COMMENT: Why Topical Comedy Is Always A Bad Idea
First published March 2000
Why Topical Comedy Is
Always A Bad Idea
Topical comedy is never funny. Since when has a schoolboy ever made people giggle in assembly by wryly commenting on the Arms To Iraq affair? Exactly.

Topical comedy is a bad idea because it rests on one horrible truth about modern audiences: if you repeat something that sounds like a joke often enough, eventually they'll start laughing. These you have loved include: People in Sellafield are genetic mutants'! 'Prisoners who are held in Group 4 security vans always escape!' 'Cecil Parkinson has sex all the time!' 'British Rail trains are always late!' 'Pot Noodles taste disgusting!' 'Princess Margaret is always drinking!' 'Linford Christie has a large penis and testicles!' 'Geri Halliwell is a lot older than she says she is!' 'The Millennium Dome will be a bit rubbish!' 'Have I Got News For You is always being sued!'

Did you spot the odd one out? That's right - it's the last one. The oh-so-dangerous Have I Got News For You has in fact never been sued by anyone in its nine-year history, unless you count the time when Michael Winner complained about his underpants (something he probably did as a joke anyway). Such a shallow and one-dimensional vehicle could never realistically be sued by anyone, simply because all it does is regurgitate and re-heat hackneyed statements - stories of negligible accuracy about things that ONLY HAPPENED ONCE. Magnified by satire, however, they become universal truths for which we need constant reminders. To have one Labour MP outed as homosexual may be regarded as a misfortune; to have two will result in Rory Bremner doing a Village People parody in a public toilet.

The jokes on Have I Got News For You aren't jokes at all. They are references to jokes. They become stock satirical subjects, ready to be re-applied whenever a cheap jibe is necessary. All jokes about Sellafield are essentially the same joke, and the different dressing with which they are presented is rarely noticed by the audience. When Angus Deayton cracks a quip concerning someone with three heads, nobody listens to the joke itself but they laugh immediately upon hearing the word'Sellafield'. It's as if the audience are so relieved by the shared experience of hearing comedy they understand that the actual content becomes redundant. Sometimes you don't even need to say a word - We remember one edition of Have I Got News ForYou where Deayton cracked some lame feedline about the Channel Tunnel, followed by footage of something bursting into flames. What was interesting was that the audience actually began laughing before the combustion had been revealed: they were literally laughing at nothing. This is Virtual Comedy, and it's insulting.

Great comedy taps into genuine human passion. At the start of the decade, a memo was sent to the writers of Radio 4's Week Ending, informing them that the show was becoming 'too silly' and that the programme should contain more'proper satire'. This effectively led to the demise of the show: up until that point, Week Ending had been written chiefly by Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, with Peter Baynham as script-editor. Under their control, the show was - for a brief period - funny precisely because they didn't take the notion of satire too seriously. Essentially, good comedians understand the inherent folly of doing topical comedy in the first place. David Baddiel was particularly skilled at this, opening the first radio episode of The Mary Whitehouse Experience with the declaration that 'All satire is rubbish'. Talking about The Queen later in the series, he bellowed the following: '[She] does of course have her critics - it is said by some that she fulfils no useful function, and that she is a parasitic, sour-faced lazy bloody stupid fat slag.' What was refreshing about this line was the way he started the joke as a normal, tiresome regular joke about the royal family, but ended it with a shapeless tirade of abuse - as if to convey that he had so little interest in the subject that he simply couldn't be bothered to think up a proper joke. Lesser comedians would mistakenly assume that the material is funny in itself; Baddiel realises that what's funny is the sheer ridiculousness of standing on stage and delivering it.

This, of course, is the basic problem with topical comedy: most comedians clearly don't really care one way or the other about the week's news, and they cannot convince us otherwise. They're haunted by the Week Ending factor: topical comedy has always been the crèche for frustrated comedy writers, who would much rather be writing about their own lives. Remember Mel Smith on Not The Nine O'Clock News singing angry songs about 'all-out superpower confrontation'? Y'know, like he gave a fuck. Since it's almost impossible to sound angry about anything you read in a newspaper, most good comedians seek out alternative angles. Superpower confrontation aside, Not The Nine O'Clock News was enjoyable because the writers alluded to news stories as a consequence of sketches, rather than taking an event and thinking'hmmm - how shall we approach this?' (The'Constable Savage' sketch is a good example of this, where the theme of police racism is only revealed in the last thirty seconds - up until that point, it's a jolly, Pythonesque'Silly Policeman' sketch.) Similarly, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris' On The Hour, The Day Today and Brass Eye projects ignored the actual content of the news in favour of satirising both the way the news is presented and the way the media manipulate public anxiety and stupidity for their own ends. Even the Friday Night Armistice, for all its clumsy lack of vision, clearly intends to poke a bemused finger at the appearance of politics, rather than taking a swipe at specific issues themselves. The shows work because we believe that such targets actually matter to the participants involved.

But such examples are rare, and we have recently seen a resurgence of unimaginative,'proper satire'. We have The Now Show on Radio 4, where the superb Punt and Dennis have their under-rated sketch-writing skills pushed aside by a reliance on the 'importance' of satire, and the intrusion of egregious song duo Dan & Nick. We have ITV's Stuff The Week, in which four talentless nobodies from the backwaters of BBC radio fling their arms about and giggle in a desperate, career-minded quest for approval. And we have the nadir of the genre: the ersatz, quasi-reactionary 11 O'Clock Show (true quote from Iain Lee: 'I take what Chris Morris does and extend it'). Comedians know the form, and they have no shame.

Topical comedy is the lowest form of wit. Consider what happens when a gay MP is outed - comedians rarely seek to spew bile on the media climate which makes this an issue in the first place; instead, they make some pun on'the public being behind him' or 'pulling out at the last moment'. With the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky issue, topical comedy reached a new low, with the weakest of double entendres being applied in lieu of any real comedy. Comedy is being dumbed down, reduced to the level of 'football' jokes, where all someone has to do is name the team they support and the audience obediently and good naturedly boos and hisses. There is, after all, little difference between Angus Deayton doing a joke about Sellafield inhabitants having three heads, and Bernard Manning doing jokes about Jewish people being tight-fisted. Manning's humour may be more objectionable, but structurally it is based on the same principle: take a piece of boring received prejudice and repeat it ad nauseam.

A bit like Peter Mandelson.