Luke Toulson: Why are so few comics talking about Scottish Independence?
Political stand-up in the UK doesn't measure up to the US success of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert
This article is from 2014.
This year’s Edinburgh Fringe takes place in the final weeks before the historic vote on Scottish Independence. So why isn’t the Fringe brochure over-flowing with shows tackling the subject?
The simple answer is that the majority of comedy audiences aren’t interested in hearing about politics. The disappointingly low turnout at recent elections shows just how disengaged the public have become, with Westminster in particular.
In 2006 I saw a Bill Hicks DVD for the first time and realised I had to be a stand-up. Never before had I heard someone speak so clearly and hilariously about religion, taking drugs and, in particular, politics. I have always been interested in politics and would love to do more material about it, but whenever I dip my toes into a political routine I can sense large sections of the audience switching off. Sadly stand-up in the UK has drifted towards a form of escapist entertainment rather than a lively forum for challenging ideas.
No one seems to be able to explain adequately why Americans can gorge on the political satire provided by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and our very own John Oliver, while we Brits must nibble at the satire-lite of Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week.
Here is my theory…
The origin of American stand-up is normally traced back to the 1950s and Lenny Bruce, before enjoying a golden era in the 1970s with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld. What followed was a reaction – the brash 1980s stadium-filling stand-up of Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay. The US comedy circuit then suffered a crash in the 1990s with many clubs closing, before climbing back to its current state of health with the aforementioned political satirists, alongside the current greats of world stand-up, Louis CK and Bill Burr.
With the exception of folk-comedians such as Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, the UK’s stand-up scene did not really start till the opening of The Comedy Store in London in 1979, some 25 years after Lenny Bruce re-wrote the comedy rulebook in the nightclubs of New York. If the American stand-up cycle is: taking root (50s); creative peak (70s); over-stretch (80s); crash (90s); and re-birth (2000s), then the UK is somewhere around ‘over-stretch’ and ‘crash’. The live circuit has had its crash but TV appears to still be at over-stretch. Hopefully what will follow in the years to come is a re-birth of politically aware stand-up in the UK. Whether by then the UK still includes Scotland, only time will tell.
But for political stand-up to truly thrive on these shores again, TV must invest in the Fringe’s exciting political comics such as Josie Long and Chris Coltrane, and those tackling the Independence question in particular, such as Erich McElroy and John Oliver’s long-time collaborator Andy Zaltzman. I for one would eagerly tune into 10 O’Clock Live if they were the presenters.
Luke Toulson: Laid-Back Grouch, Cabaret Voltaire, 247 4704, until 23 Aug, 7.35pm, free.