It was the British Comedy Awards this past week. Jack Whitehall again won the title: 'King of Comedy' and, the same evening, 'Mrs Brown's Boys' received a special honour from the Writer's Guild of Great Britain. This is the same 'Mrs Brown's Boy's' which is routinely described as the worst TV comedy ever, not just by critics in the UK but critics in its home country of Ireland.
The contrast is a strange one but probably rooted in the spasm of the old class war we seem to be experiencing at the moment where there are (generally) only two types of comedian.
If you're working class, you have to conform to a stereotype of the rough diamond, the 'cheeky chappie', or the uneducated buffoon. You live by your wits and your comedy is generally perceived as being that of the gifted savant. Wisdom in the mouth of fools. It's the comedy (with varying degrees of emphasis) of Johnny Vegas, Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Jonathan Ross, Sean Locke, Ross Noble, Phil Jupitus, Joe Wilkinson, Rhoad Gilbert, Greg Davies, Sarah Millican and even the woeful Henning Wehn.
If you're middle or upper class, you're allowed to be eloquent and smart. It's Noel Coward sipping a martini while issuing the clever bon mot. It's the territory of David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Jack Whitehall, Jimmy Carr, Miranda, Miles Jupp, Marcus Brigstocke, Russell Howard, Michael McIntye, Alexander Armstrong.
Perhaps the class war never went away, though for a brief spell, alternative comedy did seem to offer a chance for everybody to be eloquent and witty or to simply play the fool. It began, I guess, with 'Not The Nine O'Clock News' and the good times lasted, I'd argue, until the end of 'The Fast Show'. Since then, things have settled into a predictable routine.
Stewart Lee is one of the few comedians who doesn't seem to conform to one of the stereotypes. There are others: Dave Gorman, the great but banned Jerry Sadowitz (I guess he wouldn't play their game), Richard Herring, Frankie Boyle (though the BBC tried to tame him and make him one of the cheeky ones), Bill Bailey, Mark Thomas, Mark Steele, Frank Skinner, Jon Richardson... I'm not entirely sure what class Lee is but perhaps that's why he doesn't quite fit into the predictable circle of friends at the BBC. And that's the problem. The BBC is the problem. Its comedy output feels like it's being decided by managerial types, inculcated with safe metropolitan middle class values, who this week run comedy and next week could be running sports or Tesco or the Post Office.
I never, myself, thought of things in terms of 'class war' yet experience has taught me a few hard lessons. At university, I never gave much mind to Marxist reading of texts. I saw myself as a closer reader, a disciple of William Empson. I now see that the country is deeply divided by class and that there is a big difference being born in the north and born in the south. I read this past week that Manchester has had its spending cut by £300 per head. In Surrey, they've had a £10 raise. I would normally try to tell myself that it's a freak of statistics but when you see George Osbourne's advisor having his pay raised by 18%, you have to question what kind of country we live in.
The answer, of course, is a deeply indifferent one. Maybe Marx had a few things right. The government can do what they do. So long as 'Mrs Brown's Boys' is on TV, everybody is happy. Unthinking comedy for an unthinking audience. Comedy is soma for an politically neutered age.