This is my latest blog for The Independent. I wrote it just after seeing Les Mis, which might explain it’s somewhat radical tone…spot the George Orwell “Animal Farm” reference for extra revolutionary points!
I miss when life was simpler. Comedians were the idealistic losers and business men the bullies in sharp suits. Now, with a financial website encouraging struggling corporations to learn from the world of stand up and a BBC documentary detailing the huge amounts of money comedians can make in corporate bookings, things aren’t so simple. Increasingly, instead of sticking it to the man, comedy is charging it to him instead.
Who can blame big business for trying to take a leaf from comedies notebook? In a climate of collapsing high street chains and stuttering growth, it’s the one industry that seems to be doing well. It also reflects how companies are trying to rebrand themselves; they don’t just want our money anymore, they want our love.
In our public consciousness, the ultimate alpha: the ruthless businessman has been replaced by well meaning good guys in fleeces. Multinationals seem desperate not to be taken seriously; the cheeky loan ads that encourage borrowing on a whim, the matey messages on chain store sandwich wrappers, the banks offering pictures of your dog on your visa cards, presumably to put a brief smile on your face before it’s declined. They’re all designed to do the same thing, make us relax; convince us everything is fine, that they’re on our side. In Goodfellas Joe Pesci, shot a waiter for suggesting he was funny, today he’d probably hire him as a PR. They may not pay corporation tax and they certainly won’t let you visit their factories in China, but have you seen this funny viral they sponsored?
Who can blame comedians either, after years of struggling, from accepting the bone thrown to them from the top table? Anybody seriously thinking that comedy is a quick way to make a fortune is almost endearing in their naivety. It’s like thinking that being an Olympic athlete is an easy way to money because you can melt down your gold medal afterwards. The only way anybody could cope with the scorching rejection, chilling indifference and aching hearts that accompany most comics journeys to success, is a deep obsessive love for the art form itself. While there may be more people getting into comedy, the people who stick at it long enough to actually succeed have to work just as hard, if not more so. The only difference is the way their hard work and talent is being marketed to the public.
Show business has never been able to escape the latter part of its word. The giddy heights of creativity that comedy is capable of can only be reached because it is supported by a steely hearted pyramid scheme. At the bottom are thousands of hopefuls, running new material for barely the cost of their travel home, all investing money, time, hopes and dreams, crossing their fingers and hoping that if they stick at it long enough, they will be one of the privileged few at the top.
The Edinburgh festival is the jewel in the comedy crown but it is also the American subprime mortgage disaster in miniature. Thousands of unknown acts converge on the city every year, spending money they don’t have and betting on what their stock will definitely probably be worth in five years time. Most consider breaking financially even a sign they have hit the big time.
Despite all this, as a comedian I find this merging of two very different worlds deeply unsettling. Stand up should be about challenging power not endorsing it. We are the release valve for a society bombarded with unachievable goals. How can we do that if we are the ones in the ads?
The public is being short-changed if the only comedy it gets is shiny and safe because we do not live in shiny and safe times. It has a right to be angry about what is happening to the world and they deserve comedians willing to storm the barricade with them not cling to safety inside. Comedians happy to join the corporate party to share drinks and tax avoidance tips with the great and good might well live to regret it. After all, when the mob finally press their nose against the glass and look from comedian to businessman and businessman to comedian, they might not being able to tell the difference.