Inside Story

Born to laugh

Is British comedy pervaded by the worldview of the Oxbridge graduate?

Robert Phiddian Books 22 March 2024 1438 words

Oxbridge lads: the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the BBC studio in October 1970. Rolf Adlercreutz/Alamy

It was hard not to be charmed by the race between a lettuce and Liz Truss’s prime ministership. It was gallows humour sharply poised between self-deprecation and outright deprecation, somehow typical of British humour. The whimsy worked as a coping measure, but was it also an agent of change?

On balance, British journalist David Stubbs thinks not. His new book, Different Times: A History of British Comedy, opens with a bravura critique of the weakness in the British character that forgave Boris Johnson almost everything because he’s fond of a joke, often apparently at his own expense: “Humour, our craven inability to resist humour, is what created Boris Johnson.” This is a salutary reminder that laughter matters, but it can anaesthetise as well as enlighten. As Peter Cook said about the satirists of the Weimar Republic: “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war.”

Comedy may seldom transform the world but it provides a revealing window on continuity and change in a society. Different Times traces British laughter during the United Kingdom’s decades-long retreat from imperial primacy, and perhaps it is no coincidence that America is getting funnier as it becomes more intractable while China is one of the most dangerous places on earth to crack a joke.

Stubbs has watched a lot of TV and been to a lot of gigs. If you enjoy anything British, funny and filmed, from Chaplin and Stan Laurel to The Office, chances are they’ll be here. It’s a compendious survey that moves decade by decade from the 1920s to the noughties, with a sketchy coda towards the present. Comedy and satire emerge as lagging indicators of cultural change.

As an Australian with an Anglophile education I kept flashing in and out of recognition. A lot of it I know, because a lot of it we see. The British roots of Australian humour remain strong and possibly predominant against the onslaught of American stuff that comes down the wires and through the ether. The bits I didn’t know are well described, but I’m seldom persuaded I was missing much. English comedy, in particular, can appear rather insular at a distance.

So some of the jokes seem inbred, overwritten by class obsessions. But I do sometimes wish our own writers had the time and the patience to write so well. The sophistication of script and characterisation, the attention to human quirkiness — nobody does it better.

The good news for readers is that Stubbs writes as a proper fan but not uncritically. This is a mostly good-natured, sometimes school-masterish book, its critical arc summed up early: “With magnificent but too few exceptions, British comedy in the twentieth century was not so much about the human condition as about the white, male condition.”

So if you are after a “war on woke” lamentation that no one can take a joke anymore, go to another shop. Things are getting better: “Political correctness liberated comedy,” says Stubbs, “forced it to resort to its creative imagination, helped create a new self-consciousness about what it meant to create comedy, to be more inclusive and open to new forms, new avenues of social exploration, rather than falling back on lazy, reactionary stereotypes and tropes.”

What’s important about this is the demand that comedy must do without the lazy and the reactionary, not that it try to do without tropes and stereotypes entirely. Stereotype is a particularly dirty word these days, and the reflex for a lot of people is to assume it is always a terrible thing. But comedy uses various forms of shorthand and thus always trades in tropes, stereotypes and metaphors. The real debates need to be about who the jokes are targeting and whether they conform to the poetic justice of comedy. That’s what makes the lettuce such a perfect joke. It didn’t implicate anything extraneous like Truss’s class or gender — it focused purely and searingly on the public matter of her government’s doomed program.

We can and should move from a narrow set of stereotypes towards a wider and more representative set. This would be progress, yes, but not a revolution. Comedy can’t do entirely without caricature, stereotype, ridicule. If the world doesn’t see another mother-in-law joke, if an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman never walk into a bar again, it will be no loss. But other tropes and stereotypes are filling the vacuum.

The better angels of our nature would prefer to believe that we mostly laugh with rather than at, but that isn’t true. The same overworked angels then try to insist that only punching up can be funny, and that works a little better. Most people I know think it’s fine to laugh at a president or prime minister and not okay to laugh at someone for being gay. But still people laugh at babies suffering mishaps on YouTube — maybe we shouldn’t, but often enough we do. It seems unlikely that many of the babies really deserve it.

Another good thing about this book is that Stubbs tries hard to see things in social and historical context. He doesn’t judge, as people sometimes do, from the perfect moral clarity of the present. The Carry On movies are a necessary and popular part of his story; Dad’s Army is lovingly analysed as 1970s nostalgia for a plucky, unified and rather ridiculous wartime Britain. The radical satire boom of the Thatcher years is lauded, even while we are reminded that it was mostly posh boys who did the shouting in The Young Ones and elsewhere. Working-class comedians from the Northern club circuit get respectful attention despite their reactionary jokes and views.

Or, rather, Stubbs doesn’t judge prematurely. Monty Python’s creators get lavish admiration but lose a few marks on women and race for being the postwar Oxbridge boys they were. In the end, he lets “progressive” and “morally palatable” merge a bit. Occasionally Different Times drifts into marking the exams of comedians of the past by standards they were unaware of.

Here, Stubbs is in good company. The slippage between what is and what should be funny is near universal in humour studies. Laughter feels good, so we want to feel good about why and when we laugh. Often we are kidding ourselves.

Stubbs tries hard to hold a catholic view of British comedy as a sort of fun-park mirror held up to the decline of national significance. Nevertheless, the most abiding impression I got from this book is how pervasive the hegemony of Oxbridge has been and remains. Stubbs admits he arrived at Oxford two years ahead of BoJo and they both expect to be attended to, as of right. Did the British tolerate BoJo’s lying simply because he made them laugh? No, there is also the fact that he came from the class that was born to rule.

We Australians fool ourselves that we don’t have class distinctions. Lined up beside the British, though, we at least don’t have as concentrated a stream of cultural privilege as Oxbridge. With all the self-congratulation, there is still something in the idea of a larrikin sense of humour, a persistent disrespect for authority in a tie. It used to belong entirely to white blokes like me, and we are still wildly over-represented, but more voices are claiming the right to call bullshit than used to be the case. We don’t defer as much as the British to the bright, loud boys who went to Sydney or Melbourne universities. Things could be worse.

But Stubbs’s BoJo thread shines a light on something less pleasing. What a humourless bunch we tend to elect in Australia! Keating had a killer vein in invective that sometimes looked like satire, but only Whitlam and Menzies were genuinely funny, and that mostly counted against them with the general public as aloofness. People say George Reid could be funny on the hustings, but that’s going back a long way. We obviously expect earnestness in our leaders, certainly in the half dozen since Howard set the pattern. Our public figures should be able to bear a joke, but heaven preserve any politician who gives the impression they are laughing at us, for Newspoll certainly won’t.

Are we really much good at laughing at ourselves, I wonder? Some future historian of Australian comedy may have a tale to tell. •

Different Times: A History of British Comedy
By David Stubbs | Faber | $39.99 | 416 pages