The Times, 24 July 2010

What would Dr Frasier Crane make of a celebrated Republican comic actor promoting a right-wing internet TV channel while starring on Broadway in the gay musical La Cage Aux Folles? Denial? Inner conflict? Sadly, we can't know, for the actor in question is Kelsey Grammer, the man who played Dr Frasier Crane. And he is fronting Right Network, which launches this summer. The channel is only offering a handful of programmes at first, one of which will be Right2Laugh, a comedy show which, according to Grammer, "proves funny people and funny things come from both sides of the aisle". Evan Sayet, the comedian who hosts the show, said there 'weren't many voices for the right values coming from the comedic side'. The conflation of the word 'right' meaning 'correct', and the word 'right' meaning 'right-wing' is intentional: the network bills itself as 'all that's right with the world'.

We'll have to wait and see whether Right2Laugh will be a success, although it will need to do a lot better than the 1/2 Hour News Hour, the last attempt to produce a right-wing satirical show, which premiered on Fox News in 2007. The show received relatively poor viewing figures, and was cancelled the same year. It retains the distinction of being the lowest-rated show ever on Metacritic, a website which collects published reviews and collates their star ratings to give an average score. In this case, the average score was 12%.

With the Edinburgh Fringe Festival about to swing into action for another year, it seems timely to ask if such a programme could be made here. Is it time we had a comedy show which mocks the left and supports the right, instead of the reverse? After all, it's a long time since alternative comedy was assimilated into the mainstream, and its left-wing bias has largely ebbed away. When Alexei Sayle was appearing in Stuff on BBC2 in 1988, he was an unashamed communist. And this wasn't just a trend on the Marxist BBC, either. Over on Channel 4, Ben Elton was ensuring that an entire generation would think of the government in unaffectionate, abbreviated form: Mrs Thatch, Normo Tebbs.

But over time, the things that made alternative comedy distinctive - to its fans and detractors alike - have dissipated. It has merged with the working men's comedy that it once opposed. Our most frequent complaint about TV comedy is not that it's too politically correct, and in too good taste. It's that Frankie Boyle has offended us - again - and something should be done.

But even the comedians that notch up complaints aren't offending us politically: they aren't saying that immigrants should go back where they came from, they aren't calling for welfare bills to be cut, they aren't demanding a smaller state and a pro-business environment. Rather, they offend us (if we choose to take offence) socially, by being rude about the Queen, or Andrew Sachs' grand-daughter, or swimming champions.

Political comedy on this side of the Atlantic lost much of its impetus when Thatcher resigned, and more again when Tony Blair took office. Left-wing comedians still made jokes, but the jokes were about the aspects of the Labour party which seemed most right-wing: the war on terror, ill-considered immigration controls, and Tony Blair's love-love relationship with George Bush. Right-wing comedians didn't suddenly appear to fill the void, hating Blair or Brown the way Ben Elton had hated Thatcher. And since David Cameron took office, comedy has quickly adapted to its natural habitat: hating the poshos in power.

Perhaps it's because stand-up comedy is mostly performed in pubs, arts centres and small theatres, places which have traditionally been embraced by the left. They charge low ticket prices - compared with big theatre shows - and they attract an audience who know they are going for a reasonably cheap night out. I can't imagine a comic walking onstage in any venue I ever played and not getting booed if they'd said they were a Tory. The prevailing assumption in the UK comedy industry is that comedians are left of centre performing to a like-minded audience. Inevitably, that filters onto the TV programmes which feature the same comedians, and the same kind of people in the studio audience.

And it isn't really surprising that comedy leans left, as jokes are almost invariably the mechanism of the powerless. From the irritated Aristophanes and furious Juvenal, via court jesters and music hall clowns, comedians have tended to be the disenfranchised, the weak. They don't worry about high taxes because they don't earn enough for it to matter. They mock those in power precisely because that is all that is left to them.

Although comedians can and do become extremely wealthy, they know that their humour will fail if they lose their low status. Ben Elton simply was funnier when he was an ordinary man: desperate to get a double seat on a train, horrified by the state of public lavatories. Once he was a multi-millionaire, we didn't believe he could speak for us anymore, and the Everyman shtick stopped making us laugh. We wanted him to rail against the things which infuriated us, and he couldn't do that any more, at least not with conviction.

The Right Network is offering itself up as 'pro-America, pro-business'. But it is incredibly hard to make jokes which are pro-anything, which is why comedy and politics are so often uncomfortable bed-fellows. Politics requires you to be both for and against things. If you can't offer positive alternatives to the things you criticise, you aren't going to be a successful politician. But comedy is quite the opposite. It is intrinsically destructive, anti-everything, not pro-anything. Comedians need to know just enough about something to pick it apart. Think about it for too long, care about it too much, and you lose the funny: in other words, you start to take it too seriously.