Brexit: “alternative comedy” has choked on its own vomit

Back in the late 1970s British television took a marked change of direction. Traditional sitcoms such as The Good Life, George & Mildred and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em which never sought to do anything other than make people laugh, were replaced by what became known as “alternative comedy”. This gave birth to such programmes as Not The Nine O’Clock News, The Young Ones followed by Saturday Live, where their stars would make a virtue out of railing against the Establishment, championing proactive democracy, “power to the people” and all that. It made careers for the likes of Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle and Jeremy Hardy, who most recently thought SNP MP Kevan Jones, who has publicly spoken about suffering mental illness throughout his life and doesn’t share his views on Trident renewal was fair game for this zinger: “I would have thought you could hazard a guess that if someone supports nuclear weapons, if your view of existence is so bleak you’re prepared to help with the extermination of the entire northern hemisphere, that kind of suggests depression, don’t you?”, self-styled “alternative comedians” who inflicted their unsophisticated dreck upon impressionable kids who sucked it all up with the gratitude and ignorance of a parched dog drinking from a public toilet.

In the Noughties and now we have Marks Steel, Thomas and Usbrigstocke, and still Jeremy Hardy. Little has changed. They always think they’re right – whether in comedy and politics – and everybody else are basically mentally deranged Nazi sympathisers.

They were and still are happy to take the Establishment shilling while shitting their political invective onto an eagerly wanking audience to the point where it’s adulation became rimming. Even Private Eye, born out of the satire boom of the early 1960s, would – often at great legal expense – seek to expose cronyism and corruption perpetrated by institutions of all levels of Government, local, national or international.

These stars, shows and satirical magazines sought to represent their audience in a way which “the people” couldn’t do for themselves, with a platform unavailable to the masses but cornered and guarded fiercely by those fortunate enough to enjoy their position of celebrity and responsibility.

Campaigning for change, to the political system and politics as a whole, was exactly what the self-styled icons of anti-Establishment had built their careers – and fortunes on, with some stand-up comedians earning millions of pounds per year from hard-working fans, doing a 90-minute set telling those same people without a modicum of irony how little money they have. Their livelihoods were dependent on fawning fans lapping up their bile, worshipped by those who could do nothing in the vain hope that their idols could make things happen. For decades, this was a bit like trying to sixty-nine in a hammock: an interesting experience but of uncertain duration.

And so over the years “alternative” became the Establishment lapdog, the mainstream, having lured an entire generation, incapable of forming opinions for themselves, into blind, unquestioning obedience. If you think of the mainstream media as the Stadio Sant’Elia, then the part that isn’t all gooey-eyed about political institutions would be roughly represented by the bit where Gary Lineker wiped his backside in Italia ’90, way back when diarrhoea would pour from the hole between his lower rather than upper cheeks. But the thing is, the enormous smug egos that form this mainstream media have finally succumbed to that well-known but most annoying of cholesterol problems: egg on face. They’d been found out. In the last few years, through the explosion of social media – Twitter in particular – Establishment figures have become more accessible. No longer did TV shows and magazines, once the sole purveyors of Establishment-bashing, hold a monopoly in anti-deferential behaviour towards the great and the good. And soon, people realised that not only could they throw out the odd snarky Tweet about the political issue of the day, or whinge endlessly about how disconnected they’ve become from the political system and politics as a whole, but with enough numbers they could have influence. They could organise. They could effect change. And given the right opportunity, that change could be massive.

And so to the most important political upheaval in modern times. In the General Election of 2015 then Prime Minister, David Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) and would therefore have a mandate – if Cameron won the election – to follow through on the result, whatever it was.

And so the referendum came in June 2016, and the electorate, fed up of having laws decided by an unelected body in a different country, with the EU, it’s institutions and regulations registering “gushing” on the cronyism cum-o-meter, over 17.5 million people – 52% of voters – decided that Britain should leave the EU.

