Photo by Andrew Aitchison

Rabble-rouser in chief

Our increasingly polarised and angry age wants not entertainment, but preachers

Artillery Row

I’ve always rather liked Stewart Lee. He is one of those comedians who has plied his trade for decades, but without becoming stuck in a repetitive rut, unlike so many of his peers. He deserves a place in some sort of hall of fame for co-writing and co-directing the excellent Jerry Springer: The Opera, but his admirers have long testified to the versatility and intelligence of his stand-up material, which will see him use meta-comedic techniques to simultaneously entertain his audience while slyly subverting the expectations of a mainstream comic performer. To put it another way, he may tell as good a knob gag as anyone else, but he’ll also manage to place it within a social and historical context that elevates it to the very greatest heights of knobbery.

Greta Thunberg and Marcus Rashford long since ascended to secular sainthood

Unfortunately, Lee has been accused of a very different sort of knobbery this year, thanks to a lengthy post on his website, entitled “From the metro-lib-elite desk of Stewart Lee”, in which he celebrated various public figures, whom he described as being “on the pedestal”, while castigating others, whom he described as being “in the pedal bin”. Some of the names in both categories were familiar and unsurprising. The likes of Gareth Southgate, Greta Thunberg and Marcus Rashford have long since ascended to secular sainthood, while merely saying the words “Donald Trump”, “Jacob Rees-Mogg” and “the Daily Mail” is guaranteed to lead to hearty booing and hissing.

So far, so audience-pleasing. But there are plenty of names in both categories, listed without explanation, that might make many of Lee’s admirers wonder if he is doing some clever piece of postmodern irony, or if, instead, he is being a bit of a knob. I wonder whether the likes of Alexei Sayle, Ash Sarkar and (naturally) Owen Jones can really be described as modern-day heroes, just as I fail to see what offence Tom Tugendhat, Stig Abell and Jimmy Fallon have visited upon Lee. Without further explanation, the list becomes simply a collection of eccentric opinions that could either be seen as quixotically challenging or simply attention-seeking, depending on one’s view of Lee and his comedy.

I believe that Lee is not simply some blowhard wokester, unlike Frankie Boyle, whose public conversion from gleefully offensive provocateur to stoic, principled man of integrity remains one of the more unusual journeys undertaken by many of those on the left. There is obviously a good deal of humour in his choices: some of those who attract his opprobrium include “fishermen”, “Poland” and “Christian with megaphone & siren, Camden”. But it is hard to read his lists and not recall his words from 2014, which have proved to be an unlikely prophecy of what audiences today expect from their comedians. “Hear that applause? That’s what I like. I’m not interested in laughs. I prefer applause. ‘Is it supposed to be funny?’ That’s what the critics say. No, it isn’t. I’m not interested in laughs. People say, ‘Did you see Stewart Lee?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Was it funny?’ ‘No, but I agreed the fuck out of it.’”

They are now rabble-rousers in chief, totemic and quasi-evangelical figures

The repetition of the words “I’m not interested in laughs” seems crucial. At a time where right-wing comedians are limited in number (probably because our feckless Bunter of a Prime Minister has put them all out of work by being a bigger joke than they are), it is no longer the job of the likes of Lee and Boyle to elicit humour from poking fun at the failings of those in authority. There are few really entertaining jokes, after all, that can be wrung from the manifold failings of a failing government.

So the role of the comedian shifts. No longer are they standing up on stage in a bid to entertain their audience, but to bring together a disparate group of people to glory in their own righteousness. The former comic is therefore faced with a different task to making them laugh. They are now rabble-rouser in chief, a totemic and quasi-evangelical figure whose role is to inspire and excite their listeners, and, ideally, to allow them to leave the auditorium feeling better about the world, and themselves, confirmed in the righteousness of their opinions and views.

Things have happened in the conjoined field of politics and entertainment over the past few years that I would once have believed impossible. I remember being staggered that the singer Paloma Faith once asked — of all people — Owen Jones to tour with her as a support act. Yet today this seems less surprising. Jones, Sarkar or any number of high-profile left-wing figures would perform ably in front of a like-minded audience of young, liberal concert-goers, convincing them of their shared idealism and hard-won values, and making them feel suitably excited about their own integrity. As a way of getting the punters going, it certainly beats a support slot from some Sheeran-esque singer-songwriter, anxiously checking his Apple watch in case he will be home too late for his dinner of haricot beans on sourdough toast. Expect to see more of it in the future.

Johnson as PM dismantled any reluctantly accepted concepts of Conservative professionalism

What the reaction to Lee’s post has demonstrated, especially — predictably — in the polarised world of social media, is that Left and Right now both view themselves as the standard-bearers for decency and integrity. The presence of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader did untold damage to the left’s reputation for unquestionable moral superiority, just as the continued installation of Alexander “Boris” Johnson as our Prime Minister has dismantled any reluctantly accepted concepts of Conservative professionalism. We no longer have any faith in our elected leaders, and so we turn to other, more acceptable figures to inspire and guide us. Many of Lee’s pedestal-bearers are lazily described as “national treasures”, just as many of his bin-dwellers have been much-castigated. The only real surprise, in fact, is how conservative his views are. If he had dared to describe both Corbyns (rather than simply the deranged Piers) as undesirable, one imagines that a certain sector of his readership would have been infuriated.

Lee is an intelligent man, and I believe a thoughtful one. Unfortunately, every revolution has its thinkers, along with those who carry out their instructions with brute force rather than nuance. Our increasingly polarised and angry age is not looking for entertainment any more, but for preachers. Those who have the biggest pulpit and the largest congregation, stand the greatest chance of getting their voices heard, regardless of the sense of what they are saying. They don’t want to be figures of fun any longer, drawing laughter. Instead, they want applause. And that is what they will get, even as the jeers and anger on the other side grow ever-louder, and ever-more irreconcilable.

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