Stewart Lee wrote a piece for the New Statesman last week on the apparent dearth of right-wing stand-up in this country, concluding that, because the right have the won the political argument in this country, “Who could be on a stage, crowing about their victory and ridiculing those less fortunate than them without any sense of irony, shame or self-knowledge? That’s not a stand-up comedian. That’s just a cunt.” While the former Teddy Hall English student writes brilliantly, I think Lee is allowing his own political perspective cloud his judgement over whether right wing comedy can exist. In short, Lee doesn’t think comedy from the right would be funny, because he thinks all right wingers are cunts.
Lee takes an almost apocalyptic view of the left’s future, claiming that because it is doomed and downtrodden in the country, you can’t make jokes from the right against it, because doing so is the equivalent of singing “I’m the king of the castle! But I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure the left have lost, and I’m not sure that even if they have lost, they can’t be ridiculed all the same. This may sound like a somewhat bizarre proposition, but Oxford could be the centre of a revival in right-wing comedy. That’s right. Oxford. Right here. Right now.
Most comedians make cheap jokes. Listen to ‘The News Quiz.’ Watch ‘Have I Got News for You.’ Nine out of ten comedians make a career out of playing up to age-old prejudices, or commenting on a politician’s appearance as opposed to his policies. Attacking the other side’s ideology – especially their new ideas – requires effort and a little empathy. Of course, there’s another problem here: what do we mean by right and left these day? Blair and Cameron have brought us all together, nicely into the middle. It’s difficult to make gags about subtle differences in fiscal policy, and everyone seems to supports gay marriage now.
Why Oxford then? Well, because unlike at almost every other level of society, the majority of students are lefties. The voice of the student establishment – if there is such a thing – is a social-liberal one. True conservatism is a rare thing in Oxford – trust me, we’re trying to get it on these pages and have yet to find it – and so there is a space for that atypical individual at Oxford to produce some great comedy.
How would they do this? Well, making jokes about their own lack of political playmates is easy and yet obvious. ‘The Lonely Right-Winger’ could, perhaps, earn sympathetic appreciation in front of a generous audience. Wider but trickier territory can be found in lightly mocking the naive aspirations of the more hardcore lefties. Students are a bunch with particularly rose-tinted glasses; we love to think the world could be so much better than it is, “if only”. The best comedians could exploit this. The best comedians make us laugh at ourselves. They show us where we’re going wrong and get patted on the back at the same time. They walk a fine line. On one side you’ve got people rolling in the aisles as they come to see the callowness of their own ideals, on the other there’s a room of fuming faces enraged by your snobbishness.
Gently provoking people into reconsidering their outlook on life while making them roar is where comedy turns into a real art-form, and so it’s where it’s most difficult. Some of Lee’s best work – in my humble opinion at least – succeeds in doing exactly this. There’s a brilliant routine of his on the lack of jokes about Muslims, where he shows the audience that almost everything we think about Islam is based on prejudice and misinformation. Of course, in Lee’s case, he’s attacking the right from the left. Unless you think the left are omniscient, there’s no reason the repartee can’t go the other way.
Comedy isn’t easy. Everyone can see that, but as I’ve already said, I think Lee maybe fails to recognise that the most talented can make people laugh in any situation. Oxford’s produced some of the finest comics of the last fifty years: Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis; Armando Ianucci, Melanie Phillips, Michael Palin and Terry Jones; Stewart Lee himself, and of course, Boris Jonson. That’s why it’s as good a place as any other for a new dawn in right wing comedy.
One day in the future, let’s hope the head of comedy at Radio 4 doesn’t stay awake at night worrying him or herself shitless about the lack of balance at ‘The Beeb’. For those of us in the centre, it just means more choice. For those on the right, it means you’re hitting back. And for those on the left, it means there is still hope. That, and admitting that not every joker on the right is a cunt.