There's not much to laugh at these days - especially if you're working class
Dissected and celebrated by broadsheet critics, the “art” of comedy is all around us now, clogging up Radio 4 panel shows and Sunday supplements. The truth, however, is that there’s not much to laugh at these days – especially if you’re part of the shrinking working class.
The current comedy establishment grew out of the politically-correct, supposedly minority-sensitive, invariably anti-conservative alternative comedy of the 1980s. It is overwhelmingly satirical in its sensibility, and satire is a form of humour that has always appealed more to the middle class. They started tittering at it while at university, and then, when they became TV commissioning editors and publishers, decided that the old guard (ie, the comedians who regularly got 10 or 15 million viewers a week, and who would never have considered themselves “artists”) was no longer funny. Sit-coms were frankly naff, and, well, just too communal. They duly junked it all, replacing it with those performers who kept alive their sense of themselves as young and rebellious. There can be no other explanation for the success of Ben Elton.
Much of the laughter contemporary comedy generates is of the hollow kind one hears when an audience is determined to laugh simply to make a point, to show that it is onside. Its appeal is based on the exploitation of the audience’s vanity, too superficial a basis to make it genuinely last in their affections in a way that, for example, Dad’s Army has – a programme so much of which was a celebration of understatement, the gentle debunking of pomposity and the everyday efforts of ordinary people.
Such laughing-on-principle is consistent with modern comedy’s view of itself as challenging the status quo (yes, apparently there still is one). It is more than a decade since cultural commentators hailed comedy as the new rock’n’roll, and it is indeed true that the panics and controversies which once accompanied the antics of rock stars now emanate almost entirely from the world of stand-up. Russell Brand even looks like a stray from a heavy-metal band.
So where has the mass audience gone? Well, there are enormously popular comics, such as Roy “Chubby” Brown and Jethro, who tour the country on the end-of-the-pier circuit and who are rarely to be found in a TV studio. There is a divide now between these performers and their world and the phoney revolutionaries beloved of the Groucho Club, for whom the very idea of shared assumptions and cultural references – crucial in making a whole nation laugh – is anathema. They deal in stereotypes and, like the rock rebels of old, ensure that they’re seen in opposition to them. They laugh At, not With. And that means that there are large sections of the population which will stop laughing altogether.