Fighting Thatcher with comedy: What to do when there is no alternative

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Abstract This article offers a history of British alternative comedy as a case study of political challenge and opposition in the 1980s and considers the role of humor in political campaigning more broadly. It explores left-wing thinking on culture as a potential political weapon, and questions how this informed the development and impact of alter- native comedy as a genre. The article observes that pioneering alternative comedians went some way to change British comedy values and inform political discussions. However, it also argues that the complex operation of jokes and the tendency of comedians to become “incorporated” within the political and cultural mainstream ensured that the impacts of radical alternative material were limited and ambiguous. It contends that the practice of alternative comedy was undermined by business and political values that were often influenced by Thatcherism, and that alternative comedians mostly failed to capture the imaginations of working-class Britons. These communities retained instead an affection for more traditional, differently rebellious, comedic voices. Ultimately, this article frames alternative comedy within a longer history of radical humor, drawing out broader lessons concerning the revolutionary potential of jokes and the relationship between comedians, their audiences, and politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)374-397
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of British Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2016


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