Ah Speet on Your Manifesto!
The Guardian August 2000
The following piece was written as "On Political Comedy" for The Guardian, but was much too long. It's reprinted here as a manifesto, a statement of intent, where my stand-up is coming from.
The ideological battles are over. History has ended. There is no alternative. There is no such thing as society. There is no conflict between the interests of workers and bosses - in fact there aren't even workers and bosses at all anymore. BP means Beyond Petroleum.
These, my friends, are very good times for political comedy.
If there's one thing comedy loves more than rigidities, authoritarian pronouncements, conformity, ideologues and the views of rich people in general it is this: Comedy loves a world in which everything's been sorted out lovely and we're all working together like a team. (Two fellers pouring cement together, one fat, one thin. A sunny day. Pocketing his fob-watch, the foreman sets off for lunch, happy in the knowledge that when he comes back it'll all be finished.) Everyone's working harmoniously in a common project. Newsnight editor Peter Horrocks embraced this new mood when he told his staff: "Our job is not to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation." Everything's turned out nice - even if there are still some people who don't realise that the class-war is over and who do believe in a conflict of interest between bosses and workers. People like the Herald Tribune, say, whose recent front-page announced: Rise In Joblessness Delights US Markets. And Businessweek has also, I regret to say, upset these peaceable, conclusive times with the headline: "Thanks Goodbye" - Amid Record Profits Companies Continue To Lay-Off Employees. (Two men whistling, and the gentle rumble of a steamroller in the distance.)
Everywhere people are angry, betrayed, working longer hours just to pay their bills, and hoping they never get ill or old or have kids that want to go to university. Nowadays political stand-up gets the kinds of response in places like Barnstable, Gravesend and Maidstone that five years ago you used only to get in Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester or Sheffield. In as unlikely a place as the Hampshire market town of Petersfield, for example, I noticed people were particularly angry. I'd only been onstage ten minutes before many of them were already standing up, grabbing their coats and rushing out in a seething revolutionary mass! An insurgent mob demanding money from the theatre owners themslves!
I think it's important to make a distinction between political comedy and "satire" - ie. lampooning politicians. Satire is inherently reactionary. By attacking individual politicians, satire implies that were it not for these few "rotten apples" - bunglers or swindlers - then then the system of corporate-led globalisation itself would be just fine and dandy. Thus Chomsky has described conventional satire as a handy safety-valve for power. Satire has no fire in its belly and believes in nothing. Which is why the producer of a famous TV satire show told me that there is no such thing as poverty in Britain, nor are there "systems" or "class-interests". (He then went on to moan how everyone thought he was right-wing, but really he wasn't anything.) Doing "scurrilous" satire is like being in the Lib Dems: pointless but you do get to go on Question Time.
Satire always follows the mainstream news-media agenda. There's a couple of problems with that. Studies estimate that 40% of all "news" items are laundered corporate PR mesages. "Issues management" firms like Hill and Knowlton and Burson Marsteller (Satan's Little Helper) are paid billions every year for their knack of taking the risk out of democracy. Getting the news to tell it like it isn't is a skill highly-valued by industry coalitions, oppressive regimes and unsustainable corporations,.... um... as well as Shell, Indonesia, Turkey, BNFL, Balfour Beatty, Monsanto, Glaxo Wellcome etc, etc, etc.
Apart from having its agenda more or less set by corporate propaganda, the other problem with satire following the news-media, is that it replicates the news's own instituional biases. In Global Spin - The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Sharon Beder points out that when citizens call up a political talk-show they want to talk about issues, but when news-pundits "cover" an issue they always get straight into power-play, intrigues, strategems, and the whole wretched soap-opera of Westminster gossip. At which point, of course, the actual issue - be it single mums or pensioners or whatever - simply vanishes. It's no co-incidence, then, that conventional satire ends up echoing the corparatist "anti-politics" stance.
Sneering at New Labour's superficiality is superficial. Satirical journalists who sneer about how New Labour prefer to concentrate on form and outward appearances rather than substance are themselves preferring to concentrate on form and outward appearances than substance. ( I am getting paid by the word!) They are ants caught in the sticky, amber polish of the veneer.
John Dewey described politics as the "shadow cast by big business on society" . This being so, how close do we really get to its core by examining the fungii which grow there? Yes, Tessa Jowell is as unintelligent as it is possible for humans to be without wetting themselves, but that's not the point. The point is the questions of state her every utterance raises: Hold on, who's in charge here? And why do Humphries and Paxman collude in the lie that these ciphers are determining policy - like we had some kind of democratic control over the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, over capital flight, over JP Morgan, over Phillips. (Wisse Dekker, president of Phillips drafted the Single European Act).
The last twenty years has seen a rollback of a century's social progress. This presents politically-involved musicians, writers, artists, film-makers and performers with a challenge: How to describe the Hydra of corporate-led globalisation. Or to put this question strictly in terms of comedy: when the central fact of modern life is an unprecedented upward transfer of power and wealth from people to unaccountable private tyrannies of corporate power, where da gags gonna come from?
