September 26, 2022
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‘Too angry to be funny’: Edinburgh fringe split on politics in satire | Comedy

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Fuel may be in short supply, but there is no shortage of targets for lampooning in Westminster. The cost of living crisis and the temporary vacuum in parliament are creating fertile ground for political satire and, as the Edinburgh fringe festival opens this weekend, many shows are tackling these topics head on.

Standup stars such as Omid Djalili, Nish Kumar, Andrew Maxwell, Mark Thomas and Rachel Parris are among those lining up to attack, and several parody shows will focus on Boris Johnson’s government.

But fringe performers are split on how to respond to turbulent times in a way that entertains audiences. After the BBC’s cancellation of Mock the Week, the long-running satirical panel show, the public appetite for straight political comedy is in question.

Djalili, who is returning to Edinburgh for a run of one-man shows, is convinced that mainstream broadcast channels have lost interest in serious topical material.

“Political satire on television is dead,” he told the Observer, ahead of his run at the Newtown Theatre. “Mock the Week kept it on life support for 17 years.”

The leftwing political comic Mark Thomas was full of anger on stage on Thursday. He even told Tory voters not to come to his shows, and he offers plenty of personal invective in his act. Liz Truss’s brain, he told the audience, could be “beaten by a memory foam mattress”. “If she thinks Nicola Sturgeon is an attention-seeker, then what is Boris Johnson – a cry for help?”

Other comedians are less sure about inserting rage into their jokes in case they alienate theatre-goers in search of a good laugh. Jo Caulfield, performing at the Stand, has always been wary of bringing her politics into her act. “We are in such strange times. I am angry, so I find I can’t be funny about it. Yet others do find a way.”

Posters for at least three fringe shows – the NewsRevue, Boris the Third and Boris Live at Five – feature the looming face of Johnson, who has lost none of his crowd-pulling recognition factor, even among his critics.

Playwright Jonathan Maitland, author of Boris Live at Five, has noticed some standups pulling back from the political arena. “There’s been a real reluctance among the big hitters to satirise the obvious targets of Trump and Johnson. The argument is that they are beyond parody. But, as the American performer Harry Shearer says, if you take that line, you’re accepting defeat.”

His own show, starring Will Barton as the PM, takes the form of a question and answer session with Britain’s departing leader. “But the pessimists have a point,” said Maitland. “It’s tough to make it work. And even in political drama, there is less willingness to be brutal. Maybe this is why Mock the Week got canned. We’re in the age of nice, not nasty.”

Another political writer, Bert Tyler-Moore, who co-created television’s The Windsors and helps script the new Spitting Image series, is up in Edinburgh with What the Heart Wants, his show about the damaged reputations of Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra. He believes a taste for harsh political humour will return. “People keep asking how you mock these people. Well, on Spitting Image we hang them with the rope they have given us. We basically just point a finger at them.”

Tyler-Moore’s own preference, he said, is for satirical drama, like his work on the royal soap opera parody, The Windsors. “We would slip in facts like just how much they got paid on the civil list. This meant our show could be enjoyed by both monarchists and republicans. Straight political stand-up can be boring. There is nothing worse than an angry comedian shouting at you, pointing out the blindingly obvious.”

Ardent fans of party politics will already have bought tickets for Forde’s stand-up show, Clowns to the Left of me, Jokers to the Right, as well as for commentator Ayesha Hazarika, or for Michael Spicer and more of his popular antics in The Room Next Door. But Nish Kumar, who will perform in Edinburgh at the end of the festival, fears there are signs of “political fatigue” among performers and audiences. “People should be staying furious, but my worry is that they have been beaten into submission,” he said.

Nish Kumar
Nish Kumar: ‘People should be staying furious but my worry is that they have been beaten into submission.’ Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The cure for political fatigue is to speak from personal experience, according to Tom Mayhew. On the fringe to perform his solo show, Trash Rich, and host a benefit gig for the national poverty charity Turn2us, Mayhew will focus on the impact of Britain’s economic problems.

“This is a bloody odd time, it’s true, but it is definitely possible to make it entertaining,” he said. “Especially if you are not someone who has only read about these issues. When I watched those older political comedians, such as Ben Elton, I wouldn’t enjoy them as much as people who were talking about real-life stuff.”

Mayhew, 30, who is best known for the BBC Radio 4 series Tom Mayhew is Benefit Scum, said that, for him, the “the cost of living crisis is real”. “I am going through it, and my parents and my siblings are going through it. At the end of my Edinburgh set I say that my nephews have free school meals, and I realise it may be the first time some of the audience have come across someone with family like that.”

The Kenyan-born British comedian Njambi McGrath, performing at the Pleasance, argues that deep political turmoil will still fuel good comedy. Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that unpatriotic rhetoric should be policed can only throw another log on the fire, she believes.

“The more severe a government, the more hilarious satire becomes. It can only thrive inside rooms away from the interfering hands of government,” he said. “After all, banning comedy simply rubber stamps the ridicule. Banning satire is the last door from democracy and first into autocracy.”

This article was amended on 7 August 2022 to correct some personal information.



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