Return to Website

Number Watch Web Forum

This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.

Number Watch Web Forum
Start a New Topic 
Left-liberal British comedy

In JEB's piece in september 2014 "Meanwhile, back at the BBC", he mentions the left-liberal bias of British 'stand-up' comedians who infest various TV and radio shows:

"The BBC’s reaction to those EU diktats on domestic electrical appliances was to wheel out its “expert”, who laid out a trail of red herrings without addressing the fundamental physical aspects. Roger Harrabin is one of the most determined and ruthless global warming propagandists in the world. He it was who devised the secretive committee to affirm the abandonment by the corporation of any neutrality in the climate debate. This was the so-called Twentyeightgate scandal (and how quickly that was brushed under the carpet!). People wondered at the inclusion of the head of comedy, Jon Plowman, in that group, but comedy is a major repository of the propaganda campaign. One of the proud features of BBC history, now abandoned, is its nursing of talent in comedy writing. Now it relies almost totally on so-called “stand-ups”, who are carefully vetted to conform to the mores of the new corporation rulers. These “comedians” infest populist programmes across the radio and TV network: almost every panel game, quiz or anecdotal programme is populated by permutations of the same group of people. With persistent regularity, the chairman of one will turn up as an ordinary member of the next."

This raises the interesting question of how did these left-liberal comedians turn into the political force, amost like a "fifth estate", that they represent today? Their bias could potentially even have a significant impact on this year's forthcoming UK General Election, as they all tend to be strongly opposed to UKIP.

My theory, which I've had since the 1970s, is that the gradual politicisation of British comedy is mainly to do with university-educated comedians. In the 1970s only a few percent of British comedians were graduates (and at that time they were vitually all from Oxbridge), consisting of people like David Frost, the Private Eye gang, the Monty Python team, the Goodies team, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and this lot did virtually all the political material that you saw in comedy at that time. Another feature of graduate comedians is that they didn't really attempt to represent the full range of political opinion - I can't remember noticing a graduate comedian who was likely to be a grassroots conservative. By contrast the vast majority of comedians in the 1970s were non-graduates who tended not to make jokes with any intentional political content at all, and you could imagine quite a proportion of them being grassroots conservatives.

In the 1980s a new UK public service TV channel started up, Channel 4, and partly to establish its new identity it brought in a new wave of graduate comedians. This new bunch, with Ben Elton at the forefront, became known as the 'alternative comedians' and did stand-up routines based on the more fashionable 'observational comedy' style rather than the traditional joke-telling format, and were even more overtly political than the satire-based graduate comedians of the 1970s.

If I had to guess what proportion of British comedians are graduates in the present day, my guess would be that it could be as high as 50%. However when I tried to find out a more accurate statistic for the current percentage of graduates, I was somewhat shocked by the result - it appears to be more like 80 to 90% of the most influential people in British comedy, with details given on this link:


This comedy website "Such Small Portions" put together a list in 2012 of who they thought were the top 100 most influential people in British comedy - the list actually covers a total of 123 people as some of the 'people' are acts with more than one person in it. Out of the 123, 100 are graduates, 9 are non-graduates and there are 14 of unknown status. Basically British comedy seems to have been gradually turned into a graduate profession, and the BBC will probably have had a lot to do with that. The website figures also blow the persistent myth that most graduate comedians are from Oxbridge, with only 25% of graduate comedians in the present day being from Oxbridge. (25% is still disproportionately high, and is attributed to the influence of Radio 4, but it represents an improvement over the nearly 100% it must have been in the 1970s)

My underestimation of the proportion of graduate comedians in British comedy is probably due to many of them deliberately not trying to behave as though they are particularly educated. This issue is discussed in this blog post from 2012 "Are Britain’s university-educated comedians ready to stop pretending they’re really uneducated proles?"


The statistics on the number of graduates in British comedy suggests to me a solution about what to do with the poltical bias of the TV and radio comedy panel shows. I suspect that these shows have panels consisting almost entirely of graduate comedians. I would suggest limiting the percentage of graduate comedians to maybe 50%, and that might cut the bias down quite a bit. The BBC is supposed to be a public service broadcaster, and it doesn't strike me as being in the spirit of public service broadcasting to have a situation where comedy is dominated by graduates.

