Being a comedian these days has become a hazardous occupation. I looked up my friend’s show the other day and it just said “Cancelled”. I couldn’t tell if they had said something stupid or if it just wasn’t on.
Sometimes, in these turbulent times, I think back to the days when I was writing and performing on Irish Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ. For those too young to remember, it was a weekly TV show that satirised politics and media through sketches. I played Ursula McCarthy, an RTÉ reporter who delivered diplomatically written accounts of madcap courtroom scenes. People still send me newspaper articles of similar real-life situations which usually prove the point that, if anything, in our writing of the scripts, we were too tame.
God, doesn’t it feel like such a long time ago though? Since IPW aired, politics and media are pretty much unrecognisable. We have seen a Trump presidency, Brexit, the election of authoritarian leaders across the world, cyberterrorism, fake news, culture wars, and even open unabashed Nazi-ism. Faith in political institutions is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. The idea of a political and financial class whose worst vice is to syphon off a few quid for themselves seems positively quaint now.
Comedy has played a part in the trouble that has befallen the world. In many cases, humour has been used as a means to advance the agenda of anti-democratic forces in society. The satirical panel show Have I Got News For You? was used by Boris Johnson to hone his bumbling fool persona. The Apprentice allowed election-results denier Donald Trump to force his powerful brand of a gauche, wealthy, hard man into US homes. Many of the loudest sources of facetious talking points and misinformation now are former comedians — and they’re not in that position because of how well their comedy careers were going.
It pains me to admit it but comedy can be a gateway drug for non-democracy. Comedy and satire done badly have the potential to not only fail at holding power to account but worse, reinforce that power.
There are shows that get it right. Andy Zaltzman, the presenter of the News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, is a shining beacon of political commentary done well. He’s successful because he acknowledges the complexity and intelligence of people who disagree with him. Many of his peers, especially on US TV, act like theirs is the only logical opinion to be held. For the comedian, the smug, entitled know-it-all isn’t a good look.
At least they’re trying though. I have colleagues who respond to criticism by ridiculing dissenting voices for nothing more than daring to object. They cast audience members who take offence at jokes as thin-skinned and whiny. “But it’s comedy!” these comedians yell, pointing to the sign above the stage as if that absolves them of all responsibility. Are they naive enough to expect audience members to be able to switch off their emotional faculties when they enter a venue? Or do they want them to just shut up? Drowning voices out sounds a lot like exactly what they say is happening to them.
Like many others, I have been following the fortunes of the Ukrainian president and former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While other comedians are moaning about political correctness and cancel culture, he’s gone on to lead his country against an aggressor who may well not let him live. That feels like a pretty strong commitment to democracy to me.
And because we can’t all run for president, then the least I can do is take a leaf out of his book. For me, his sacrifice makes accountability less scary. I’m not signing up to some standard of purity that binds me to never again hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s only reaffirming my commitment to being willing to listen and engage in a process of self-reflection. Who knows? I might even find after that process that my critics were wrong. That would feel pretty good. I might even allow myself a cheeky Instagram Live. There I’d be, thanking my supporters while simultaneously asking people to respect my privacy and all the while blaring Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ at full volume.
In any case, comedy has always adapted to shifting values in society and it can now too. And listening to someone whose perspective is different to yours can’t be as scary as defending your country in a war.
- Eleanor Tiernan is a comedian, writer, and actress, she stars in Holding, soon be broadcast on Virgin Media Television