In Britain people had voted for change. Massive change. In their millions people had chosen the option so progressive they’d provided the most disruptive, the greatest systemic shift in how politics was done, and most importantly over all, they had taken to the stage and performed their own anti-Establishment show. And their audience was huge.

It was like fucking someone up the arse for the first time. The thought of what they were going into may at first have seemed unpleasant, off-putting even. But that didn’t matter, because the experience would be wonderful, the climax majestic and for the first time they’d shafted something they’d never thought they would: Brexit. People were prepared to put up with the prospect of shit in return for lashings of hot spunk, the resulting creampie being deliciously satisfying. And you can’t get more progressive than that.

You’d be forgiven for thinking, after all of that anti-Establishment anarchy and the now box-ticking British televisual representatives of cutting edge satire, swivel-eyed (sorry, lazy-eyed) race-baiter Jonathan Romesh Ranganathan and his ilk (to borrow the phrase used by William Keegan in The Guardian about Nigel Farage) would be dancing through the streets, their cause won, their careers vindicated, right?

Wrong. If there’s any truth in the phrase that we learn from our mistakes then these people should be geniuses, in fact they’ve been found out. Rather like those pub “brawls” you see when old men square up to each other, both happy to shout “come on then” but too afraid to fight. And that is exactly how those oh-so-brave stars of screen and print are. Spineless. Their bottle has gone. And so instead to try and retain some relevance, they enthusiastically, morbidly predict doom. Armageddon. World War Three. Billions in debt. Muslims deported. Chocolate made illegal (well, a tax on sugar). And when even the University of Cambridge, whose alumni include some of today’s “top comedians” admits that forecasts “were very flawed and very partisan”, lefty columnists have to resort to the ridiculous. Here’s Mark Steel in The Independent:

“And to comply with free movement of labour, the EU is going to ban teaspoons – if you want your tea stirred you’ll have to let a Bulgarian do it with his knob. All our pets will have to be handed in to Brussels in exchange for a huge European Superpet. Then, once Turkey is admitted into the EU, they’ll invite black holes to join too, so we’ll all be swallowed into perpetual darkness – costing us up to £12 a year extra in lightbulbs. The moon will be designated Slovakian and given a flat in Exeter, causing havoc with tides along the coast of Devon, and Jihadism will be taught at nursery schools that will be failed by Ofsted if they don’t explode once a week.”

There’s nothing they’d like more than for Brexit to go wrong, to justify their opinion, their careers, even their very existence. Even Eric Idle, admittedly the least interesting or funny of the Pythons but still a part of what was arguably the forerunner to “alternative” comedy (with apologies to Spike Milligan), described those wishing to leave the EU as “brain dead”.

And we were all stupid for making it happen, see? All that anti-Establishment stuff… “The EU wasn’t that bad…” and “the older generation have condemned the young to a life of misery” which led to 78-year-old Guardian columnist William Keegan to describe Brexiteers as “so-called people”.

The thing is, now the “so-called people” have seen the light, realise what they can achieve, the TV shows and magazines, once the sole purveyors of Establishment-bashing, can’t offer anything. No hope, no solution, no change. They’ve been found out. Their relevance extinguished, “alternative comedy” has choked on its own vomit.

In colour

In the last few years there has been a glut of programmes, predominantly on Channels Four and Five with repeats striped across the EPG between this Christmas and the New Year, saying how all television comedy before the former burst onto the scene with it’s radical agenda to showcase the anarchic and the alternative (Countdown) was lots of words ending in “ist”, and how Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part, Curry & Chips) and Vince Powell (Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language) and Granada’s The Comedians did to comedy in the 1970s what Adolf Hitler did to the 1936 Olympics.

These programmes almost always feature the reliable Andrew Collins and/or David Quantick plus whatever ill-informed, irrelevant and irritating collection of television “personalities” happen to have a career-sized window in their diaries, captioned “Broadcaster” to compensate for the absence of any discernible talent and feigning offence at the usual couple of dozen clips before telling us how terrible we all were for not smashing our twenty-six inch Fergusons to bits with coal scuttles.

