Just the tonic

It's not always easy to laugh when the world is confronting so many challenges and tragedies, but comedy can be used to subvert prejudice, galvanise activists and even provide hope. Tom Williams finds out how from comedian and activist Chris Coltrane

Tom Williams

Chris Coltrane has a confession to make. He hates politics. "Genuinely, I hate it so much"?, he tells me. "It's so boring. I hate it, and I hate everyone who likes it. Reading about credit default swaps or monetary policy or climate change. I don't understand it. I don't understand any of it."?

It's a startling admission from someone who spends his life standing on a stage trying to get people to laugh, cry and get angry at the state of the world. Someone whom Mark Thomas has described as the future of British political comedy, who cut his teeth as a comic not in dark late-night clubs but inside Barclays banks and Vodafone shops as part of UK Uncut protests.

Chris started out doing 'silly comedy' and would still far rather be emulating his heroes the Mighty Boosh and Harry Hill. But after the Tories came to power in 2010, he started to feel like he was missing an opportunity to talk about things that matter. "The shittier the country got, the more I felt I needed to talk about what's going on"?, he says.

So began what Chris seems to see as a type of community service: making himself read about things he sees as important and telling jokes to inform others who are too busy or too bored to find out more. Chris is constantly scanning the news for new material but admits: "Sometimes you can't make a joke because the point is a bit too sad."? At his London-based comedy night, 'Lolitics', acts have free reign to speak for a minute on a topic they care about without making any jokes at all.

This is a particularly poignant topic as we are talking less than a week after the attacks on Paris killed 130 people. I suggest that there doesn't seem to be much to laugh about in the world at the moment. "I was on stage four days after it happened, and you can't not mention it"?, Chris says. "There's obviously no humour in the fact that the attacks happened, and in the immediate aftermath comedy is impossible because there is only carnage. But slowly people start tweeting and writing their newspaper columns saying you've got to shut the borders and stop the refugees. This lurch to the right is not based on evidence, so it's easy to take down. The comedy comes from looking at the preposterous things people say, highlighting and subverting them."?

Chris concedes that some of his colleagues may use incidents such as the Paris attacks to be shocking and edgy. "My club is there to battle against that sort of comedy"?, he says. Indeed, Chris describes Lolitics as a place for people who don't like normal comedy clubs. Acts are discouraged from bullying members of the audience and jokes involving prejudice or sexual assault are strictly banned.

Chris's shows generally attract an audience that agrees with his politics, and he sees the primary purpose of his jokes as rejuvenating and motivating the left, rather than trying to change people's minds. One of the highlights of his career came after a show in Newcastle. He was approached by a social worker, someone whose job was being made impossible by government cuts, who was being demonised in the media and whom the public didn't trust. "She was about to pack it all in. But she came up to me and said watching my show was like a tonic, it topped her up again and wanted to make her keep on fighting. It was the loveliest compliment."?

This is the second community service Chris provides: "If you are feeling sad, come to me and I'll try and show you it's not hopeless."? It's a service that is much needed in these uncertain times. It's also quite a task for a self-confessed hater of politics and not one that he seems to relish: "I'd much rather everything was just fixed, and then I could talk about time-travelling unicorns or something."?

A few others who are doing politics differently

Making waves

?The North-East based Making Waves choir started life in 2005 when a group of feminists got together to sing songs about gender equality. Later, the choir opened up its membership to everyone and began to tackle a broader range of topics in their songs. The choir currently has 15 members and they write songs cooperatively, usually adapting traditional favourites - so, '10 green bottles' becomes '10 branch libraries' and 'What can we do with the drunken sailor' becomes 'What can we do about global warming'. "They are empowerment songs - they help people to stand up for themselves"?, says Anna Heyman, who has been a member for five years. Making Waves sings at environmental rallies and trade union events as well as the biannual Raise Your Banners and the Street Choirs Festivals, which bring together dozens of choirs from around the UK to perform and share songs.

Pete the Temp

Pete Bearder, aka Pete the Temp, is a musician, poet and educator who has travelled across Europe to share his political poetry and teach people how to write their own. However, he feels most at home yelling into a megaphone at Climate Camp or Occupy London. One of his most memorable performances came at a protest just after the Tories were re-elected in May 2015, when a spontaneous poetry slam developed inside a police kettle near Downing Street: "It opened a space for people to share experiences"?, Pete says. "Many young people were speaking in public for the first time, expressing themselves in a direct way and being part of something exciting."? Pete says that performance artists are a crucial part of any protest movement: "We have the facts but that's not enough - we need to engage the heart as well as the mind, we need imagination, we need to be funny and we need something you can dance to"?, he says.


Best known for 'Photo Op', which showed a grinning Tony Blair taking a selfie against a backdrop of a burning Iraq, KennardPhillipps is a collaboration between artists Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps, who create art in response to war, government and corporate profit. Photo Op has arguably come to define the War in Iraq for many people, and Cat and Peter describe its legacy as showing that "art doesn't have to remain removed, abstract or mysterious to be art"?. They see their work as a "siren call"? that "comes over as a call to action for some, an attack for others"?, adding that "for many it comes as a visible form of solidarity that can bolster an audience's thoughts and feelings about wrongs being done in the world around them"?. Most recently, the duo took over the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh to stage a "visible show of communal resistance"?, including displaying the work of "anyone who wanted to act and vent their frustrations in public through the creative act"?.

BeFrank Theatre Company

Tackling issues from the revolution in Ukraine to charity fundraising on the streets of London, the BeFrank Theatre Company aims to uncover and tell the real life stories of people behind the headlines. Neil Walker, who has been the Company Manager since 2012, says that the company's productions aim to "raise questions and present the information in a way that draws the audience in rather than make them feel like they are being preached to."? The company takes its productions to some unusual settings including performing a play about Wootton Bassett to British forces stationed in Germany. "Because it has such an immediacy to it, you can do things with theatre that you can't do elsewhere"?, says Neil. "People spend hours in the bar afterwards engaging with issues raised."? BeFrank is currently developing new ideas including around the environmental crisis and the Europe referendum.