No laughing matter! The state of comedy in Britain

In the latest instalment of his Tales From The Crypt, Mitch Mitchell takes a look at how popular comedy developed in the 1980s into something that challenged the oppressive ideas of society, rather than reinforcing them, as well as asking if there is any radical edge to comedy today.

Before the 1980s UK comedy generally fell into two very safe and generally unfunny camps. There were the reactionaries: those who told sexist ‘Mother-in-Law’ jokes and racists such as Bernard Manning, Jimmy Jones, Jim Davidson. Then there were the absurdists like Tommy Cooper, who rarely, if ever, told jokes of that kind.

The television sit-coms ranged from very funny, such as ‘Tony Hancock’ to the banal and downright racist ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Mind Yer Language’ on ITV. These last two were based on the “aren’t foreigners funny” premise. In comparison, Tony Hancock’s programmes were like finding an oasis in the desert.

Sexist and racist material followed by acts such as Ted Ray, Dickie Henderson and Jimmy Edwards. Alongside these, Towards the end of the 1970s, the Irish comedian Dave Allen began to appear more and more on TV. He began to change the style of comedy by turning his attentions to religion, specifically, Catholic. Some of his material would, by today’s standards, still be considered sexist. I once saw him at a fundraiser for the Workers’ Revolutionary Party where he was, understandably, heckled by a group of feminists. In spite of his shortcomings he was genuinely trying to change the direction of comedy.

In the 1980s, things began to change. A group of young comedians came together at the Comedy Store in London, determined to do comedy which wasn’t of the ‘my wife/mother-in-law is so fat…’ type. They wanted to make jokes which were anti-sexist and also non-racist.

This gained the name of ‘Alternative Comedy’. Some of the first of this school were Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. The style appealed to young people and the political nature also spoke to anyone with anti-Thatcher sentiments.

Television picked up on this and a programme ‘Friday Night Live’ was instigated on Channel 4. The compere of this show was Ben Elton.  Also, appearing regularly was Harry Enfield who used to do what was called ‘character comedy’. He created a character called ‘Loadsa Money’ – his attempt to take the piss out of the Thatcherite generation’s worship of cash above all else. Unfortunately, it became more popular with the people he was sending up. He also created a character which was supposed to be a Greek café owner. Several people saw his cod accent as racist and, still thinking of himself as a Marxist, he dropped that one.

Because of fees earned on television, these comics were able to obtain more at the clubs which had sprung up around the country. The most notable of these clubs was the Jongleurs chain. They opened their first establishment at Battersea, and followed this soon after with a club at Camden. Then they opened up in Bow and after that began to set up clubs in Southampton, Leicester and Watford.

The sort of act who played at Jongleurs changed over the years. Initially, people like Alexei Sayle and Mark Steel were happy to play there, but gradually, the audiences became what Mark Thomas once described as ‘pissed accountants’ and they were the type who only wanted what the trade called ‘knob gags’.

It was also noticeable that women were being under-represented in the comedy world. Good women comics were often ignored, or at best patronised. Jo Brand was an exception to this, but many suffered. People would go to the bar when a woman came on stage and you’d often hear comments like “all women can do is jokes about periods’. A friend of mine did an open spot at the Comedy Store where the compere was Ben Elton. When she had finished, Elton said ‘that’s a good example of why women don’t make it in comedy’.

Another comic I knew was Mandy Knight. In 1998, she was selected by Time Out as ‘Woman Comedian of the Year’. Normally, the magazine just had ‘Comedian of the Year’ and Mandy wanted to know why they had felt it necessary to add the word ‘Woman’. She never got an answer.

One of the things which had bound the alternative comics together was their rejection of all things commercial. However, gradually, this was rejected, as more and more scrambled onto the advertising bandwagon. Only Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Mark Thomas held out. Mark Thomas once told me that he had turned down £80,000 to do adverts for Heineken beer. This was partly because he didn’t drink alcohol any longer, but also because he held fast to the dictum ‘no ads’.

As Jongleurs and similar establishments became more popular and audiences became more of the ‘pissed accountants’ type, the standard degenerated. This coincided with the growth of the ‘Lad Mags’ phenomenon. ‘Jokes’ reverted back to being more sexist and racist, the nadir being when Jimmy Carr, he of the tax avoidance fame, told a racist gag about gypsies on Radio 4’s “Loose Ends” programme. There were several complaints and the BBC was forced to issue an apology. Carr still appears on BBC programmes.

Whilst not being racist or sexist, banal people like Michael McIntyre began to be popular. Telling “safe” jokes which had no political or satirical edge whatsoever.

Panel shows took over both TV and radio. Only “The News Quiz”, featuring Jeremy Hardy and lesbian comedian, Sandi Toksvig as chair and the “Now Show” contain any material that could be considered political or ‘cutting’. The panels are almost always occupied by a majority of straight white men.

Radio 4 still considers itself “The Home of Comedy”. Yet, some of the shows I’ve heard are so dire, that I wonder how they ever got commissioned.  The show “Feedback” which is for listeners to comment on radio programmes, regularly has complaints about Jeremy Hardy, so he must be doing something right!.

So who can give us hope for a new radical comedy?

Of the newer crowd, Holly Walsh has some excellent anti-sexist material in her routines. Josie Long is another who is very involved politically, who’s been seen at  “Save Legal Aid” demonstrations. There are also women like Shappi Khorsandi who poke fun at the British Islamophobia, as well as sexism and homophobia. Even Mark Steel’s son, Eliot, is now doing the circuit.

There are still very few political comedians around, however, the world of comedy is no longer what it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps we need an alternative to the ‘Alternative’?


  1. Much of current comedy is, as stated, dire, and much of it s dire because in striving for a political or satirical edge, in striving to be clever, many comedians have lost sight of the notion that comedy is supposed to be funny. “Safe” jokes with “no political or satirical edge whatsoever” can still constitute pure comedy – as long as they’re funny.

  2. Surely it’s a glaring omission not to discuss Stewart Lee? Sure, he’s what you might call “middle class liberal intelligentsia” but his stuff is always left of centre and is always sharply critical of the establishment. More to the point, it’s always hilarious. Surely an article aiming to take a general left wing perspective on the comedy scene should say *something* about him?


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