BBC plans to make comedy shows ‘more balanced’ are both dangerous and really, really stupid
Comedy needs to punch up – supporting the people in power doesn’t do that
According to reports in The Telegraph, new BBC director-general Tim Davie is considering axing some left-wing comedy shows, as part of a “radical overhaul” to combat what is seen as “a perceived left-wing bias”.
It is depressing news for a multitude reasons. Not least because nearly every time the right tries to do its own satire, it is painfully embarrassing. Remember this gem from Turning Point UK? Right-wing comedy is always fuelled by such Big Divorced Dad Energy. “Millennials like lattes and avocados!!” “I identify my gender as a penguin!!!!” Yeah, we get it, get some new jokes.
But if we put the objective lameness of most ‘right-wing’ comedy to one side, the reported BBC proposals fundamentally ignore one of the biggest rules in comedy and satire: always punch up, never down.
If you don’t know this concept, it works like this: it is funny to make fun of people better off than you, and it is not very funny to mock those people worse off that you. Or to put it another way: a working class person ripping into Boris Johnson works. But when the people in power are making jokes, it becomes a lot less fun.
Obviously, the primary goal of comedy is to be funny, but if jokes and satire provide any purpose past that it is to allow us to criticise those with power, and to mock them. The Conservatives have been in power for over a decade. Boris Johnson soundly defeated Jeremy Corbyn. Leave won the Brexit referendum. Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton.
The right is in power now, both in the UK and across much of the world, and therefore they should be the targets of humour. And any attempt to counterbalance that – especially one that can be seen to appease a right-wing government – is worrying.
And it says a lot that the right are so self-conscious and thin-skinned about being mocked. As much as it pains me to admit it, but Boris Johnson has the biggest Tory majority since 1987. He won. Why is the right so damn angry about The Mash Report? You’d think they'd be happy now they're in power. Just flip over to Dave and watch som Top Gear reruns.
It's like, why does Donald Trump seemingly spend more time talking about Saturday Night Live than the protests happening all over his country?
Maybe, it is because, deep down, they know that right-wing politics are fundamentally about upholding and protecting the status quo, and therefore protecting the people in power. And then when they try to do comedy, they it starts to look like that a posh boy from Eaton making fun of a single mother living in poverty.
Look, I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of awful left-wing comedy out there. Toothless stuff about Trump’s small hands or Boris Johnson’s hair, for easy retweets. The great US comedian Chris Gethard once spoke about something called ‘Clapter’ in an interview that I often think about. Gethard said clapter “is this idea that you just say a thing that you know everyone in the room is going to agree with, so they’ll start clapping.”
"A lot of political comedy falls into that. Like, yeah: if you slam Trump in front of a New York City crowd, they’re all gonna start cheering. But you knew that, and that’s not the most challenging thing for you as an artist.”
And certain BBC panel shows can definitely fall into that trap.
But great political comedy should be challenging the status quo, pointing out people’s bullshit, and making fun of those in power. And booking Laurence Fox to "make fun of the wokeys" isn’t going to be doing that.