The Death of Comedy, Again?

Posted on Tue 21 December 2021 in comedy

Once again the death of comedy has been announced. On this occasion, one-time national treasure Maureen Lipman, still most famous for a British Telecom advert, has asserted (apparently without any examples) that punishment for saying socially unacceptable things was in danger of ending careers and indeed comedy itself more generally. She makes the claim that such things are all the things that people laugh at. This raises lots of questions, about what ‘cancel culture’ is and whether, indeed, these are all the things that people laugh at. I find this claim fascinating, given that I have spent a large part of my career studying a form of comedy that, by any standards (including those of its own time), was politically and socially offensive.

The Long Death

This is far from the first time that the demise of this art-form has been diagnosed or foretold. In 2000, rather quixotically, Erich Segal laid the blame for it at the door of Samuel Beckett. But more often, in the past couple of decades, its passing has been attributed to political and social change. Until recently, the villain of the piece was ‘political correctness’ (here are several examples from the 2010s); more recently, especially in the UK, it has been laid at the door of this ‘cancel culture’, itself supposedly the product of ‘woke‘ ideologues. Needless to say, the actual signs of such chilling effect on careers and creativity seem rather less obvious. A frequent flyer on this ticket is John Cleese, and it's perhaps no coincidence (nor is it atypical) that he's not had a bona fide hit in years—probably not since 1988's A Fish Called Wanda and could hardly be said to have been cutting-edge even then. Subsequently he was more likely to be seen playing Q to Pierce Brosnan's Bond.


One of the many disingenuous elements in such claims is what exactly is meant by ‘cancel culture’. The term derives much of its original force fromt he practice of ‘no-platforming’ far-right political groups. For example, in the 2005 UK Parliament election, all the candidates from the mainstream Scottish political parties for the Glasgow Central constituency (Scotland's most ethnically diverse) refused to share a platform with the racist BNP. I was proud of my community that night. More recently, it has been invoked in claims about freedom of speech on university campuses in the UK, about which I have blogged previously. The signal to noise ratio here is exceptionally low, and we are frequently presented with the appropriately absurd sight and sound of individuals all over the national media claiming that they have been ‘cancelled’, and, needless to say, repeating their supposedly silenced views. It is lazy journalism that does not point out the irony, although Lorraine Kelly certainly did so when interviewing Kathleen Stock.

In the case of comedy, what appears to be the complaint is not that shows have been cancelled. Even the latest reprise by another noted transphobe Graham Linehan of his inability to launch a musical version of Father Ted (a project which has failed to make it off the ground since at least 2015) was not making that claim—although given his behaviour in recent years, it's hardly surprising that no-one wants to work with him. Rather, the suggestion appears to be that comedians do or may feel inhibited from making certain kinds of jokes. Apart from offending ‘woke‘ audiences, the nature of these jokes is often left unspecified, but given the associations of that term with identity politics, we can infer that they are, for example, racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist and transphobic. On the other side, the frequent complaints from recent Conservative governments and the right-wing press that the BBC, in particular, is too left-wing, are often aimed at the comedy output of its channels. With the BBC charter up for renewal, and political comedy thriving on oppositional humour, this hasn't exactly been encouraging satire.

The question of taste

As far as the more identitarian humour is concerned, it is hardly news that tastes change, or that comedy evolves in response to changing social and political contexts. And that change is not always in a more progressive direction. For example, the comedy of the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE seems to have made a radical move (for its time) in having contemporary citizen-wives on stage, being addressed by name and interacting with male characters, and clearly having personal agency. That is something that largely evaporated within the following half-century. Or, again, the maltreatment of enslaved people is rarely absent in Greek comedy, but there is a significant escalation of abuse in Roman comedy, which builds on Greek models.

In the comedy of the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there has been a gradual shift away from racist, sexist and homophobic humour. The advent of alternative comedy in the 1980s was self-consciously, if not always successfully, positioned against the tired routines of the 1970s and earlier that traded in racist and sexist stereotypes. The effects of that rebellion were not immediate, and there was considerable resistance at the time from the same kinds of media outlets that complain about wokeness today. And the defence of traditional humour was also couched in terms of complaints about the new comedians trading in obscenity. The ostracism of queer comedian Julian Clary for making a joke about fisting (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) Norman Lamont was as late as 1993. There we can see actual silencing, by the way, not by social consensus but by anxious television executives.

