Different Times: A History of British Comedy 
David Stubbs 
Faber & Faber, £20

THE British sense of humour. We pride ourselves on it. We’re funny people, right? And that’s good … isn’t it?
After reading David Stubbs’s new book, Different Times: A History of British Comedy, you might not be so sure. Early on, Stubbs – a skilled, seasoned social commentator – uses Boris Johnson as proof that our national obsession with comedy might have a dark side. Johnson, Stubbs says, “is an indictment of the British overemphasis on humour”. 
Being “funny” helped Johnson to power. Too many of us take little seriously. Witness those “experts” dispatched during Brexit. If everything is funny, then what’s worthy of serious debate? Is that why we’re in this mess?
Terry Thomas, the cad, once told Pablo Picasso: “Can I’ve a word in your eye?” A great line, but is that the best you’ve got when you meet genius?
Tied to Stubbs’s deconstruction of our national sense of humour is the notion that British comedy for most of the 20th century “wasn’t about the human condition, but the white male condition”. 
Laughter may be our national pastime, but traditionally we’ve viewed the world very narrowly when it comes to comedy. We’re not known for jokes about empire, are we? This, Stubbs believes, made us “inclined toward a sense of national superiority”.
Only when British comedians made it in America did our more egalitarian side emerge: Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel as the little guys of the Great Depression struggling against failure.
After the Second World War, Britain tried to keep its sense of humour intact amid a collapse in status. Step forward the inimitable Ealing comedies, subversively playing with and against class, as Labour’s reforming government built the welfare state. Consider Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps Ealing’s best: it both harks back to halcyon days of empire, while simultaneously killing off every character who represents that “imperial class”.
Ealing was clever. Come the 1960s, its days were done. It was time for the Carry On team to take the comedy torch – a series of films we think of as one daft sex romp. But Stubbs feels differently. The movies were, he believes, rather reactionary. Equality is mocked consistently: uppity trade unionists in At Your Convenience, demanding peasants in Don’t Lose Your Head. Women are sex objects or battle axes, the working class are thick. Empire is a blast in Up the Khyber, and our most bloodthirsty wife-murdering monarch is a loveable scamp in Carry On Henry.
As a child of the 1970s, who adores Carry On Screaming, this chapter somewhat depressed me. Though, it’s hard to actually disagree with Stubbs, who notes that the rise of The Sun newspaper and Carry On films went hand-in-hand.
We also forget that many of our “progressive” counter-cultural comedy heroes were pretty vile. Spike Milligan revelled in racism like a pig in mud. Yet he effectively created alternative comedy. No Milligan, no Monty Python.
Peter Cook is the satirist who savaged the Tories, but he was happy to vote for them through pure greedy economic self-interest. It was Cook who once said, mocking those much poorer than himself: “People ask how I can be working class and vote Tory. The answer is ‘I’m a stupid c**t’.” 
Private Eye was intensely homophobic and sexist at first. Satire was the reserve of the wealthy male: one set of posh boys mocking another.
Very little comedy from the past stands the test of time. Even the most anti-woke would surely cringe at the racism of Love Thy Neighbour, or the ridiculous stereotyping of gay men in Are You Being Served?
However, a few old sitcoms still pull in viewers: Dad’s Army and The Good Life. Why? Because they aren’t seen as “nasty” through today’s eyes. There’s no cruel stereotyping or punching down.
Britain’s relentless “unseriousness” seems tied to comedy from the right. Les Dawson, Eric and Ernie, Bob Monkhouse, Doddie, Tarbie: all proud Tories. They set the national mood to one of : “You have to laugh, don’t you?” Well, no, you don’t always have to laugh, Stubbs feels. Not everything is funny all the time. Much comedy “reinforced piss poor Conservatism”, often of an English stripe: mocking the Irish, Scots and Welsh, as much as the French and Germans.
The working class finally got a look-in come the 1970s, with Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads. But these were stories of failed men, like the emasculated Frank Spencer. The working class never really got to show their mettle. Citizen Smith was a long laugh at what would now be called “woke”. The fact that Jim Davidson ruled the airwaves showed “the w***ers had won”, Stubbs says.
But matters were changing. Agony, with Maureen Lipman, provided the first intelligent depiction of gay men. And then – bang! – the reaction against Thatcherism spilled over into comedy and it was out with the old and in with the alternative. Comedy became overtly political for the first time as it leaned left.
Unfortunately, a lot of alternative comedy was like listening to a hectoring rant by Rick from the Young Ones. It wasn’t funny. Yet, come the 1990s, that overbearing tone vanished, along with stereotypes and bigotry. The alternative scene had done its work and died away leaving a comedy that felt open, inclusive and “weightless”: think of Vic and Bob, comedy for comedy’s sake, with no victim as punchline. Think of all the black and brown faces now making us laugh, rather than Black and White Minstrels; think of Rosie Jones, a superstar stand-up with cerebral palsy, unimaginable until recently.
Some cruelty and punching down remains in comedy, which the likes of Ricky Gervais mine well. But today, comedy has become “kind”, Stubbs claims. Take Derry Girls. Unquestionably one of the funniest, most original comedies of the last 20 years. Stereotypes? None, apart from the Irish laughing at themselves. Punching down? No. Bigotry? Well, bigotry is the victim of Derry Girls. No racism, homophobia, sexism or hate. Women in charge. And it had heart in spades. It’s the reverse of the Boris Johnson-style “banter” still lingering on. Comedy went from “white bloke” to “woke” and rather than suffering, it’s improved.
If Stubbs is correct, it may finally be true that we can be proud of our sense of humour. Perhaps, comedy today is all that remains great about Britain?