Argumental and the comedy of superiority

Marcus Brigstocke and Rufus Hound talk to spiked about free speech, Bernard Manning and Daily Mail readers.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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‘Stand-up comedy is a bastion of free speech… our job is to say what’s on our mind. Nothing would make me draw the line.’

Comedian Rufus Hound was in defiant form when I spoke to him and his fellow team captain Marcus Brigstocke ahead of the new series of their panel show Argumental, which began last week on the UK channel, Dave. Hound’s strident stance on free speech is understandable given the nature of Argumental. Styled as a no-holds-barred celebration of the ‘art of argument’, the participants contest motions with titles like ‘the credit crunch is no bad thing’, ‘recycling is a waste of time’, and, in the first episode of the new series, ‘Is Will Smith better than Brad Pitt?’. It’s a format that invites outspoken spontaneity. It promises that no lines will remain uncrossed, no sensitivities spared.

And do you know what? As comedy panel shows go, it’s quite funny. Indeed, it’s as quite funny as the comedians involved make it. Hound, with his unfeasibly babyish face disfigured by a rusk-encrusted moustache, is amusingly bombastic; Brigstocke, looking like an Easter Island statue in a smug mood, certainly does enough to lose the crown of ‘unfunniest arse in the universe’, as one commentator recently called him; and even the chair, former BBC reporter and current Jo Brand lookalike John Sergeant, manages to wrestle some humour, albeit base, from the autocue: ‘People say the size of one’s feet reflects the size of one’s penis – that’s why, to save time, I walk into shoe shops with my trousers round my ankles.’

But there’s something missing, something that the semi-unscripted, near-spontaneous format leads you to expect, but which never quite arrives. I’m talking about the unexpected turn of thought, the comic subversion, the challenging of an audience’s preconceptions. Argumental seems just a little too much like a private-school debating competition, a little too self-satisfied for its own good. Lines remain uncrossed. Sensitivities are spared.

Yet, I also wonder if it’s more than that, if the all-too-safe, too-predictable nature of Argumental testifies to a deeper problem – the comedian’s fear of rousing the amassed ranks of the easily offended, and with it, official censure. It’s a fear with plenty of basis: Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s public roasting following their lewd phone call to actor Andrew Sachs; Carol Thatcher’s sacking from the BBC’s One Show following an unguarded comment made in the green room; the lambasting and public telling-off dished out to Radio dj Chris Moyles for making fun of the increasingly camp pop star Will Young. The list goes on. This – the palpable risk of censure – must surely inhibit stand-up comedians?

Brigstocke admitted that ‘there is an atmosphere out there at the moment’. Mentioning what he saw as the media-led pursuit of comedian Billy Connolly for his ‘just get on with it’ comment about kidnapped and soon-to-be-beheaded engineer Ken Bigley in 2004, Brigstocke said that ‘they [the media] are on the lookout for anything to rip you a new arsehole’.

Hound also talked about being aware of the risk entailed in saying certain things. He recalled being on a local radio station and being asked who he would like to put in a ‘sin bin’. When he said ‘Louis Walsh, for crimes against pop music’, the producers expressed concern and asked him: ‘Could you just not put the music industry in there instead?’ He was told that, as far as they were concerned, any public statement that negatively affects the perception of someone is potentially libellous. For a stand-up comedian, for whom the mockery of others is often an essential part of their job, such a prohibition is fatal.

Strangely, though, I didn’t get the impression that either Brigstocke or Hound were actually that inhibited by the fear of censure. In fact, they both seemed confident, combative and more than willing to speak their minds. Where Hound spoke up for free speech, Brigstocke, in an allusion to Sachsgate, rightly slammed the institutional weakness of Ross’ and Brand’s employers: ‘The BBC have not had the spine to say “it’s a joke, grow up”.’

Yet their bullish confidence in the freedom of comedic expression seems to derive, not from an intuitive love of free speech exactly, but from the knowledge that their audience was in on the joke. As they put it, neither of them risked censure because the people that watch Argumental, indeed the people who like their comedy in general, are not the types to kick up a fuss and start a media-friendly lynch mob. In short, the Argumental audience is an educated audience. They’ll watch QI or Have I got News for You because they ‘like a joke’. It’s the wrong audience that is the problem, apparently: the frothing Daily Mail-reading hordes, who, to use Hound’s expression, spend most of their time ‘worrying about immigrants knocking on their doors’.

This is revealing. For all the admirable encomiums to freedom of expression, for all their ‘fuck you’ stridency, both Brigstocke and Hound possess an elite-friendly notion of free speech. They seem to believe that while some are capable of listening to risqué comedy, others are not; they might suffer an allergic reaction. It is this immigrant-fearing, ITV-watching section of society that is the problem. The whiff of liberal disdain for the stupid masses is unmistakeable.

The result is a form of comedy that borders on the insufferably smug, an environmentally friendly, anti-capitalist, consumer-hating micro-culture that massages the egos of those like-minded liberal sorts who share the disdain for those who are not ‘in on the joke’. It is this which leaves shows like Argumental feeling so staunchly conventional. It is unable to challenge the choir because it is too deeply immersed in its songbook.

Predictably, then, comedians like Brigstocke believe themselves to be swimming bravely against the ignorant current. When people like Jeremy Clarkson go on about liberal bias, Brigstocke said, what you have to remember is that ‘his side have won… they’re happy as long as they can still buy a new conservatory’. ‘The actual reality of everyday life’, he continued, ‘is that the right-wingers, the capitalists, have already won’. And Brigstocke, therefore, fancies himself as a kind of rebel. While Brigstocke and Hound’s comedy may, in actuality, be utterly mainstream in its elite prejudices towards vast swathes of the public, its practitioners believe it to be edgy. Feeling embattled, they believe their comedy is a way of kicking against the plebeian pricks. Or stranger still, an attempt to convert them: ‘Marcus is trying to bring people on board to a way of thinking’, Hound said. It’s like a parallel universe, one in which alternative comedy never became mainstream.

Stand-up comedy may well be a bastion of free speech, but, if Brigstocke’s ‘good riddance’ tirade against the late Bernard Manning is anything to go by, it seems that some in its profession are freer than others: ‘I don’t care if he made loads of people roar with laughter, or had a cheeky grin and twinkle in his eye; he dealt in bigotry and there’s no glory in turning out to be good at that’, Brigstocke wrote on 19 June 2007, the day after Manning died. It seems that what’s important for the contemporary stand-up is not whether you are funny, but whose side you are on.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

A new series of Argumental is currently being shown on digital channel Dave. See clip here:

Previously on spiked

Ian Woolley took a critical look at the state of British comedy. Tim Black was critical of Russell Brand’s and Jonathan Ross’s treatment of Manuel, and did not think much of Brand’s football columns. He also praised the self-censoring comedy of Peep Show. Rob Lyons looked at the satire of The Daily Mash. Nathalie Rothschild felt Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation played to the prejudices of the liberal elite. And Niall Crowley asked what the point of satire is if it ignores the new taboos. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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