The latest of these programmes was It Was Alright In The… followed by the decade it was alright in. Except the clip-show collective simply spent an hour telling us how it was actually not alright, and how offended Nathan Caton would’ve been had he been around to watch it. Which he wasn’t.

Another regular on these programmes is gay black comic Stephen K Amos. Notable for being a) gay, b) black and c) absent from any list of top 50/100 comics anywhere ever, this Christmas saw him dull our screens in a repeat showing of the 2013 series The Two Ronnies Spectacle, where K Amos took the UK Gold gold, was captioned “Comedian” for the avoidance of doubt and contributed precious little to an otherwise enjoyable three hours celebrating the best of Barker & Corbett. Though K Amos rightly praised the writing and performances of The Rons in perhaps the only known recording where he had anything positive to say about anyone but himself, he oddly overlooked the fact that in their 102 shows The Rons blacked-up more times than Spike Milligan ever did for Johnny Speight. Funny that.

Having hosted Penis Envy, a documentary about massive pricks, in 2010 K Amos gave an interview to The Guardian (who else?) titled “I don’t want to be labelled ‘The gay black comic'” (whoops) where he said: “I had a meeting with an executive who said to me: ‘You know what, you’re really funny, you’re ready to make a show right now. But it’s them – ‘ and he pointed out of the window ‘ – they’re not ready for you.’ And I just thought: “What? You’ve called me into your office to tell me that they’re not ready when you have the power to say let’s give this a go?”

There soon followed the unimaginatively titled The Stephen K Amos Show. After just one series The Mirror reported that “The BBC has axed comic Stephen K Amos’s show after plummeting ratings and damning reviews.” It had lost two-thirds of it’s audience, down to just 360,000, meaning that from a British-African population of over 1.8 million (UK Census 2011) at least 80% didn’t indulge the gay black comic (he loves it really). In June 2011 Digital Spy reported an interview with a BBC spokesperson, connected to a lie detector, who said: “We are working with Stephen on other projects and think he’s a big talent.” The lie detector exploded and three people were taken to hospital: two with minor burns and a third with a bruised ego and ruptured career. No sides needed stitching.

Back to that Guardian interview: “Another producer once said to me: ‘We really like you but we’ve just had Richard Blackwood.’ As if it’s one in, one out. I used to do a joke…”

He goes on: “…where I said I’d have to wait for Lenny Henry to die before I could get on television. But I can’t think of a time when there were two black performers on any network at the same time. I know lots of comics who’ve left the country and are trying their hand in America because they feel they’re hitting a glass ceiling here.” Nobody loves a glass ceiling more than a lefty, but even back in 1971 The Comedians featured Charlie Williams and Josh White, two highly accomplished black performers, doing stand-up. On the same show.

There was also a steady stream of sitcoms in the 1970s that featured black performers, from what was arguably the best ever BBC sitcom Porridge (Tony Osoba) and it’s ITV counterpart Rising Damp (Don Warrington) through the aforementioned Love Thy Neighbour (Rudolph Walker, Nina Baden-Semper) to the less familiar Mixed Blessings (Muriel Odunton, Carmen and Gregory Munroe) and The Fosters (Norman Beaton, Lenny Henry and Carmen Munroe).

“I don’t think it has to be cathartic,” K Amos continues, “But when I started out in the clubs, my idea of comedy was… just showing off. Once I started revealing something or talking about a race issue, where in one sentence people can laugh and then go: ‘Ohhh’, I found people responded to that. I never thought people would be interested in my life… it would have been easy never to mention anything about sexuality and fend off the questions and just be jolly old Steve, but what’s the point? No, if I can do something that empowers me in the process, that can only make you grow as a human being.” Cheers.