Re: Left-liberal British comedy

A good comment. Comedians probably usually slip under the radar because of the more obvious bias in the reporting.
It is notable that the panel shows seem to be always left wing. I am sure Boris is only invited onto Have I got News For you because the others can poke fun at him. Whether Boris turns this to his advantage or not as he possibly intends I am not sure. Is he treated as seriously as a politician as he would like? Possibly the trade off has worked because he is now touted as the next Tory leader.... but that's another subject.

Actually, one of the victims here would seem to be comedy itself because so many of these "comedians" are actually, from my own preferences, rather less than funny.

Re: Left-liberal British comedy

I agree that Boris Johnson probably initially got invited on to HIGNFY (Have I got news for you) just to laugh at him. In recent years they have invited another Conservative MP with some of the characteristics of Boris, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on to HIGNFY probably just to laugh at him as well. The only Conservative MP I can think of who managed to get an easy ride on HIGNFY was the gay MP Alan Duncan. Duncan used to be treated almost as though he was a Lib Dem MP, but after the expenses scandal where it emerged that he was a keen advocate of MPs receiving generous expenses to supplement their income, HIGNFY turned on him and he stopped going on the show.

The Boris Johnson case shows how influential on British politics the HIGNFY programme is. Pretty much on the basis of just a few memorable comedic performances on HIGNFY, Boris has managed to make himself popular enough with the public to get himself elected as the Mayor of London, and has kept Ken Livingstone out of office for years.

But the treatment that UKIP gets from HIGNFY, and from comedy panel shows and stand-up comedians in general, is far worse than what gets dished out to the Conservatives. David Cameron has re-positioned the Conservatives effectively as a Metropolitan Liberal party, and that must have reduced the flak that they receive from the comedians quite a bit.

To give an idea of what UKIP has to put up with from HIGNFY, consider this blog post from the "Is the BBC biased" blog:


The above blog post refers to an episode of HIGNFY where Nigel Farage appeared on the show, a few weeks before UKIP's triumph in the 2014 European elections. HIGNFY seemed to be on a mission to stop UKIP coming first in the elections, with anti-UKIP bias prominent in all the episodes leading up to the election.

Another attack on UKIP from a comedian emerged last week, where Alastair Murray, who performs as a stand-up comedy character called "The Pub Landlord", announced he is going to set up a party and stand against Farage in the forthcoming UK General Election.


Murray is one of the many British graduate comedians who doesn't act like he is one, and he is standing for the Free UK Party (FÙKP) which has an upside down pound sign logo.

I've got a feeling that Murray is going receive a much greater amount of publicity in the next few months than celebrities who stand as candidates in elections normally get. I noticed today that the headline of the online edition of The Independent is an interview with the Pub Landlord.

Re: Left-liberal British comedy

"Actually, one of the victims here would seem to be comedy itself because so many of these "comedians" are actually, from my own preferences, rather less than funny."

I looked around for a list of the UK's current top comedians, and found an article by the Daily Mirror which has a relatively recent list of the UK's twenty highest earning comedians:


A major limitation with the list is that it only includes comedians who have set up their own companies, which results in their finances being visible in the public domain. A lot of comedians, possibly the majority, don't do this. As might be expected, tax dodger comedian Jimmy Carr makes sure his finances are not visible in the public domain.

On the list I would only regard a few as being even mildly amusing. The two frontrunners, Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre, I don't find funny at all - their style seems to me to be a highly observational form of observational comedy, but to their credit they don't seem to do much political material, and I think Kay has never appeared on a comedy panel show. The least funny comedian in the UK (in my opinion) is the man at 19th on the list, Marcus Brigstocke, whose act consists almost entirely of political material. Brigstocke was once described by a radio critic (ironically working for the left wing magazine New Statesman) as being "the unfunniest àrse in the universe".

Another thing you can pick up from that list is that the comedy panel shows are a bit misleading - many people watching these shows might think that comedians like Frankie Boyle, Sean Lock, Jason Manford and Sarah Millican are representative of the hoi polloi, whereas they are actually millionaires.