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RIP humour, strangled by the sisterhood


Comedian Bridget Christie was on BBC radio a few days ago, ranting as usual about feminists and feminism. She appreciated that they are sometimes accused of being humourless. ‘Who would ask other humanitarian groups to make jokes?’ she asked indignantly. It was a surprise to hear feminism equated with Amnesty International and UNICEF. But more significantly she then dismissed humour as ‘not important’.

That certainly explains her act, and rather tragically her raging success. Her stand-up show Because You Demanded It was the Guardian’s Comedy of the Year 2016. Her Wiki biog shows her to be an astonishingly successful phenomenon, best-selling author, and winner of a ‘Chortle Award’. These were set up in 2002 to honour stand-up comedians.

Her CV is vague about what she did before she became a comic, perhaps wisely since she worked at the Daily Mail as Nigel Dempster’s secretary, complete with tight leather trousers. Since then she has seen the light and become a troubadour for feminism, achieving fame in an age when wit, timing and a sense of fun have been ditched in favour of political rhetoric.

Jokes, irony and sarcasm are now much too unpleasant, even vulgar, to be contemplated. The days of Ronnie Barker are over, and don’t even think about Benny Hill. Admitting you once liked him is a bit like saying you used to enjoy watching Rolf Harris doing his painting, or that one of your relatives kept a swastika in the attic and wore it covertly on Hitler’s birthday.

I feel the same way about the death of jokes, sarcasm and irony as I do about seeing the countryside go under concrete and native habitats being destroyed: something seriously important to us as a people is being lost, possibly for ever. Humour was a fundamental part of British culture which in my experience included large parts of the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities, who can even improve on the English versions.

But what Bridget Christie is concerned about is women. She represents their current pursuit of power through Left-wing politics and their take on comedy. When she says that humour is not important, she is speaking for herself: a leading exponent of the new non-funny variety which is trying to extinguish essentially male repartee, and also proves the old suspicion that many women never understood jokes in the past and have no need for them now.

Quips and jests almost always came from the boys; making others laugh is about individuality, standing out from the group, and taking a risk. No ladylike girl was brought up to do that. In school it was usually only the plain girl who would take the risk of alienating the boys by making a joke. The pretty ones knew they didn’t need to compete with the boys on their turf. That hasn’t changed much. If you look around a pub you will still see men talking animatedly and guffawing while their better halves sit quietly talking about their food allergies and their children.

Male banter in the House of Commons has become a recent target for feminists who have spotted a ritual in which they cannot safely take part. Lively, ribald discourse will no doubt soon go the same way as the rugby tackle. Women’s laughter is about bonding and agreed norms.

Will Franken, one of the UK’s very rare Right-wing comedians, struggles along his lonely path and is rather worried about the future of his craft as he still holds to the idea that comedy should make you laugh. ‘The most fundamental characteristic of comedy is the element of surprise,’ he says. ‘Yet very little of that element is on display in the current stand-up scene. Today’s comedy is either about nothing at all or so far to the Left that audiences might as well be attending a sermon on social justice. For despite the entertainment industry’s platitudinal obsession with diversity, one quota remains perpetually unfilled: difference of opinion.

‘An average backstage political discussion amongst comedians bears a striking resemblance to office workers mildly complaining about the weather. No one likes the rain, no one likes the Tories. Maybe next week we’ll finally get some sunshine or better yet, some Jeremy Corbyn.

‘What’s missing in this dynamic is what’s known as the gut laugh – those quasi-violent paroxysms of guffawing extracted straight from the belly by the comedic weapon of surprise. Perhaps this surprise comes in reaction to a different opinion. Without the gut laugh, the comedy aesthetic is devoid of meaning and punters are left with a mundane give-and-take scenario. No one is offended, no one is upset, no one is complaining – and yet everyone is bored.’

Boredom is good for you, at least according to the British Left, perhaps still influenced by those old Soviet speeches which lasted three hours. The modern comedy act, or BBC panel game pundit, preaches a secular sermon. Laughter, sometimes on a looped tape, follows to show support for that worthiness.

The Scottish novelist, academic and stand-up comedian A L Kennedy recently said on BBC Radio Four that she liked the US ‘screwball’ comedies of the 1930s, such as It happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1939). She apparently relished their fantasy element combined with slapstick, wit and good humour. She particularly favoured the way they showed ‘a world of ordinary people taking the lead in the chaos that is life’. But it wasn’t long before she revealed that for her they are now a parable of some kind against the current ‘degradation’ of the White House by Trump.

Perhaps with her academic’s hat on, she accused Senator Joe McCarthy of destroying that kind of humour of the common person (I won’t of course say ‘man’) during his persecution of communists in the 1950s, destruction furthered by the advanced capitalism of today which makes films as a global product to sell to the lowest common denominator.

She said her favourite film was Harvey, made in 1950. That lovely comedy of manners stars James Stewart as Elwood P Dowd, a sane man who chooses Harvey, an invisible six foot three and a half inches tall white rabbit, as his close companion. It’s a gentle plea for tolerance and a satire on human selfishness as his relatives and doctors conspire to destroy him and the rabbit. Kennedy quoted the ending words of the film, which summed up Dowd’s wisdom: ‘In this world,’ he says, ‘you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.’

Kennedy saw this as the essence of what comedy should be. ‘The world is crazy and in need of kindness,’ she said, which is indisputable, and like others on the Left she requires comedy and satire to be a balm for our discontents and to contribute to kindness and cohesion. To my mind that is a complete misunderstanding or perhaps wilful denial of the anarchistic, pressure-releasing, often cruel and destructive force that comedy once was. She is no doubt happy enough with Bridget Christie and the current comedy scene, reflected so unquestioningly by the BBC. She even referred to comedians as ‘ragingly moral’. So were Oliver Cromwell, Torquemada, Joseph McCarthy and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They convinced a lot of people of their worthiness, but I don’t think that between them they ever provoked a single mild chortle.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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