Old school comic: Will Hay relied on wit, not vulgarity, for his laughs (credit: getty images)
These days when I hear an announcer on the television or the wireless tell me that there is about to be something called "comedy" I suffer an almost physical reaction. Had I a revolver to reach for I would, as Hanns Johst put it in another context, reach for it. "Comedy" has become a commodity, and one deemed to lighten the load of life. Just as people would nip out for a pint of beer in the pub, or even sit down at home with the proverbial nice cup of tea, "comedy" is now prescribed. And it is, for the most part, about as funny as undergoing a major operation without anaethesia.
What one finds funny is a matter of taste. I like to think I have objective standards in this matter. I am not one of those conservative-minded people who cannot laugh with a leftist. I think I did once, though the exact occasion escapes me. Much of what is inflicted upon one from the "comedy" shelves of Radio 4 these days, and indeed for about the last 25 years, is inflicted by leftists. I wouldn't mind that if they were funny. For many years, their "comedy" consisted of some foghorn-voiced creep intoning the words "Margaret Thatcher", at which point an audience composed largely of tragic ex-minor public schoolboys with guilt complexes would start mooing with laughter. Once that joke wore thin — a little over ten years ago — the formula was replaced by the words "George W. Bush". There was a brief moment, of a rather radical nature, when "Tony Blair" became the Pavlovian trigger; but then I realised, as we now all know, that Mr Blair was in fact a right-wing hate figure, so was really of a piece with his two predecessors. The so-called comedians found, I seem to remember, alarmingly little to say about Gordon Brown's conscious decision to destroy the British economy, but perhaps that was because of a politically correct decision not to mock the afflicted. What they do now I don't know, because at the mention of the word "comedy" my immediate impulse is to reach for the off switch.
It is usual to blame the satire boom of half a century ago for all this. It was the angry young man moment of British humour. Instead of being funny, instead even of just taking the piss (a venerable British comic tradition and the real reason why we defeated Hitler), our comedians felt they had to be destructive. Unless someone was being ridiculed to the point of being completely undermined then the target had not been properly hit. There had always been slapstick in our comic tradition, but now it lapsed into the grotesque. It was a short step from this to the obsession with bodily functions — I do not allude to the Carry On films, which were entirely harmless and rather witty in this respect, but to the belief that coarseness and endless descriptions of endless variants of the sexual act would be the ne plus ultra of hilarity. And then there is bad language. I don't object to its use at all, but I do fail to see why it is funny to anyone over the age of about 14, and I am not sure when it became a substitute for wit.