Hello, I’ll be standing in for David Mitchell this week, and Stewart Lee next. I’d like to apologise for this in advance: regular readers of this column have become used to scintillating satire from these two, delivered via crisp, witty prose. What do I have to offer in return? Nothing but grim jeremiads about the dreadful state we’re in – and pretentious, jargon-laden analyses about how we got here. True, I too was once a well-known light entertainer on national television, but in recent years I’ve fallen victim to the worst character trait of the ageing farceur: a desire to be taken … seriously – an inclination that has, quite rightly, coincided with my gently smelly slide down into Stygian obscurity.
Bobbing about down here, I’ve begun to suspect that my status in our septic, MRSA-ridden isle exists in an inverse correlation to that of Her Highness’s current first minister. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that, in search of his destiny as “world king”, Boris Johnson turned to television to build his base, and in particular to the satirical news show Have I Got News for You. Throughout a number of barnstorming appearances, Johnson cemented his reputation as a charming and self-deprecating Old Etonian, whose tousled blond mop nonetheless surmounted a mind like a steel trap. Even at the time, commentators remarked on how bizarre it was that serving politicians were prepared to go on the show and risk being eviscerated by their fellow panellists – however, by perfecting his routine (in Marxist terms, his “praxis”), Johnson enacted the dialectical relation between politics and comedy that has since typified our era.
Yes, think of Johnson not as man but a sort of personified synthesis: one between the high-minded politics of old and the cachinnating prejudices of the new bigots. And, of course, he’s not alone in this – true, comedy was only a sideline for Johnson, but for Italy’s Beppe Grillo, and now Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy, one-liners have become party ones. Then there’s Marjan Šarec, in Slovenia, and Jimmy Morales, in Guatemala, both former comedians who abandoned their shtick in favour of the slapstick of governance. Just how good any of these characters were as comics is debatable – I suppose you had to be there and then, rather than here and now, since none of them has been doing terribly well at the notoriously unfunny business of making life-and-death decisions concerning your fellow human beings.
In the long dark night of my soul, when I’ve failed to surf that wave of illegal melatonin into even the lightest of slumbers, disturbing visions throng my mind: I imagine a summit convened by that prime-time joker-in-chief Donald “the Donald” Trump. Around the polished oval stage in the Oval Office, sit Messrs Johnson, Zelenskiy et al, all rocking and rolling with laughter as they carve the world’s audience up between them. But if superannuated comedians are our new rulers, perhaps we’ve only ourselves to blame? Did we not laugh too readily at their feeble quips, thereby propelling them into office? At this year’s Edinburgh fringe, the funniest joke award went to this one, by the hilariously named comedian Olaf Falafel: “I keep randomly shouting out ‘broccoli’ and ‘cauliflower’ – I think I may have florets.”
Frankly, if I’d been on hand to heckle when Falafel threw up this little ball of wit, I’d have shouted “Fuck you, you fucking shitting wanking fuck, you’re about as funny as fucking fuck-all – what makes people with Tourette’s ripe for your alleged ‘humour’? Are there other disabled folk you’d like to have a go at while you’re up there?” Thereby exhibiting the rank hypocrisy of those of us who aren’t so much woke as utterly insomniac. But even setting the prejudice to one side, Falafel’s joke is a pretty tired bit of punning. Nietzsche quipped that “Wit is the epitaph of an emotion” but, even as epitaphs go, puns are a grave old business.
I do hope Messrs Mitchell and Lee will be using their downtime to re-up on their material – so you can look forward to plenty of hearty chuckles in the autumn, when broccoli and cauliflower become too expensive even for Observer readers. But my suspicion is that they may, in fact, be moonlighting as premiers themselves, while you have to put up with my second-division repartee.
This rather raises the question: what might life be like in a country helmed by a genuinely funny comedian, rather than a farceur who dreams of being taken seriously? In “Leedonia”, I imagine our Führer arriving in his trademark circus car, accompanied by a posse of heavily armed clowns. Speeches would take the form of tightly scripted hour-long rants fusing the surreal, the paranoid and the scatological with such elan (and dog-whistle virtue-signalling) that the poor citizenry would be left undone, having been chafed unmercifully by the rubbing of their urine-soaked clothing against their heaving bellies. What matter that they be empty of food, if they’re filled with guffaws?
As for David Mitchell, with his bearded and bookish mien, it’s not hard to picture him as some sort of nerd-in-chief, earnestly urging his encyclopaedic knowledge on his people. Perhaps, like the one-time dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, Mitchell will write an interminably long book aimed at the spiritual guidance of the people. There’s a huge mechanical statue of the Ruhnama – as it’s called – in Ashgabat, the capital, and, at 8pm every day, this opens mechanically and a passage is read through loudspeakers. But whereas Niyazov mixed together the Qur’an, Sufi poetry and his own wild cosmic speculations, Mitchell’s tome will consist of page after page of unbelievable truths, and the mechanical voice reading them out will be nasal and laconic.
I do hope something like this is actually going on right now – and that, in a fortnight’s time, revitalised, Mitchell’s and Lee’s satiric armies will invade Britain and put paid to its new farceur-among-equals with volleys of perfectly aimed pasquinades. Because, let’s face it, the alternative isn’t funny at all.