‘People are taking their comedians seriously, and their politicians as a joke,” the late American humorist Will Rogers once mused. Rogers, who rose to prominence in the early 20th century, would keep his performances fresh by poking fun at the political news of the day.
But what happens when the headlines evolve at such a rapid pace that even the comedic art struggles to keep up with them?
That’s what standups preparing for their shows at the Edinburgh festival are grappling with, as they hastily rewrite their acts following the dramatic resignation of Boris Johnson, and the launch of a Tory leadership contest that’s begging to be satirised.
“Throughout my tour of the UK, which has been going on since October 2021, there’s been a new revelation about the government practically every week,” said Josh Berry, whose fictional character Rafe Hubris, an adviser to No 10, became an internet sensation during lockdown.
“You get points for speed as a comedian responding quickly to a heckler, and responding to public issues is governed by the same principle in my experience. Shows like Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You all operate on this premise: being witty about something very shortly after it’s happened.”
The ability to react comedically to political events with speed and efficiency is what is behind the current boom in satire on social media, Berry added. “The less time you take to be funny about something, the more points you get.”
Berry’s Rafe Hubris is a twentysomething Old Etonian and Oxford PPE graduate who finds himself working alongside some of the most powerful and incompetent people in the country. So when the prime minister resigns following years of mounting scandal, there is plenty for him to play around with. Nonetheless, he caveated, the events of the past week have been less laughable than other events he’s poked fun at.
“If you subscribe to (some of) what Chris Morris has to say about satire; that it’s about ‘finding the farce’ of a situation, there is little farcical about a bad prime minister resigning for being a bad prime minister.”
Another comedian making changes to his show is Matt Forde, who will return to Edinburgh with his new standup show, Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right.
“It might sound mad, but I love it,” Forde said. “Something always kicks off just before Edinburgh and it used to really frustrate me, but now I relish it. It gives a show real adrenaline to feature ultra-topical material, often about things that have happened that morning.”
Claire Parry, who plays Boorish Trumpson – a character meshing the worst traits of Johnson and Donald Trump – has already had to rewrite the Brexit section of her show several times since its conception in 2020.
“I’ve accepted there’s a limit to what I can do and am not drastically changing anything … not to say there won’t be a few specific nods to certain moments in our crumbling government’s delightful recent history,” she said.
Meanwhile, for comedians showcasing multiple characters, there’s the slew of new material to be mined in the race to be Johnson’s successor.
Rosie Holt, who came to prominence with her online political parodies of Conservative MPs, is bringing her sketches to a live audience with Rosie Holt: The Woman’s Hour.
Holt was exploring the government’s policies and hypocrisies, “but suddenly half the references felt horribly outdated and had to be scrapped”, she said. “So last week was tense. My backbench MP character is now naturally running for leadership.”
And Angela Barnes, known widely for her appearances on the BBC’s Mock the Week, said the key tweaks she had to make to her show Hot Mess were not about Johnson but rather about Rishi Sunak.
“I’ve only had to make a couple of hasty tweaks – mostly a section about our billionaire chancellor of the exchequer which is now about a billionaire Tory leadership candidate, which may or may not evolve into being about our billionaire prime minister or just a billionaire regular old MP,” she said.
But despite all the stress, the Conservatives had done comedians a “massive favour”, according to Geoff Norcott, who’s been rewriting bits for his show, I Blame the Parents.
“A Tory leadership race is too good an opportunity to pass up,” he said. “New names, nicknames, power stances, skullduggery and the left somehow getting enraged about how diverse the candidates are. There was also the outside chance we could end up with Hunt vs Starmer, which would look like the same bloke in a hall of mirrors.”
July 15, 2022 at 07:35PM Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent