No laughing matter

Where have all the student satirists gone? wonders Sally Feldman

May 23, 2013

Last week I went clubbing. No, I wasn’t doing ecstasy in a chill space, nor grinding to a hot DJ. But it was, for me, daringly late - past midnight at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, London. And I was mesmerised by an array of comic acts: a drag impersonation of Judy Garland; a ranting pseudo-mullah delivering an off-colour sermon; and an American stand-up coolly dissing the audience.

These occasional late-night forays, organised by the television director and writer Victor Lewis-Smith, are an attempt to revive legendary club The Establishment, which flourished in the 1960s. That venture - the brainchild of comic genius Peter Cook - featured bizarre, frequently awful, often scatological and sometimes brilliant acts. Lenny Bruce performed there. So did Barry Humphries. Dudley Moore’s jazz trio regularly provided the music.

This revival has the blessing of Cook’s widow, who was there at my table, charmingly revelling in the anarchy. She was also able to hear Stephen Fry’s tribute to Cook, acknowledging the huge influence her late husband has had on every comedian who came after him. The acts themselves were variable in quality, just as they would have been at the original club, and there was a similar sense that something dangerous might happen at any moment.

Campuses across the country used to be hotbeds of revolutionary ideals…Rag week teemed with biting little publications

I was just beginning to wonder why it all felt so alien and yet so nostalgic when the next act made it clear. On sauntered the cartoonist Martin Rowson, who delivered a robust condemnation of today’s comedy scene.

“Comedy is now a very valuable commodity,” he said. “Comedians fill the sofas of TV chat shows; they fill the TV schedules too, as well as the entire output of a lot of TV channels.” But, he went on, not much of it is very funny. And none of it could be described as satirical. There’s either the mild observational humour of Michael McIntyre - who will do routines on what men keep in the kitchen drawer, or how brilliant it is that water comes out of a tap. Or else there are those specialising in sexist jokes and lots of swearing.

“The problem”, Rowson asserted, “is that satire and comedy are not synonymous.” He referred to the great American journalist H.L. Mencken, who said that satire is about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted - a noble enough aim that seems to have escaped most of our current crop of comics.

“Meanwhile,” Rowson scoffed, “the level of mainstream satire currently available is summed up by a recent tweet from Frankie Boyle saying that if [home secretary] Theresa May wanted to repel immigrants she should stand on the white cliffs of Dover with her tits out.”

Yet young people are flocking in their hundreds of thousands to applaud their comic heroes. And very well represented in those audiences are students - the very constituency that should be providing that savage, questioning, impertinent voice of conscience.

In the heyday of satire, from Cook’s own Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week That Was in the 1960s, up to the “alternative” anti-Thatcherite comedians of the 1980s, the impetus came from the universities. That was not only where young performers met and experimented, it was also where ideas were fermenting and protests and political passions were forged.

And I don’t just mean the Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Union. Campuses across the country used to be hotbeds of revolutionary ideals, sometimes earnest, often scurrilous. Rag week teemed with biting little publications that spouted satire as well as schoolboy jokes. We produced several amateurish satirical rags at Reading in the late 1960s, with names like Spit and Cock. At York in the 1970s, Lewis-Smith himself - who wrote under the name of Cardinal Clitoris - was finally silenced by the vice- chancellor, who threatened to send him down. “That is so Oxbridge”, Lewis- Smith responded gleefully, “that I’m going to have to send you up.”

Maybe because today’s students are paying out a fortune in fees, slaving at night jobs and angsting about future employment they don’t have the time or inclination to start joking about everything that’s wrong. And maybe, too, the academy itself is beating it out of them. Now that there are so many courses in comedy, it’s become even more part of the Establishment. When I was interviewing for a film lecturer’s position last year, one of the candidates professed to be a specialist in comedy. “What’s your favourite comedy?” I asked innocently. “What really makes you laugh?”

He stared at me. “It’s not about that,” he replied scathingly.

Well, it is, according to Rowson. He maintained that it’s the cartoonists who are keeping satire alive, “sniping away from the sidelines”, as they have been for more than 300 years: “That’s our role in the political settlement, like the slave in ancient Rome whispering in the ear of the conquering hero: ‘You are mortal, and your ears look really stupid, too.’”

So let’s hear it for those who, like the cartoonists - and like Private Eye: that lone voice that is, thankfully, still flourishing - continue to prick pomposity, unveil hypocrisy, attack the powerful and comfort the vulnerable. And let’s hope some students somewhere will seize the microphone and start seriously offending. Not, of course, that their targets will necessarily take much notice.

When Rowson was first introduced to Gordon Brown soon after the latter had been appointed chancellor, he treated him to a lecture on economics, reminding him that his duty was to ameliorate the condition of the poor. “And he answered, you know, moving his jaw in that wonderful anaconda-about-to-swallow-a-goat way: ‘Why do you always draw me so fat?’”

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