The golden rules of conversation: don’t talk about religion or politics. But for years – forever, even – both topics are essential fuel for comedy.
Ricky Gervais has made a career out of the former, while barely any stand-up can have ever completed their time on stage without slipping in a sly a dig at some politician or other. But it seems that Brexit is proving to be comedy kryptonite, according to several comedians.
Marcus Brigstocke has been touring the country with 20 minutes of material on Brexit, but has discovered that it is ‘comedic poison’.
He told BBC Radio 4 that members of his audience had been walking out “every night”.
“People have been angry; people have walked out of shows and people have booed. A lot of the people that I think of as my audience will not be back – they won't come again – they're that angry.”
He added on Facebook: “For the first time ever on tour I have people walking out every night – not hordes, but some. That's unsettling. I have never before dealt with a subject as divisive and upsetting (including passionate criticisms of religion etc). It's a challenge I would usually enjoy but (perhaps because I'm not doing it well enough) it is proving to be a nightmare. It seems that for the most part Brexit is not just the hideous social and political turn we have taken as a country but is also comedic poison.”
He said further on the BBC: “Anger's not great for comedy, it's been good for me but you still have to have nuance. You have to find the line and I've struggled with that. People are more upset about this than anything else I have experienced.”
So what is the issue? It seems to be that comedians, who were predominantly remain – Brigstocke could only think of two or three comics would would admit to being pro-Brexit – have been honing their sets in pro-remain London, but then been faced with Brexit crowds as soon as they leave the capital, who react very differently.
Aaron Brown, editor of the British Comedy Guide, told the Daily Telegraph that the issue could simply stem from lazy assumptions on the part of comedians.
He said: “I consume a lot of comedy – mostly TV, also some live – and would say the comedy world’s reaction has been almost exclusively negative. Many jokes essentially paraphrase as 'shooting ourselves in the foot', and the rest rely on lazily branding 52 per cent of the voters as racist.
“One would have hoped comedians would be able to find comic mileage in their evident disengagement from half of the public, but there instead seems to be little to no such acceptance and analysis of the referendum result, instead merely anger and lashing out at stupid people making the wrong decision, as they see it.
“As far as audience reaction goes, it tends to be fairly warm with television studio audiences as most such recordings take place in the resolutely pro-remain London, but in the rest of the country – England and Wales, at very least – one can only begin to imagine how alienated and offended some audiences must feel.”
Only one person in a room of a hundred at the recent Llandudno Craft of Comedy Festival put their hand up when they were asked if they were pro-Brexit, with sitcom writer James Cary explaining: “I think it's because Brexit is associated with conservatism and patriotism and nationalism and these are things comedians like to play against.
“I think it's led to a really interesting discussion. I think you've got to be very careful about impugning anyone's motives... England and London are very different places. We have to be wary of describing one as a metropolitan elite and likewise seeing people in England backward, nationalistic and patriotic and racist.”
So why don’t comedians simply ignore such a divisive and poisonous issue?
Well, according to Gareth Gwynn, who has worked on Have I Got News For You, the Now Show and the News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, you simply can’t.
“Since June 2016 almost every time you walk in to that writers' room and it's tails it's Trump, heads it's Brexit. It's so big we can't avoid it and the problem is trying to come up with new angles. It's both potentially trying for both the writers and the audience.”
A spokeswoman for comedian Stewart Lee, who has 20 minutes of anti-Brexit material at the start of his show, told The Telegraph that “his career has only been strengthened by Brexit,” but it’s hard to imagine that he would have had many Brexit-supporting fans to start with.
However, perhaps that’s doing him a disservice, since he recently wrote in the Guardian, with substantial self-awareness:
"I realised that, as 52% of the country have voted broadly against the sort of liberal position I predictably espouse, this time around I would have to write jokes that were funny in of themselves, rather than being just mildly amusing statements carried because the sycophantic audience unquestioningly agreed with them.
"This was a whole new area for me, and I relished the challenge."
Furthermore, he argues on Chortle that being anti-Brexit is not in and of itself necessarily an issue, since there will be a healthy amount of Remainers, even in staunchly ‘Leave’ areas who may welcome the chance to hear jokes told which agree with their point of view.
The lessons seem clear: for any comedian hoping to appeal to a cross-section of the UK public, they’re best off either not even mentioning it; not taking a stand at all and lampooning both sides; or – you know – just being really funny.