MITCH BENN: My political lessons learned from 25 years as a comedian

PUBLISHED: 08:00 20 May 2019

Mitch Benn performs during at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013. He believes there are similar parallels which can be drawn from comedians and politicians trying to attract an audience.  Photo: Scott Campbell/Getty Images

Mitch Benn performs during at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013. He believes there are similar parallels which can be drawn from comedians and politicians trying to attract an audience. Photo: Scott Campbell/Getty Images

2013 Scott Campbell

MITCH BENN discusses the parallels between comedians and politicians attracting an audience.

As regular readers will know (and as irregular readers won't, I imagine, be particularly surprised to discover), this isn't my day job.

I've mentioned on a number of occasions that in my primary occupation I've been toiling away on the lower slopes of the British stand-up comedy circuit for more than 20 years now.

In fact, just as I typed that, it dawned on me that while I first dabbled in stand-up in 1991 at the age of 21, I started pursuing it as a 'career' some three years later, in 1994, so I'm coming up on my Sliver Jubilee in the business. Wow. That's the sort of realisation which leaves you unsure as to whether you want to throw a party or jump off a bridge. I might need a moment.

Ok, I'm good.

Sustaining one's enthusiasm for this line of work when your career hasn't taken any noticeable leaps forward for years is about as taxing as you'd imagine it to be; I'm a little bleary today as I was drawn into a Facebook Messenger conversation late last night with a comedy pal of many years' standing who was bemoaning having just done what they considered to be a ropey gig with at least one television producer in the audience.

I replied that the mere presence of said producer was a sign that something must be going right; I couldn't get any TV producers to come and see me even if I were holding their kids hostage.

Nonetheless, you can give yourself a little poke in the ribs every now and then; I recently came up with a brand new opening 'bit' which has so reinvigorated my club set that I find I'm equal parts excited and annoyed that I didn't think of it decades ago. If there's one thing I've learned in my quarter century (shudder) on the circuit it's this: the audience is never wrong.

They can be the wrong audience; you can, as on many occasions I have, find yourself in front of a crowd that's irretrievably ill-suited to your brand of comedy. But the audience is never mistaken; it's never in error with regard to how well you're doing.

You might believe with all your heart that they should be finding you funny, but if they're not, then in that moment at least, you're not funny.

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It's always the job of the comedian to make the audience laugh, and never the job of the audience to find the comedian funny. The responsibility for making the gig work always lies with us rather than them.

This is why I've often been suspicious of self-consciously 'dark' humour; it feels like a way of shifting that responsibility onto the crowd. As in... 'if they don't laugh, then it's their fault for being a bunch of wimps and prudes'. It's not; it's the comedian's fault for forgetting to be funny. Dark and funny is okay - it can be wonderful - dark instead of funny is a cop out.

I've been reminded of this truth over the last few days, looking at the latest polling data and the furious reactions of both Conservative and (especially) Labour politicians and pundits to their parties' plummeting numbers.

For far too long the 'Big Two' have been smugly confident of their entitlement to the support of about 40% each of the electorate, dismissing the misgivings of anyone nominally on their side of the political spectrum with: "Well who are you going to vote for? Labour/the Tories?!" (delete as applicable).

Now their supporters are deserting them in droves and the reaction is not "What are we doing wrong?" but (again, especially in Labour's case) "How dare they?"

Just as it's never the audience's responsibility to find a comedian amusing, it's not the voters' responsibility to support a political party. Any political party. It's the party's responsibility to win their support.

If a party's leadership finds itself at odds with its own support base (or indeed, membership) on an issue of national importance, it has a choice; it can stick to its guns or it can bend. One might consider sticking to its guns to be the more honourable approach but if that's the path taken, the party leaders can't be surprised or outraged if their supporters (or indeed members) start taking their votes elsewhere. What the party leadership can't, or at least really shouldn't, do, is start berating those supporters for being lightweights and demanding that they carry on voting for the party regardless.

This is not a two party state. It's not even a Two Big Parties And A Bunch Of Little Ones state. It's a representative democracy in which people are entitled to vote (or not) for whomever they choose, whether or not that's the 'big' party of their political 'side'; whether or not it's the party for which their family has voted for generations.

And sometimes, even a 'big' political party simply runs out of gas (or rather, relevance). You don't hear much about the Whigs any more. And if either of the 'Big Two' think they're immune to this process of political natural selection, they need only consider the fate of the Scottish Labour Party.

Nobody is entitled to your vote. Make them earn it.

Resist.

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