Funny and right? That’ll be me then

The website UnHerd last week decried the tendency of the right to focus on the hypocrisy of the left, rather than define and defend a position of its own. Writer Ben Sixsmith quoted low-key conservative comic Norm Macdonald on the Bill Cosby scandal: “People say the hypocrisy is the worst thing. I don’t know. I think it was the raping.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to the current controversy surrounding BBC comedy, following reports that the new director general Tim Davie is planning to tackle perceived “leftwing bias”, the hypocrisy really might be the worst thing.

As someone who is often characterised as a, or even the, rightwing comedian, I have spent a fair bit of time not so much defending small government and secure borders as emphasising that you really shouldn’t be looking to comedians for political insights at all.

Comedians are there to mock, tickle and provoke. To release a fart while making deadpan eye contact, to whip the chair away first and apologise later. To draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, not comment on the underlying power her depiction might represent.

Our licence is granted on the understanding we lampoon pomposity in all its guises – the delusions of competence cherished by the managerial classes, as much as the vainglorious bombast of the autocrat. To the extent that we hope to satirise policy, we do so by filleting a delicious sliver from its protective layers of context and qualification, in order to expose it, quivering and helpless, to ridicule. It’s not fair, but, trust me, you won’t last very long at The Late Show by being fair about the challenges of drafting legislation.

BBC director-general Tim Davie
BBC director general Tim Davie is planning to tackle ‘perceived’ leftwing bias. Photograph: Getty
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On this reading, the only job of the BBC is to provide satire that makes people laugh. And when you could hear people, in the studio, laughing, then it seemed fair to assume the job was being done. This worked until the tide suddenly went out mid-March, taking live studio audiences with it, and we could all see who was swimming naked.

The low-level grumbling – that wit and fizz had been displaced by a sort of smugly hectoring, coercive exhortation to endorse leftwing dogma – now rose to the level of heckling. But, it seems plain to me, the fault lay in the absence of an effective opposition. Blades are sharpened by clashing.

And this is where the hypocrisy comes in. An interview in the Guardian quoted a “BBC comedy insider” as saying that the “issue is a shortage of rightwing comics…”

And quite reasonably, the paper surmised: “A small group of Conservative-leaning comedians, such as Geoff Norcott and Simon Evans, are constantly booked for BBC panel shows…”

This very paper, meanwhile, reported that “it [is] hard to find avowedly rightwing comedians, Simon Evans and Geoff Norcott being busy exceptions…”

Except we’re not. Busy that is. At least, I’m not. Believe me, if I had, indeed, been the beneficiary of a curious demographic quirk that meant only two half-decent comedians shared the political views of, by definition, literally half the country, then I would not be inspecting that particular gift horse in the gnashers.

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But the reality is otherwise – if “constantly” is understood to at least mean “ever”. I have not, in fact, appeared on a single BBC TV comedy panel show since Mock the Week, for the first and last time, in 2011. I have never been invited on to Have I Got News for You, or any other shows of this kind. I have done BBC Question Time – twice! – but despite the complaints of many viewers, this remains resolutely listed under current affairs, not comedy.

Now, I certainly don’t demand the right to be on these shows – I believe in the free market after all, and have made radio comedy about the genius of its invisible hand. I just think it’s a bit much to hold me up as proof of good intentions when they haven’t booked me in a decade.

And, more disinterestedly, it suggests that lopsidedness is not the result of a regrettable absence of available ballast, but a choice.

Their choice, quite rightly. But I think BBC comedy might benefit from the presence of diversity – God, it’s such a cliché, but it’s true – a diversity of opinion. It is likely to sharpen everyone’s wits, and might even usher in a new golden era, in which tongues might lash and sparks might fly as they once did across the table when Chesterton and Shaw sat down to lunch.

Who knows? We might even cultivate our very own Norm Macdonald.



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