, 9 September 2006.
Herring, Richard, 2008, ‘How to write comedy’, Guardian, 22 September 2008
Lyons, Rob, 2008, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes, with swearing’, by Rob Lyons, spiked, 18 June 2008
Skinner, Frank, 2008, ‘Back in the saddle’, The Times, 22 September 2008

Festival Buzz
Each to his iPod or Great Music For All

View: Each to his iPod or Great Music For All

"In a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to non-conformist positions the Battle of Ideas remains the flagship of free thinking."
John Cooper, leading barrister and writer