We are not amused

During the First World War, while millions were sacrificed to the great god of profit, there was a popular song advising workers to ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and Smile! Smile! Smile!’ Presumably the assumption was that it’s better to be slaughtered with a smile on your face than without. These days the radio disc jockeys persistently urge us to keep a smile on our face whatever happens. Famine, war, unemployment, insecurity, the maxim of the entertainers is, ‘You’ve got to look on the bright side’.


We might conclude that these people are natural optimists. A more down to earth assessment is that they must be bloody mad to expect us to smile in the face of the horror of capitalism. In fact, neither is the case. The entertainments industry, just like all others under capitalism, exists simply to make profits by selling commodities on the market. They sell the alleged talent of the comedians, the film stars, the rock singers, the clowns, the strippers. When any of these fail to pull in a paying audience they are no longer put on display.


Most workers enjoy being entertained. Some like TV situation comedies, others the old music hall comics; some like Coronation Street, others prefer modern drama in trendy pubs; some like looking at modern art, others are keener on staring at undressed tarts; some kid themselves that they’re cultured, others watch Bruce Forsyth. These are all mass consumption arts and they all speak with one voice, saying, “Don’t participate, observe; don’t think, be thought for; don’t do, accept.” It would be a crude assessment to say that all entertainment is simply a process of conditioning. But to say that to be entertained can be a passive act is both a truism and a statement of significance. It means that you are accepting someone else’s values and, as those values are only put before a mass audience by courtesy of a class whose interest is hostile to yours, those values will be hostile to yours.


Let’s take an example of the average TV comedy programme. What does it ask us to laugh about? Those who do not conform to the social norms are portrayed as idiots. Women must be either sexy—cue for jokes about large breasts—or sexless—cue for jokes about small breasts. Pakistanis are to be made fun of because they don’t all have accents like Angela Rippon. Drunks are jolly old chaps who never have broken homes. Homosexuals are all limp-wristed men in drag. And as for the Irish—well, they’re a right old laugh. Caricatures, smears and insults are what the establishment expect us to find amusing. Why don’t we have jokes about bosses exploiting workers, about police beating people up, about members of the Royal Family having it away with unsuccessful rock singers, about vicars molesting little children? Would the privileged class be laughing so loud if that were the case? In the mid-1960s satire programmes came on the scene. It did not take long for the ‘authorities’ to decide that the joke had gone too far; better confine themselves to laughing at the workers.


Most of what they call comedy is simply unfunny. A TV critic once described the ‘comedy’ double-act Little and Large as having a little amount of talent and a large amount of nerve. ‘Funny’ routines are repeated over and over again. Taped laughter is played to inform us when a joke has occurred. One critic went so far as to suggest that TV comedy shows are all written by computers. But they’re written by real people, sitting day after day in little rooms making up witless stories and laughing at their own humour.


Entertainment is not for the happiness of the majority, but for the profit of the minority. As we smile in complacency, they grow rich. So next time you laugh yourself silly over a man slipping on a banana skin or a fat lady wobbling her bum or an Irishman smoking an exploding cigar, think twice; the joke is on you.


Steve Coleman