If spoofing politicians is mere reformist prattle, then what? If not conventional piss-poor, piece-of-shit satire, I hear you say, then what?
Well, first off, I'm not saying that having a pop at individual polticians or CEO's is always pointless. Just that there's satire and satire. A great poltical comedian like Roberto Begnini never gives Agnelli and Berlusconi the legitmacy those feudal lords claim for themselves. When Begnini does Agnelli's walk or Berlusconi's slow head-turn, their arch-grandiosity seems like a bubble they can go around in just so long as they never meet the real world. He gets laughs off them precisely as he shows them to be mere, witless, products of a rigged system. In Italy they call this system appartenenza, in Britain it's called "the public-private partnership", in both countries in means the same: a socialist nanny-state lavishing corporate welfare on the rich, and "tough love" capitalist market discipline for the poor.
As with Begnini so with Michael Moore. When the people's champ gives us the dope on corporate CEO's and sweatshop kings, he never presents their greed as some kind of deplorable personal trait. Michael Moore never suggests they should be replaced by some other CEO who is less greedy! A nice CEO. A gentle and kind robber baron. To a union-man like Moore they are part of a process of exploitation, (and part of that same system BBC "satire" producers donšt believe in.)
Same when Mark Thomas takes off Robin Cook's high-pitched, wriggling syntax. Mark Thomas's impression dramatises how institutional man is a stranger to his former self, how lost he is. And how this estrangement grows in proportion to the size of injustice Cook has to rationalize. And because we recognise this from our own lives, it's funny. But, crucially, Mark Thomas is focusing our attention on the institution speaking through the man. The incorporation. It's only after describing the Export Credit Gurantee's service to transnational elites' fighting a rearguard class-war, only then - does Mark Thomas go on to describe Robin Cook - with uncanny accuracy - as an "evil fucking troll". Both need to be said - but Mark Thomas's genius comes from knowing which is more important.
In his lecture From Corporatism To Democracy, John Ralston Saul comments: "Still, there is no point demonizing McNamara. He is merely an unfortunate large catastrophe in an unfortunate, much larger system."
All is for the best in this the best of all possible new world orders. French activists call this totalitarian ideology: "la pensee unique". Voltaire's Pangloss is alive and well and working for corporate front-group and right-wing think-tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This "independent", right-wing think-tank (funded $2million by Ford, Pfeizer, Coca-Cola, Amoco and Texaco) published the Environmental Briefing Book For Congressional Candidates which states: "the likeliest global climate change is the creation of a milder, greener, more prosperous world". Sales of the paperback edition have, however, been slow in Mozambique.
Apart from TB, one characteristic neo-liberalism shares with other golden ages of poltical comedy like the late nineteenth century, is that the gags just write themselves.
At last week's demonstration against tube privatisation, Bob Crowe of the RMT described how a gas company is running the fire station, Virgin are supplying gas, Western Water is bidding for the tube, and non-emergency ambulances are in the hands of a mini-cab firm. (And computerised London black cabs controlled by the Singapore Bus Company.)
Dickens' Circulocution office has been privatised and Podsnappery is also flourishing. In Dickens' description of Podsnap you can almost see Clare Short :
"Mr Podsnap settled that whatever he put behind him he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusivenes - not to say a grand convenience - in this way of getting rid of undesirables...... Mr Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish to his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him ( and consequently sheer away)."
Class is "the unmentionable five-letter word", imperialism has been taken out of the dictionary. If someone mentions the word socialism or anarchism on Newsnight or The Today Programme , Commissar Sue reacts like you're a gatecrasher, like you've used the wrong knife and fork. Imperfections are attributed to interferences in the perfect running of the free-market mechanism, humans getting in the way.
The gags write themselves. In today's "There Is No Alternative" Podsnappery, however, it simply doesn't do to believe the world can be changed, far less to share such convictions with others. John Carey writes that: "George Eliot was perhaps alone among novelists of genius in her prediliction for sermonising and moral platitudes". This statement might have surprised Dickens, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Conrad and Dostoyevsky. (In fact, except for Turgenev, you could almost say that "a prediliction for sermonising and moral platitudes" was the defining characteristic of novelists of genius.)
But that's no matter. Speaking out is out, whatever we put behind us we put out of existence, and we don't need to examine the historical record - be it Nicaragua, Vietnam or nineteenth century novelists - because it's the end of history, anyway.
All year - (they're probably preparing us for some fresh hell we don't yet know about) - BBC economics correspondents and New Labourites have been saying that there is "almost zero unemployment in the US". A quick phone call to the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics might give them figures between 12 and 15 million. Not including the 2 million banged up. But that's not the point. In today's elitist cant, if the facts don't fit they have to be suppressed for the ideology to survive.
And this brings us to one of the major obstacles to doing a poltical comedy show: the information problem. If, for example, you happen to have a hilarious yet rousingly defiant routine on the recent Bolivian water-riots, you first have to:
a) convince people that they've happened.
b) tell them what happened.