Of course comedians’ experiences can provide a wealth of material which, when part of a well-honed routine done with intelligence and even a touch of self-deprecation, can be revealing and interesting, and even make people think. But it’s nothing radical or alternative. In the 1970s Charlie Williams, Josh White and Kenny Lynch (who starred in Speight’s Curry & Chips) amongst others dealt with race by showing the ludicrousness of racism with jokes about, for example, how your rent would go up if they moved next door, rather than preaching from a pity pot. The audience laughed, intelligent enough to realise how stupid this was. Black performers on prime time television were able to ridicule stereotypes by playing on the ignorance of those with racial prejudice and stretching their perceptions to the point of absurdity.

These performances were no different in intent to the routine on Central’s OTT in 1982 where Alexei “I was good” Sayle, widely but wrongly seen as the father of alternative comedy, adopted a ridiculously exaggerated accent while playing an Albanian looking for a job as a stereotype, and not an eyelid was batted.

All the creations of Johnny Speight and Vince Powell in the 1970s did exactly that, albeit to varying degrees of success, and it seems the latest wave of black comedians are as ignorant as the racist white audience of the 1970s who couldn’t see what writers and performers were trying to achieve. The character of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part is a bigoted cockney who freely plays on racial stereotypes to insult anyone of colour, and is often cited as one of the worst examples of casual racism and being very much of it’s time. Yet fast forward forty years to Christmas 2015 and Catherine Tate’s Nan, also a bigoted cockney, who in the first episode was attending an anger management course at the local community centre and said of the Muslim caretaker who entered carrying a satchel: “No sudden movements, ‘cos if this one’s got an anger problem we’re all in trouble.”

Through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s many great comedies featuring black and Asian performers hit our screens: The Lenny Henry Show (up to and including Delbert Wilkins), Desmond’s, Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars At Number 42 and Citizen Khan, all in peak hour slots on mainstream channels and all achieving ratings and reviews many other comedies could only dream of. And their success came about through embracing their heritage and being themselves, inviting the audience in rather than shutting them out.

Just as the hotels and bars of the 1970s had signs saying “No Blacks”, there is now a growing band of black and Asian performers who take pleasure in seemingly segregating the audience, placing that glass ceiling on their own appeal and, in turn, their careers. K Amos, Nathan Caton, clown Come Dancer Omid Djalili and the ubiquitous Romesh Ranganathan, who probably masturbates himself into a coma whenever he hears someone “doing” a foreign accent as it gives him another ten minutes of material (though Sayle’s effort was apparently cutting-edge), et al treat their audiences with a lack of respect. Their careers are based almost entirely on the myth that in the past all references to race were invariably made to cause offence (forgetting, of course, that offence is always taken not given) and were therefore guilty of deepening racial divides, yet are themselves part of a generation happy to use racism for comic effect.

Of course things were not perfect in the 1970s. At a time of increasing immigration and in the wake of Enoch Powell’s famous Birmingham speech Bernard Manning, a highly skilled joke-teller, exploited an unenlightened audience with gags peppered with racial epithets which played on the most extreme perceptions, and as a result all comedians of that era were tarred with the same brush. Thirty years later Frankie Boyle, whose determination to shock has grown in direct proportion to his stomach and ludicrous ginger beard, packs his sets with gags about the disabled and macabre sexual violence. Yet comedians contemporaneous with him aren’t lazily lumped into some artificial category. Neither could reasonably be said to be typical of their times, with perhaps the former being more defensible, if only through ignorance and fear. It is far more difficult to justify Boyle’s invective.

Sometimes, although trying to deal with racism with the best of intentions, sitcoms and performers fell flat. Two offerings from each end of the televisual timeline, Love Thy Neighbour and the post-Delbert Wilkins incarnation of Lenny Henry, both disappointed not because their treatment of racism made people feel uncomfortable, but because they simply weren’t funny.

Yes racism was then and is still a problem. But instead of being professional victims with a misguided and unproven sense of their own superiority, black comedians in the 1970s used their race to change the attitudes of the audience who have long since moved on. Many of today’s black and Asian comedians who, it could be argued, are hell bent on radicalising the indigenous in their audience in the sense that they have developed a disturbing desire to colour their beliefs and dictate what is socially acceptable with an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with race, seem to be trying worryingly hard to turn them back.