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.
I think comedians, and the people who write their lines, believe that their art has become consistently more elevated since it passed into their hands. This brings us back to what appears to be the incontestable fact that almost every comedian of whom one has now heard (and many thousands more, I am sure, of whom we have not heard and of whom we never will hear) exhibits what can only be called leftist sympathies. That in itself is neither original nor problematical. Class has always been a staple of our humour, and since long before the arrival of the music hall. But in the first wave of uninhibited humour (which started not with the satire boom, but with Max Miller) numerous other taboos were suddenly disregarded and became the subject of jokes. From the 1960s to the 1980s it was quite in order to tell jokes in public not just about sex — and that still seems to be all right — but about ethnic minorities (especially in relation to their alleged proclivity towards criminality or their sexual prowess), foreigners, homosexuals and disabled people. Anyone trying any of those on Radio 4 today would never work again, and I would say rightly so. Predictably, jokes about white, middle-class men with no disability or affliction other than their comfortable lifestyles and healthy incomes are absolutely fine. The leftists who populate the world of “comedy” are smug about this sanitisation of their art and seem to think they have delivered a public service. It is a pity that they haven’t replaced what they removed with something funny. And, imported from America, they have a new and pompous adjective to describe the nature of their art: “comedic”.
But then before the 1960s — as scores of black-and-white British comedy films attest — it was also possible to be funny without telling jokes about sex, black people, homosexuals or the disabled. Will Hay, possibly the funniest man ever to be committed to celluloid, made a dozen and a half films between 1934 and 1943 whose humour consisted of him sending himself up for being corrupt and incompetent: a form of comedy we could rather do with today, given the state of our government and officialdom. As he faded from the scene, Alastair Sim did a similar job for the next 15 years or so. It is a pity that what they did is so often described as “gentle” humour, as if to suggest that it could be consumed by the most maiden of maiden aunts with her tea and langues de chat. In fact, it is pointed without being vicious and subtle rather than sledgehammer. But then Hay had been an engineer before he went on the stage, spoke several languages to interpreter standard and became one of the country’s leading amateur astronomers; and Sim was a lecturer in drama at Edinburgh University. Perhaps that is the real problem with our alleged comedians today: none of them is very bright, and the bleeding obvious really isn’t very funny.