And in doing this you run the risk of clogging up your act, over-loading it with stodgy chunks of background data. But the flipside of this is that there is some times an agreeable expectation if audiences can't quite see where the next gag's gonna come from. A tension I have been known to let build for up to an hour! (At many gigs, local direct action groups come and set up info-stalls - so people can get involved or at least informed.)
Ironically, one of the reasons the public don't have the facts is down to what Jeremy Hardy describes as "the tyranny of humour". Every news and current affairs show has its gonky comedy bit. I like to think that my stand-up shows are one the few places people can escape this incessant humour, the wall-to-wall comedy of our chuckle-culture. Even as audiences are queueing up, a smirk or expectant grin on their vacant, stupid maws, I like to watch them through a crack in the dressing-room wall door and think: I'll wipe that smile off your faces.
Just because elites and "opinion-formers" have moved away from covering issues doesn't, of course, mean people have stopped being concerned or angry about them. In fact they've got the same hunger for free speech and something outside the narrow spectrum as ever. The narrow doctrinal system is more a blessing than a problem, because it just makes people even more keen to go somewhere they can to share experiences and hear something else. In this, stand-up comedy is one of the last arenas of free speech available. Political comedy is cleaning up!
Some folk say the devil has all the best gags, arguing that there is a contradiction in the whole idea of polticial comedy. Simply put, It is always funnier to be anti-every decent human impulse and piety. Always funnier to say the wrong thing than the right thing. Ah, but there's the rub - which is which?
For Chaplin, Steptoe and Sons, Marx Brothers and The Onion it's clear: what authority, power, control, tyranny and the boss man don't want them to say or do. Which is why we're on their side. That's why we hope The Little Man will wreck the factory. But your modern satirist, as witty as he's perceptive, leans the other way. PJ O'Rourke, Jeremy Clarkson, David Aaronivitch, Richard Littlejohn, Rush Limbaugh and Loaded , all these self-styled "contrarians" present themselves as lone heroes bravely flying in the face of a fashionable consensus, when they are themselves the high-priests of the dominant and fashionable orthodoxy, a la mode courtezans of power.
The professional contrarians all express the corparatist view as if they are speaking bold heresy. These brave and rugged individualists and frontiersmen want to impress us with their subversive views, but when the bloody hell do we ever hear anything else anyway? All we ever get is the corporate-friendly view. Where are the acres of news space about grassroots alternatives to the free market? Where ARE the black feminists' syndicated columns? Where are the anti-biotech peasant farmers in the GM debate? Where exactly are the massive government subsidies behind the alternative technology windmills they tilt at? Nowhere. (Trick question: the WTO forbids subsidies to alternative technology, energy conservation and sustainable agriculture -[TBT -Agreement On Technical Barriers To Trade]. ).
Jeremy Clarkson hurls manful defiance at the new green tyranny, the endless, green-propagandist eco-programming of shows like Top Gear, The Car's The Star, Driven, F1, Grand Prix Highlights and the Farnborough Air Show. Listen, bubblecut, I'll say this very slowly: BP...IS ...IN...THE...GOVERN...MENT.
Even when sucking the corporate cock in his British Airways advert, PJ O'Rourke still, STILL, tries to come on all "Hey man, no-one tames this wild jungle-cat" . Suck it deep, PJ. Here comes the money-shot. Lakme! Lakme! Lakme! Say it PJ, say it:
"The world's number one - ooh- it tathe tho goood - mmm-mmmggghf - airline!" Ya Basta!
In Zapatista! - Re-inventing Revolution in Mexico, John Holloway and Eloina Pelaez write:
"Neo-liberalism does not just increase the gap between rich and poor, between the included and the excluded. The subjection of life to the market cripples us all..... The long hours of work entailed trying to gain security leave little scope for activities that might point to another type of life. There is a narrowing of life, a closure... Dreams, ideas, emotions, projects for different forms of living, collective enjoyment: all get squeezed, suppressed, excluded.... For the voices that say "no!", for the dreams of a human society there is no place. Neo-liberalism attacks humanity, not only in the sense that it kills millions by starvation and disease, but also in the equally devastating sense that it kills humanity as a project."
If, as they continue, "humanity is the struggle against de-humanisation," it's a struggle personnified in WC Fields: the round, gnarly, disorderly peg that won't go into the square pegs of time and motion studies, city ordinances and bill-collectors who seek to put a crimp in his day. The Zapatistas say that "hope is dignity, the struggle to walk upright in a world which pushes us down". This could be a description of every Harold Steptoe fatasy, every Depression-era Laurel and Hardy job-search humiliation; every Richard Pryor routine; and every pratfall, slippery floor and rickety, tilting shack of the world's favourite anarcho-communist: Charlie Chaplin. The message of all great comedy is summed up in the words of the La Falda Declaration of South American Chemical and Paper Industry Workers this year:
"We are not a market; first and foremost we are a people."