THE PROBLEM WITH TOPICAL COMEDY
There comes a point when every topical comedy writer asks themselves this question, ‘Haven’t I done this joke before?’ It may not be exactly the same joke, but the gist is the same, because the news story has the same dynamic. Topical comedy writers and comedians don’t get to choose what to write about, because that is decided by The News. What is The News? The News is whatever your audience has heard about. If they’re a hen party from Essex, then it’s probably best to stick to the soaps. If it’s the audience for BBC Three, then pretty much the same.
The easiest way to get a laugh is to confirm something that the audience already believes. It helps if the target of your joke has been the butt of many jokes before (Hen Parties, Essex, BBC Three) so the audience feel more secure and comfortable about it. Laughter can become a mere bonding exercise, a chance to demonstrate that we’re all the same. It’s a repeatable ritual. That’s why once the jokes about Coldplay start, they don’t stop.
Politically, almost all topical comedy (at least on television and radio) is left wing. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is that people like to laugh together, and to do that, they have to be on the same side. Even right wing people, will, for the purposes of an evening’s entertainment, suspend their beliefs and join in the left wing fun. The arch enemy of Laughter is Confusion and having people switch from left to right in the middle of a set is far to complicated. It’s not physically possible to laugh and be puzzled at the same time and the best way not to be confusing, is not to be complicated.
So, to do topical comedy, you mustn’t choose your subject, you can’t choose your targets, you shouldn’t choose your politics, you daren’t express complex thoughts, and sooner or later you end up repeating the same jokes.
That’s a somewhat harsh critique of topical comedy genre, and of course the best comedians can and do overcome the limitations – although most don’t. (If you’re a comedian reading this, of course I’m not talking about YOU.)
A couple of years ago I asked myself, ‘What if I could choose my subjects, targets, and write about things that are a bit complicated and have an approach that isn’t left wing or right wing?’
I came up with some themes that probably go back to when I read Philosophy at Manchester University. Altruism – can it exist without religion? Why do we humans have no easy means of forgetting things we don’t want to remember? Why are we so predisposed to think inductively? Why do we eat rabbits but not horses? Why is it wrong to sell our internal organs? Where is the line between personal responsibility and mental illness? Why do we try to ‘control’ our children with education but hate the idea of choosing their genes? Why do people get married when the statistical odds against success are so low? What would happen in a world where men are treated as sex objects? If you see a victim of oppression, is it always right to intervene?
You may have noticed that there isn’t much place for this sort of thing on our televisions, even if it’s being presented by Alan Yentob. So where to go? Luckily, BBC Radio 4 provided a home for two series of a show I came up with called Brian Gulliver’s Travels, which I’ve now turned into a novel. Brian (Neil Pearson) travels to alternative worlds and grapples with themes such as free will, pseudoscience, liberal interventionism and cheese.
Brian lands in Gelbetia, a country run by doctors, in which every human shortcoming can be described in terms of a medical condition. You could be arrested for not having your five a day, and even ordinary food is only available on prescription. Brian escapes to a realm where people who believe in Nature are at war with the ones believing in Nurture. In a land called Cognitia, the natives can forget any unpleasant experience at will.
Brian’s most terrifying ordeal is at the organic farm for human cattle. Being a rare breed, he is put out to stud, which turns out to be not nearly as much fun as he’d hoped. He ends up as an exotic pet, and is horrified to discover that the meat he’s being fed is human flesh. (He also has to admit that it is ‘bloody delicious’.)
While I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to make any claim as to the book’s quality, I can say with certainty that I chose the subjects, I chose the targets, it’s not left wing or right wing, it’s at times complicated, and I haven’t done the jokes before.
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