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We Can’t All Be Max Bygraves

Trevor Griffiths' 1975 play 'Comedians' took a serious look at what makes us laugh, and why. In a political era where comedians, journalists, and politicians are often the same people, it has something to teach us.

Written in response to Granada’s popular ITV programme The Comedians, featuring Bernard Manning and others telling jokes and anecdotes, often involving racist or sexist stereotypes, Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians remains one of the most powerful dissections of what makes people laugh, and the power dynamics in crafting comedy.

First performed on stage in 1975 and filmed for the BBC’s Play for Today four years later, Comedians is set in an adult education centre in Manchester, where 70-year-old ex-comic Eddie Waters teaches six working-class men how to do stand-up. Waters clashes with local promoter Bert Challenor, as his belief that comedy should tell hard-hitting truths ‘about people, and above all what they want’ contrasts with Challenor’s insistence that ‘we’re servants … [the audience] demand, and we supply’. Waters also clashes with his students: some because they side with Challenor (for which they are ultimately rewarded), and some because they prize their own self-expression above all.

The central confrontation is between Waters and Gethin — the most maverick student, and the one whose style changes most due to Waters’ intervention. When Gethin tells a crude limerick in class, ahead of a showcase performance that evening at a working men’s club, Waters talks about the need to ‘work through laughter, not for it’, quoting Freud on male fears of female sexuality and saying, ‘This joke hates women.’ This annoys some of Waters’ students, who see no problem in indulging prejudices if it proves popular. They laugh at Gethin’s impression of Waters, but Gethin has some affection for his teacher and none for Challenor, mocking the promoter’s pre-performance parting shot that ‘we can’t all be Max Bygraves, but we can try’.

In the pivotal scene, Griffiths places the audience in the club, watching the comics as Challenor and Waters react on the sidelines. The first act, Mick, plays on his Irishness, wringing laughs out of discrimination he experienced in trying to find housing, an approach that Challenor calls ‘patronising’. The second, Sammy, initially challenges the crowd in a similar fashion, joking about enduring antisemitism, but when this doesn’t land, resorts to mocking the Irish, Indians, and ‘Women’s Lib’, ending with racist and homophobic gags.

Next, brothers Phil and Ged’s double-act implodes as Ged, playing a ventriloquist’s dummy, refuses to tell an anti-Pakistani joke, forcing Phil to deliver it under visible duress. George, from Belfast, wins applause for a routine that keeps switching power dynamics, veering from lines about a ‘brilliant Irishman’ or a ‘very honest Jew’ to a grotesque tale about his wife. But as a friend of Griffiths’ put it, in this scene ‘you’re invited to laugh, and then punished for it’, as Gethin comes on in white face-paint, destroying a violin before his violent, alienated one-way conversation with two dummies in evening dress, which inevitably meets with embarrassed silence. Challenor signs Sammy and George, chastising Phil and Ged for their ineptitude and rebuking Gethin for his ‘repulsive’ routine.

Gethin’s act anticipates some later comedy that moved close to performance art, from Frank Sidebottom to Simon Munnery; along with Mick’s use of his own background to explore prejudices, this shows Griffiths’ prescience in seeing how the form might react against the staid, spiteful fare of the mid-1970s. Neither would be a good stylistic model for the twenty-first century, belonging as they do in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, Bill Waters’ reflections on the ramifications and responsibilities of comedy feel more appropriate to our post-alternative times, when stand-ups regularly fraternise with establishment politicians and journalists on panel shows, and programmes like the rebooted Spitting Image take precisely the images that political figures want to project (be it Dominic Cummings as a Machiavellian svengali or Sir Keir Starmer QC as the literal ‘adult in the room’) and market them as satire, to an absolutely moribund effect.

Griffiths’ play feels as essential as it must have in 1975 — perhaps more so, in a time when stand-up comedy is a multi-million pound industry, dominated by people doing low-risk routines about childhood memories or household appliances, left-punching gags from comedians displaying no awareness of their current class position, or the peddling of tired clichés about trans and non-binary identities. The ‘alternative’ comedians that the play anticipated (and perhaps inspired) may have burned out or sold out—and maybe weren’t ever as radical as they thought—but its demand to take humour seriously remains just as relevant.

The form and content of stand-up comedy are equally important: perhaps a return to the club circuit to find new acts who experiment with style and challenge rather than seek to comfort their audiences might just revivify its culture, just as it did in the wake of Comedians’ first performances.