The Comedy in Protest

Mark Thomas is a legendary figure in British comedy. Combining withering wit with fearless protest he’s managed to spend more than a couple of decades using laughter as a sharp instrument against injustice here and around the world. In the middle of his 100 Acts of Minor Dissent tour he took time to speak to Lacuna about his life, his comedy and what angers him today. The interview is now published in our Insider section.

Perhaps the strongest message Thomas communicates is how we should never forget the artistic quality of comedy in protest. It isn’t simply a matter of making fun of the establishment, corporations, or insensitive bureaucracy. Nor is it about jokes alone. That might well be the easiest part. If laughter is to succeed as a weapon of protest, provoking action against authority, bringing people together in opposition to wrongdoing, then both artistry and artifice is vital. And that takes a deep commitment to know the scope and depth of the targeted injustice and place the comedy within a campaign.

This is what Thomas demonstrates. His comedy of protest shows the extent of his preparation, whether that be walking the barrier separating the West Bank or traveling the world to expose the arms trade. And armed with that knowledge, Thomas constructs his comedy as one element of his response. The show, the book, is not the end but simply the means by which protest can be better pursued. All his work becomes part of a movement carried on outside the theatre and beyond the TV screen and written page.

Of course, humour as a method of protest is nothing new. There’s a long history of satire and parody designed to attack those who abuse power. But one wonders how much space is now available in the mainstream media to allow comic performers to be political in any sustained way. Thomas made his name on Channel 4, but with fears over the future of the licence fee (for the BBC) or advertising income (all other channels) similar opportunities are limited. Are we likely to see another campaigning comedian like Thomas any time soon?

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