Too white for comedy? There must be a place at the BBC for future Monty Pythons

"Every one of us fights some battle, not all visible. And there are areas where the pious, reverse discrimination becomes plain potty," writes Libby Purves

Monty Python, Getty, SL

Insulting people for being white, educated, straight, affluent and male is increasingly fashionable now, especially with powerful white blokes on £200k a year. You can argue that this particular bigotry is quite useful when it reminds appointments committees to vary the sex, background and shade of FTSE executives, pay women properly and shake out remnants of racism, sexism, xenophobia, disablism etc in society.

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But it’s hard on those who do get insulted for things they can’t help, and ignores the less visible diversities of family security, personal griefs and troubles. Every one of us fights some battle, not all visible. And there are areas where the pious, reverse discrimination becomes plain potty.

So my heart sank when I saw that BBC comedy boss Shane Allen said that the Monty Python team wouldn’t be commissioned today because “six Oxbridge white blokes” were insufficiently “diverse”.

Is there any spectacle more depressing, more Dad-dance and David Brent, than an artfully stubbled BBC commissioner smugly bigging up his “diversity” cred? Worse still when he is the controller through whom all new comedy must pass. For him the “metropolitan, educated experience” is out, also the “male middle-aged life crisis” (hard luck Hancock and Reggie Perrin). Instead he promised “an authentic Muslim experience”, mental health issues and the all-black Famalam.

John Cleese did remind him that the Pythons included “three grammar-school boys and a poof ” and that the targets of their jokes were mostly men. Indeed, if you want a good takedown of the much-maligned “stale pale male” establishment, look back 50 years at the Pythons’ businessmen, generals, bosses, doctors, sillywalkers and nudge-nudge lechers.

But we all need to laugh, and the idea that we can only be made to do so by people exactly like us is just weird. For the gift of provoking laughter (the main point, even of the most barbed satire) is elusive. It follows no strict social or moral laws. Comedy can be darkly shocking or featherlight joy, intricately clever or deliberately daft, sophisticated or potty, borderline offensive or benign. It’s Wodehouse and Miranda Hart, Victoria Wood and the Goons, Meera Syal and Ken Dodd, Michael Frayn and Shappi Khorsandi, Omid Djalili, Stewart Lee and Alan Bennett. It’s bawdy at working mens’ clubs and Iolanthe at the Coliseum, Les Dawson dissing mothers-in-law and your own mother-in-law with a well-timed putdown.

John Cleese (Getty, EH)
John Cleese (Getty, EH)

Not everyone laughs at all of it, some are offended, but it has no race, tribe, gender or age; whenever that helpless snort or bark of laughter comes, we see the joke of flawed humanity in an unpredictable world. Comedy creeps up on you, bites you on the bum, defies formulae and rules, jumps fences.

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But we are, with the kindest of intentions, building a world of rules and formulae and fences. Even around laughter. And I suspect the Commissioner of Comedy is just virtue-signalling in some internal PC panic. This is after all the man who two years ago announced a “landmark sitcom season” with remakes of old shows, and banged on about comedy being “evergreen” and a “rich legacy”. In his new schedules there is indeed Famalam and Lenny Henry, but also a new Motherland (white, north London women with jobs and ample money for cafés), Ghosts (white couple running a hotel) and a BBC3 thing about white male bloggers. Apparently, funny white guys are OK as long as you pretend to despise them…