At the BBC, politics and comedy are intertwined. Some of its longest running comedic shows centre around political commentary: Have I Got News for You, a news-orientated panel show, is a British institution, which has aired regularly since 1990. Similar political shows have been produced since the 1960s. For instance, in 1962 That Was the Week That Was used sketch comedy to attack conservative ideology.
There is clearly a degree of dissatisfaction with the nature of this political comedy in the upper management of the BBC. On the 31st of August, the Daily Telegraph released an exclusive statement from senior sources stating that the BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie, was committed to restoring balance in political comedy by axing left-wing comedy shows, and hiring right-wing comics to take their place. Have I Got News for You and BBC 2’s The Mash Report have both been suggested for cancellation, while comedians such as Geoff Norcott and Simon Evans have been slated as names likely to see more appearances.
‘But is the toothless comedy of shows like The Mash Report really that left-wing?’
It would be difficult to defend the current state of comedy at the BBC, regardless of your political position. Davie has correctly identified a political complacency at the heart of comedy which is rife in both the UK and USA.
For example: Donald Trump can and should be mocked. Even in Ancient Athens, arguably the oldest successful democracy, writers such as Aristophanes used comedy as a safe and effective way to critique the state. To suggest, as many Americans have, that Trump should be above mockery is dangerous as it implies that we should not be critical of our leaders.
The problem is that often in mainstream political comedy, the criticisms directed at Trump are ineffectual and repetitive, focusing on his hair, his mannerisms and, in a casually fatphobic way, his weight. This is such a recognised trope that in online circles, the meme ‘orange man bad’ has been created to mock the way in which anti-Trump comedians, especially American talk show hosts, attack the president with repetitive, ubiquitous insults. Unfortunately, this bland genre of comedy, referred to by outlets such as the Telegraph as ‘left-wing’ comedy, is prevalent at the BBC.
But is the toothless comedy of shows like The Mash Report really that left-wing?
Frankly, I would argue that the term ‘centrist comedy’ is much more reflective of the views espoused on these shows. While critical of Trump, Brexit and Boris Johnson, mainstream political comedy focuses more on the absurdity of these singular concepts while only offering shallow criticism of the systemic problems that brought them about. Having a laugh about Brexit is all well and good, but at the end of the day, when your criticism amounts to making fun of the Prime Minister’s hair, what’s even the point? Surely a left-wing comedic critique of Brexit would address the endemic issues that brought it about, instead of repeating the same tired talking points about Nigel Farage?
And what better evidence for the complacency of the BBC’s political comedy than the lack of working class representation among its comedians. Both Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, the presenters of Have I Got News for You, were privately educated, along with around half of the regular contributors to Mock the Week. The privilege of private education is a wider problem at the BBC, according to a 2017 report detailing how 45% of employees earning over £150,000 are privately educated.
‘the BBC is having trouble hiring right-wing comedians’
Race and gender balances are also poorly represented, the mainstay talent on both shows being white heterosexual men. For most of the political comedians hired by the BBC, the hierarchies of class, race, and gender which determine wealth and success have mostly been in their favour. It seems ludicrous to refer to the BBC as over-saturated with left wing comedians when there is such a shortage of outspoken comics who are working class or people of colour. It’s not necessary to be either of these things to support left-wing politics, but perhaps the lack of urgency in political commentary could be attributed to the fact that most left-wing comics will likely be comfortable regardless of the political circumstances. .
So, is hiring more right-wing comedians the best way to fix the BBC’s problem with political satire? Partly, yes. There is nothing inherently evil about hiring comedians in support of Brexit. The problem is, as the Independent has reported, that the BBC is having trouble hiring right-wing comedians, as an insider claims that they ‘aren’t very good.’
Personally, I can think of two reasons why this might be the case. First of all, too often, right-wing comedians make oppressed groups the subject of their comedy, including racist tropes, transphobia and homophobia.
‘Davie needs to stop focusing exclusively on replacing these comedians with right-wing comics’
Attacking the privileged will always be funnier than adding to the burden of the oppressed, and criticisms of those in power can be made by the right as well as the left. Conservative comedian Geoff Norcott, for instance, frequently targets out-of-touch, left-leaning elites, pointing out the discrepancy between their own wealth and the politics they support.
Secondly, right-wing comedy seems fixated on its own self-image. Almost every comic even remotely right-of-centre ironically insists on whining about being ‘censored,’ whilst enjoying Netflix deals and huge audiences. This comes off as tiresome and self-indulgent and is probably a big part of why some sources inside the BBC allege that right-wing comedy ‘isn’t very good.’
I am happy at least that something is being done to try and fix the glut of toothless comedy at the BBC. Political commentary should be outspoken, urgent and impactful, which is why it is so disappointing that for the past few years it has fallen into a rut of repetitive jokes and unfunny talking points.
However, to make meaningful changes at the BBC, Davie needs to stop focusing exclusively on replacing these comedians with right-wing comics, but also comics that adequately represent left-wing perspectives on issues such as Brexit and Donald Trump.
Class is the major issue here: as a result of the lack of working class political commentary on the BBC, comfort with the status quo has become ingrained in comedy and hiring more working class comedians of all political affiliations will hopefully go some way to fixing this. While the BBC’s new policy, is a step in the right direction, ultimately it is an inadequate one.