I was really struck by writer and socio-political commentator George Monbiot’s reflections on the latest episode of Frankie Boyle’s political comedy BBC show “New World Order”. Discussing the need to take urgent action on climate change, Monbiot brought the show’s panel and audience to a respectful silence by arguing that our current, timid approach to tackling the issue is largely “micro-consumerist bollocks”.
Rather than trying to advance more substantial policy, Monbiot argues that we need no less than a radical overthrow of capitalist mechanisms to really deal with the issue, saying that “we have to go straight to the heart of capitalism, and overthrow it.” After a powerful applause from the audience, Monbiot self-deprecatingly quips to Boyle, “You told me this was going to be a comedy programme?” Boyle responds, “No, [the audience are] used to…the calls for revolution on this show. [Laughter.]” Shortly after, Monbiot retweeted a clipping of this moment on his Twitter page, commenting that “On @frankieboyle‘s New World Order last night, I argued that preventing #climatebreakdown means overthrowing capitalism. I don’t think there’s any other BBC programme that would allow this.”
I found Monbiot’s comments striking at demarcating the often unique potency of political comic formats in comparison to other forms of cultural discussion and commentary. For a start, Boyle’s work on New World Order is unashamedly left-wing, which is remarkable for a British political culture that is often unapologetic in its neglect of left-wing commentaries and voices. Boyle’s polished, professional comic reputation makes him ideal for such a cultural experiment, with his stand-up style characterised by a unique hybrid of classic one-liner rhythms but one combined with ferocious, satirical punchlines. Furthermore, his panel sessions often provoke intelligent, generous commentaries that go into great detail as to how to combat a range of issues in British life. However, in one technique he employs that really demonstrates the uniqueness of performing through a comic format, Boyle is able to project left-wing critiques with real confidence by often playing between fictional and non-fictional elements of modern life. This is exemplified when in one episode, he launches into a brilliant, ruthless impersonation of the ex-UKIP leader Paul Nuttal, and the party’s vicious, right-wing ideology:
For an entertainer to be able to impersonate a political official in this manner is entirely unique in British culture. Reflecting on his opening monologues on the show, he is able to deliver brilliantly critical take-downs on the sclerotic corruptness of British politics and the failures of institutional power, sometimes by elevating his takes on modern life to grim, apocalyptic levels. However, this is tempered in other examples. In the latest, aforementioned episode, Boyle asks his audience why people seem to expect moral standards from the Conservative Party when so many of the political representatives of the party were raised in “the hierarchical sodomy” of British, upper-class boarding school culture. This depiction of the Conservative Party in particular, often through employing references about upper-class life, is brilliantly merciless in a way that would just not be allowed on any other form of programming. It is reminiscent of Henrik Skov Nielsen, James Phelan’s and Richard Walsh’s article, “Ten Theses about Fictionality” (2015), in which they highlight how comedy’s use of “fictive and nonfictive discourse” allows a suspension of actualities and exploration of alternatives.[i] Few better examples of this can be found than in “New World Order.” Rather than going for cheap laughs, the rich set-ups and merciless punchlines of Boyle’s material ensure that its perspectives stick around long after in the audience’s mind, often by playing with scenarios that seem unreal and beyond the accepted discourse of modern news.
I also feel that because of the intermediary status of shows like “New World Order”, it is able to be quite radical because the exact nature of its format is very hard to place. Because political comic formats exist as an intermediary between the sterile, brutal pragmatism of standard news commentaries and the cheery, largely apolitical nature of British entertainment, they provide gaps in our normal cultural and political diet that no other show could do without being accused of propagandising and being biased. In examples such as Boyle’s consistently furious opening monologues, they exemplify how the concessions given to political comedy are the reason it is able to go further than most other shows. While of course Boyle’s “New World Order” can be (and has been) criticised as left-wing propaganda, the comical nature of the show makes it harder for people to critique it without being seen as out-of-touch Victorian sticks-in-the-mud. Another reason it is often so protected from rejoinders is because, again, it fits between a variety of definitions, and therefore, standard channels of responsibility and criticism. In Don Waisanen’s superb communication theory on presidential joking, he argues that the reason political officials like President Obama were able to mercilessly mock Republican officials and left-wing critics at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was because, while performing stand-up comedy, he was able to toy with “alternative frames” of reality and rhetoric.[ii] It’s also the reason that so many of his critics found it hard to respond to Obama’s stand-up, where while he often satirised their perspectives, by planting his responses in comical territory, he made it harder for people to respond to them without looking ridiculous. Boyle adopts the same strategy at his disposal in “New World Order”, making him the envy of so many left-wing commentators and the ire of so many right-wingers.
Reflecting on this, it’s easy to see how commentators and fellow performers might be envious of Boyle’s standing as a left-wing political comedian. The insurances of a political comedy medium on a mainstream network such as the BBC provide a considerable range of advantages that most budding, left-wing activists can only dream of. And the rich writing style of his social and political commentaries enable him to do this without making the mistakes that other satirists and political comedians often make by reducing and simplifying complex issues with smug, self-aggrandising punchlines. Boyle’s writing does lean towards simplism, but in a more complex, compassionate way that really demonstrates the profound consideration behind the punchlines. Reflecting on the monologue (posted above) on Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S President Donald Trump, Boyle’s intensely moral, kind-hearted nature really comes to the fore with his intelligent, acerbic critique – his own comic call for action. Within his apocalyptic readings of modern politics, he radiates a strong, personal sincerity in his wish to re-calibrate the intensely conservative ideology of so much of British politics, culture and entertainment through his comic voice. For that alone, Boyle deserves far more credit than he is often given, but his spectacular work on “New World Order” is a stunning testament to the powerful mechanisms of political comedy in a country starved of sharp, moral, left-wing commentaries.
[i] Nielsen, Henrik Skov, Phelan, James & Walsh, Richard, “Ten Theses about Fictionality”. Narrative, Vol. 23, No.1 (January 2015), p.62. Available online via Project Muse. Web. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/563646.
[ii] Waisanen, Don, “Comedian-in-Chief: Presidential Jokes as Enthymematic Crisis Rhetoric”. Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 45, Issue 2 (June 2015), p.351. Available online via Wiley Online Library. Web. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/psq.12190/abstract.