Is Stand Up and TV Comedy just too Middle Class?

Comedy, Class and Offence
Beyond a Joke: Comedy, Identity and Offence series Part 1
Wednesday 12th October 2016
Newton North, Hamilton Centre
Brunel University
London

The Centre for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR), lead by its founder and Brunel University Lecturer, Sharon Lockyer, organised an interesting comedy panel seminar about comedy, identity and offence.

The discussion was formed around comedy, social class and the extent to which the ‘right to offend’ and ‘to be offended’ is permitted by audiences and society at large. Topics discussed included, “What are the roles of comedians and comic discourses in shaping discussions of class and offence in contemporary society? How do our identities shape responses to comedy that draws on social class? What are the range of responses to comedy that draws on social class? What is the relationship between comedy, offensiveness and the maintenance, disruption and deconstruction of ‘social cohesion’ in contemporary plural democracies? To what extent are there, or should there be, ethical limits for comedians and comic discourses in relation to class?”

Leon Hunt, Senior Lecturer in Film and TV Studies at Brunel University, was the opening presenter and as you would expect, his presentation was underpinned by academic theory and insights. He talked about the challenges and responsibility that comes with the power to offend and raised important issues about who is given the permission to offend through the tools of comedy. Hunt added to the mix the social class factor. Interestingly he felt that sometimes the middle class can be given “the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offending through comedy.”

He suggested that the class factor can unite a group of people through the power to offend. By way of example he cited the contemporary, popular TV series ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, as a good example of a comedy show that can ‘make societies contradictions painfully visible’. ‘Birds of a Feather’ is another good example of a popular working class comedy.

James Meehan, a professional comedian spoke about differences of perception and the reception stand up comedy receives. As one might expect from a Stand Up Comedian, he opened his presentation with a joke, approaching his talk with humour through which to shed light on his working class status and that impact of that on comedy and commissioning of TV and radio comedy shows.

James Meehan

James Meehan

He was of the view that the industry and most comedy is middle class and broadcast comedy is largely commissioned by London based middle class TV commissioners. This results in a very London centric comedy industry with little room for comedy filmed outside London, thus making it far harder for comedians who aren’t living in or near to London to succeed if they can’t afford the expense and time to get to London for filming,
meetings and performing stand up shows. This mitigates against working class comedians who don’t have the financial and time resources to make the necessary sacrifices to get on so readily as perhaps middle class comedians. However he did feel that, perhaps a little contradictory, that comedy was a meritocracy where, “if you’re good enough you’ll keep getting bookings.”

He felt that TV stand up comedy had much more of a balance of middle and working class comedians, especially with the likes of John Bishop, Micky Flannagan and Sarah Milligan becoming hugely successful working class comedians. In terms of how this might change he made an interesting observation that the BBC’s diversity policy doesn’t include class, yet it includes gender, race and LGBT people. He said TV and Radio need to be prepared to make more programmes outside London. The free Edinburgh Fringe was very helpful, but it might require collective action by comedians to tackle the high costs of performing at the Fringe.

He said there were stereotypical prejudices of the working classes. He considered the alternative comedy movement of the 1980’s to be predominantly working class. This lead to the breakthrough of acts like Alexie Sayle, Ben Elton and The Young Ones TV show.
Although his presentation centred more on the difficulties of making a living out of comedy, he managed to touch on some important issues discussing the ethical limitations of comedy. His viewpoint suggested that comedy is merely subjective and depends on the joke, the topic and more importantly on the comedian’s ability, ethnicity and background.

The seminar managed to put forward various professional views on comedy. Another interesting one was that of Mark Boosey, who has been running the British Comedy Guide for over 10 years. He viewed the relationship between class and comedy mainly from a political point of view, highlighting the fact that people who consider themselves conservatives will have a particularly hard time to get in to the industry of comedy. He said, for instance, 99.9% of comedians were against Brexit. Boosey mentioned that this is something that came up in ‘Outcast comic’ an excellent documentary about “right wing” comedian Andrew Lawrence who rose to “infamy” of the back of a notorious Facebook rant in 2014.