Another watershed was the arrival of Goodness Gracious Me, which addressed the experiences of immigrant communities and made racism itself the subject of humour (such as the famous ‘Going for an English‘ sketch). The change from the 1970s is stark, while far from ideal, and it is no surprise that British Asian comics such as Nish Kumar have been conspicuous target of complaints about wokeness in the backlash of recent years.

Humour and Offence

So let's return to Lipman's thesis that comedy needs to be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist to be funny. The evidence suggests that changing social sensibilities have not in fact dimmed the lightbulb of British (or other) comedy in past decades, even if those underlying social and political changes have annoyed a lot of rather bigoted people. And if we return to Greek Comedy, we can see that there is plenty else to laugh at and laugh with.

Aristophanes is a good example, because so much of the comedy of that period is shockingly offensive. As well as the misogyny, xenophobia and abuse of enslaved people, the jokes about sexual exploitation of children (notably the scene with the Megarian children in Acharnians which combine all these elements) are entirely repellent to today's audiences. There should be no hiding from this aspect of Greek comedy. Verbal and physical abuse of individuals was also a common feature that contrasts with the current context: it's slightly hard to imagine Boris Johnson being desribed on the BBC as ‘a blousy whale squealing like a singed sow’ as the populist leader Cleon was in Wasps (but, hey, if the shoe fits ...). Here the issue is not sensitivity to abuse of communities or identities in general, but a political context where simply being criticised or disagreed with can lead to claims of being cancelled! The political engagement in Greek comedy is far more raw and personal.

But even though ancient critics, who largely lived in authoritarian and non-democratic regimes, were fascinated by this abuse of individuals (onomati kōmōidein), which they saw as a key part of comic freedom of speech (parrhēsia), these are still not the only elements in Aristophanic Comedy, or even the most memorable, or the funniest, or the hardest-hitting. The personal attacks on politicians are frequently embedded in critiques of populist political discourse that would have their modern counterparts and their outriders in the press beyond incandescent. The absurdity of Dikaiopolis' personal peace-treaty with the Spartans, the sex-strike of Lysistrata, the paper-thin allegory of the trial of a dog in Wasps for stealing a cheese (no wine though), flying up to heaven on a parodic dung-beetle to rescue Peace, the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides over what makes good tragedy (in Frogs), the sexual and economic communism of Ekklēsiazousai or the absurdly compromised city in the air in Birds are all much more important to the humour (and the plot and the explorations) of the plays than causing identitarian offence. And while, e.g., Lysistrata certainly trades in the misogynistic stereotypes of its time, it's also been rebooted countless times with an entirely different spin: that is, usually from an unambiguously feminist perspective.

Can We Laugh at Ancient Humour?

So the idea that humour is somehow limited to the kinds of offensiveness that Lipman has in mind seems, appropriately enough, ridiculous. A more challenging question, and one implicit in a lot of my comments on Greek comedy here, is whether it is OK to study it, or even to laugh at it? It's absolutely vital to see it in its historical context, but that doesn't mean that there aren't elements that are still genuinely funny, or that studying the culture in which it was produced is not of value, but we need to be very clear about wha we are doing, and sometimes it's not easy to disentangle the elements within a scene. But this is also true of rewatching the humour of the second-hald of the twentieth-century. For example, the episode, ‘Bells’ in Blackadder II could perhaps (if you try hard enough) be said to end on a celebratory trans-positive note as Flasheart and Bob depart (and Baldrick prepares to fulfil the bridesmaid's obligations), but it's difficult to see that as recuperating the blatant homophobia and transphobia throughout the episode. The position of queer voices in earlier, more traditional comedy, can fill (and has filled) books, and with Round the Horne a staple of Radio 4 Extra (my partner is a devotee), there is, somewhat perversely, more scope for rereading in terms of acts of resistance. The same could not be said for Carry on up the Khyber, where, much as I still find some of the situational humour of the dinner party funny, as well as the satire on British masculinity and the class system, it is almost impossible to unpick those elements from the racism—also the sexism and homophobia, but mainly the racism.

Perhaps we should, after all, just burn it all down and move on? Enjoying historical comedy is a dangerous game, and requires constant deployment of critical filters and self-interrogation. That's no bad thing: we should use critical filters all the time. But there is nothing intrinsic to or necessary for laughter in those elements that require critical filters. Comedy will continue to be produced, and my personal hope is for challenging satire, absurdist plots and the targeting of individuals for corruption, hypocrisy, misrepresentation and lies. They will undoubtedly call it ‘cancel culture’.