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Comedy politicians

Medicine Balls

Phil Hammond

Friday, 09 August 2019

AdobeStock_111306588_PH-blog.jpgHere I am at the Edinburgh Fringe, just 29 years after my debut with Tony Gardner in Struck Off and Die. So what’s changed? There are more comedians than you could ever imagine, partly because the rewards for success are substantial. If you have some good stories to tell that ring bells with your audiences, you can launch a very lucrative career provided the stories don’t dry up. The starting point is usually the ‘shit happens’ moments in your life. Comedy is that rarest of careers where you can relish an unpleasant experience because you can turn it into ten minutes of comedy gold. The trouble is, if you are successful then the trappings of success take you away from the gritty reality that gave you your material. Many comics have one or two really good shows in them before struggling to find more.

I’ve managed to stay resolutely in mid-table of the minor comedian league for 29 years by ploughing the groove of the funny doctor, whilst continuing to work in the NHS. Most funny doctors give up the day job (Jonathan Miller, Graeme Garden, Graham Chapman, Harry Hill, Adam Kay, Liam Fox) but I need the material and I actually love working in the NHS part-time. I also have some of the highest patient satisfaction ratings my appraiser has ever seen, thanks to the genius of my consultant who allows me 90-minute appointments to try to help young people and their families struggling with severe fatigue. 90 minutes!

This year, I’ve gone a little off-piste. I’m doing one show called the Great Health Con, which explores how (and why) we spend trillions pursuing ‘health’ without understanding what it means. My other show, Vote Dr Phil?, is helping me get my head round whether I should stand against my MP Jacob Rees-Mogg at the next election as an independent candidate promoting intelligent kindness and health for all as the driving forces in politics. The best chance of beating Rees-Mogg would be a progressive alliance around a single candidate, but our politics is so riven with tribal distrust, most parties would rather lose individually than win collectively. So my plan B is to stand as a Conservative against no deal. I’ve never been a member of the Tory party but Philip Hammond is a very Tory name, and if I stand to the left of the party with Farage’s mob on the right, then Rees-Mogg might get squeezed out.

Perhaps the biggest change at the Fringe has been the plethora of proper politicians now promoting themselves in shows like (I jest not) “Rock and Roll Politics”. Politics was famously described as show business for ugly people, and they’re desperate to get up on stage and tell us how it’s all going horribly wrong, but without the jokes. Comedy and politics have a lot in common. Comedians tell lies for laughs, politicians tell lies for power. Comedians may start of telling a true story but, like and oyster takes a grain of sand and polishes it into a pearl, a comedian will embellish a story for maximum comic effect. Audiences accept this, because they’ve paid to be entertained.

We should be less tolerant of lying politicians, because our safety and wellbeing depend on them getting to grips with reality, but we’re now in the absurd situation where we have a right-wing comedian in charge on either side of the Atlantic. Trump may be a very bad man, but many of his supporters find him riotously funny. Likewise, Boris Johnson uses all the tricks of a comedian. Search out Jeremy Vine’s account of seeing him perform a chaotic, shambolic error-strewn after-dinner speech that brought the house down. And then delivering precisely the same speech with precisely the same errors and misdirection a few months later. My Countdown friend Suzy Dent was at a dinner where he turned up late in a cycle helmet and clips complaining about being held up behind a bus. She then spotted his car keys. Surely he hadn’t driven to the gig and then pretended he’d cycled?

I’ve met Johnson twice, both on Have I Got News for You. In 2005, I asked him if he’d ever snorted cocaine and he said ‘I did, but I sneezed and it all came out and it had no effect on me at all and it could have been icing sugar, and it was a very silly, bad thing to do.’ He made it into a big comic performance but my guess was it was entirely pre-rehearsed and thought through. The story was big news because Cameron had been asked the same question. Johnson did the Bill Clinton response (‘I smoked cannabis but I didn’t inhale’) but in a comic way that took the edge off and allowed him to escape unscathed when Michael Gove was nearly destroyed by cocaine revelations in the recent leadership race.

None of this surprises me as a comedian. What does surprise me is that we no longer seem to reward or value the truth in public life. NHS whistle-blowers are still being taken round the back of the hospital and shot, when they should be paraded as heroes. And politicians can lie with impunity and make it to the very top. What message does that send to our kids on how to get ahead in life? If people want to earn a living out of lying, they should stick to comedy… 

Dr Phil is at the Edinburgh Fringe until August 25.

Author's Image

Phil Hammond

Phil Hammond is an NHS doctor, journalist, author, broadcaster, speaker and comedian. He qualified in 1987 and worked part time in general practice for over 20 years. For the past seven years he has worked in a specialist NHS team for young people with chronic fatigue. He presented five series of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor on BBC2, encouraging patients to be more involved, assertive and questioning. Phil is Private Eye’s medical correspondent; in 2012, he was shortlisted with Andrew Bousfield for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for ‘Shoot the Messenger’, an investigation into the shocking treatment of NHS whistleblowers. In 2013 and 2014, he was judged to be one of the top 100 clinical leaders in the NHS by the Health Service Journal. As a comedian, Phil was half of the award-winning double-act Struck Off and Die, with Tony Gardner. He has done five solo UK tours, appeared on several TV shows, and has written five books.
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