Andrew Lawrence

Andrew Lawrence

He agreed with Meehan stressing on the fact that the comedy is above all biased in terms of the way humour is constructed and is again more likely to consider the middle class as ‘the norm’ bearing in mind its readers . He made a valid point that most of the time when a joked is deemed to be offensive it has been taken out of its context. A famous example would be the ‘Sachsgate’ Russell Brand: Jonathan Ross furore back in 2008. When broadcast on 18.10.18 the BBC Radio 2 show received only 2 complaints. On 26.10.08 after being featured in the Daily Mail the number of complaints rocketed to 1,500, eventually rising to 30,000+. The majority complaining second hand having not heard the ‘joke/incident’ in full context. Effectively they were taking offence “second hand.”

Top comedians like Al Murray and Jimmy Carr can easily give rise to “second hand” offence is their material is taken out of the stand up show context in which it is delivered.

Boosey was followed by Professor Giselinde Kuipers – Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. She initially focused on the different types of humour and its relation to class. To depict this she used a graph with two crossed axes.

The first one divided between what she defined as ‘sociable’ and ‘intelligent’ comedy.
The first she defined as a cheerful, quite simple, teasing comedy mainly linked to the working class. The ‘intelligent’ type of comedy is based on clever, ironic and critical humour that preferred the complex over the predictable.

The second axis was between civilized humour, defined as sophisticated and slick comedy with no offence intended in its meaning. That was in comparison put next to the so called hard humour, distinguishable with its transgressive, politically incorrect jokes.
Kuipers felt there were similarities between Dutch and English humour. There may well be but sadly the video clip she showed didn’t translate too well into English. Unfortunately, satirical, political humour is unlikely to travel well if people don’t know the characters being lampooned.

She made a comment about how the divide can be judged also by age, where older people were preferable of the civilized humour as opposed to the younger generation which tended to enjoy more of the basic, straightforward type of comedy. During the discussion part of the seminar, questions were raised about whether is in fact the other way around and whether this claim should be debated further before making it a fixed opinion.

It is safe to say that The Comedy, Class and Offence panel seminar fulfilled its purpose to engage the audience in interesting and insightful debates around the subjects of comedy, offensiveness and their juxtaposition in relation to social class in the contemporary democratic society we reside in.

With special thanks to our Guest Reviewer, Damyana Bozhinova, Brunel Student

Edited by Tiemo Talk of the Town

Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town

Speakers:

Mark Boosey: has been running British Comedy Guide for over 10 years. Comedy.co.uk delivers news, features, programme guides, and more besides to over 500,000 visitors a month. BCG compiles guides to the 800+ hours of new comedy broadcast on TV and radio each year, as well as covering films, online comedy and the live comedy circuit.

Leon Hunt: is a Senior Lecturer in Film and TV Studies at Brunel University London. His publications on British comedy include the books British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation, a BFI monograph on The League of Gentlemen and Cult British TV Comedy: From Reeves and Mortimer to Psychoville.

Giselinde Kuipers: is Professor of Cultural Sociology and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke as well as numerous articles on humour, media, cultural globalization, transnational culture and beauty.

James Meehan: is a multi award-winning comedian who has just returned from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe where his debut solo hour, Class Act, a stand-up comedy show on classism in the arts garnered critical praise.

Chaired by John Roberts: Head of Department of Social Sciences, Media and Communications and Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Communications, Brunel University London.

Links:

  1. No Laughing Matter, Race, Identity and the Comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen – CSSR review – 19th March 2015
  2. Is Political Correctness Killing Comedy and Free Speech – tiemo review – 12th November 2015
  3. Mock The Tweet: Things a Comedian Shouldn’t Say – Andrew Lawrence facebook rant – 4 November 2014
  4. Centre for Comedy Studies Research – CCSR Brunel University
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