Have you heard the one about Obama? I’m afraid I can’t tell you because, along with probably everybody else, I haven’t heard it either. I watch my fair share of TV panel games and listen to Radio 4 quiz shows, both of which are now stuffed to the gills with an apparent never-ending supply of comedians, and the US president seems to get a remarkably easy pass despite the regular opportunities for mockery which have arisen over the course of a term and a bit in office. Bush, Cameron and, of course, Margaret Thatcher in her day, should have been so lucky.
It’s not just the Democrat in the White House who seems to be a sacred cow as far as modern comedy is concerned. The environmentalist movement remains similarly untouched by our brave, envelope-pushing comics, along with even the wackier workings of multiculturalism and, heaven help them, radical Islam. Anything, however, which smacks of conservatism in any form remains fair game, along with “mainstream” tastes, Tory politicians and lately (and rather lamely) the Queen. The staples of sexism and racism have been banished, and that can only be good, but the space left behind has been occupied by a monolithic and equally prejudicial political correctness.
This is not to say that our comedians are overtly political, or at least not all of them. Rather, whether it is the peevish snobbishness of David Mitchell, the permanent two-fingered salute of Jo Brand or the smart-alec smirking of Jimmy Carr and Robert Webb, the overall impression is of a self-satisfied, predictable sort of knee-jerk liberalism. Modern comics might call themselves stand-ups but they seem to see themselves first and foremost as satirists. They compete with each other to see who is the cleverest, the most cutting, the most “edgy” — and woe betide anyone who “sells out”.
If the drooling critics and profile writers of the broadsheets are to be believed, we have been living in a golden age of comedy, one in which new personalities arrive three at a time and become the darlings of these mostly metropolitan writers lovingly dissecting their heroes’ art. Comedy is all around us, taking over stadiums and selling out on DVD. Only a hopelessly stuffed-shirted killjoy could fail to be rolling in the aisles.
And yet, strangely, it really does sometimes seem as if there is less and less to laugh at. Certainly the public, or a particular section of it, might go wild every so often for a hyped-up new sensation; right now the retro, knowing slapstick of Miranda Hart is flavour of the month, just as before it was the one or two catchphrases of Catherine Tate, or the nastiness of Little Britain. But despite all the trumpeting, such newly discovered all-time greats seem to fade as quickly as they arise.
Indeed, Prospect magazine was moved to ask, “Is British Humour Dead?” Its predictable conclusion seemed to be that the subject was alive and well, but the fact that the question was being asked at all was evidence that something was amiss. Our fragmented society has something to do with it: of all forms of entertainment, comedy needs a set of embedded, shared assumptions and cultural references if it is to work on a mass scale, and TV commissioning editors and talent hirers are now probably inhibited by their fears (almost certainly overblown) of the giving and taking of offence. And television audiences have splintered as new channels have proliferated, which further erodes the whole notion of a country laughing at the same thing together.
But these factors don’t altogether explain the change in the nature of British comedy: how it has gone from laughing with to laughing at, how so much of it seems cruel, and how so much of it, however technically clever, now brings out in so many people a sense of weary irritation.
Its smugness and self-importance must be among the factors which drive so many to the boxed-set nostalgia (and brilliance) of Only Fools and Horses and Dad’s Army, or the warmth and effortless one-liners of American imports like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. British comedy’s four-letter coarseness, with its implicit message that only the ridiculously provincial could possibly complain, is also as tedious as it is off-putting.
But more than this, modern British comedians’ status as the lower-key successors to the counter-cultural voices of the past, which had its roots in the so-called alternative comedy of the 1980s, ensures that they will alienate just as many people as they succeed in entertaining. This is reflected in the reaction of the audiences who fill the radio and TV studios. Much of the time you feel that they are laughing to make a point, to show that they are onside. It might have been a cliché back in the 1990s that comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll, but this is how its fans appear to relate to it: laughing says something about them, where they stand, and which attitudes they want to identify themselves with. And just as with rock music, they might have a crush on one particular performer, who is eventually cast aside when he starts eyeing up Hollywood, his erstwhile fans denying that they ever liked him much (the perfect example being Ricky Gervais).
Modern comics are not, one suspects, very worried about being liked. Consequently they do not endear themselves to the public in the long term. Les Dawson and Frankie Howerd seemed to care about their audience; their brilliant mimickry and hilarious observations were borne out of an affection for the people they were performing to. As a result they were loved back, probably not something which our own comedians can look forward to with any confidence.