Why Ben Elton is proudly politically correct
As one of the comedians most associated with the term during its rise in the 1980s, Ben Elton is well versed in political correctness.
Elton first shot to fame as part of the wave of alternative stand-up comedy in the UK and as a writer on seminal TV shows The Young Ones and Black Adder and, as he says, became "the face of the '80s, right-on, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic comedy".
Now, more than 40 years later, after enduring being the butt of the lad-culture backlash in the '90s and in the modern internet era teeming with voices decrying "political correctness gone mad", the proudly left-leaning Elton has come to a realisation - whatever those voices are railing against, he is probably for.
"I think on the whole the freedoms we consider to be basic, bog-standard human rights now were once considered political correctness gone mad," he says on a Zoom call from his Fremantle home. "You know 'give women the vote? Are you out of your mind? I mean obviously we shouldn't be able to beat them to death within a marriage but giving them a vote - surely that's going too far'. Or 'recognise First Australians as human? Well perhaps we should pay them for the droving work they do - if we don't murder them - but give them a vote? No'.
"All these things are incremental and as we see in America with the rise of Trumpism, people who are losing those privileges get very scared and very angry. And I think a lot of the 'you can't say anything, I hate PC, it's all a cancel culture' is basically scared people worrying that the world is changing."
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
The internet, getting older and cancel culture are foremost in Elton's mind as he prepares to embark on his first stand-up tour of Australia in 15 years. The father of three, who married Perth musician Sophie Gare in 1994, stepped back from life on the road to concentrate on family and his many other creative outlets - he has also written 16 novels, three hit West End plays, as well musicals including We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies and the films Maybe Baby, Three Summers and All Is True. Now an empty nester, Elton found himself once again craving the connection with an audience only stand-up comedy can provide, and with Sophie's encouragement embarked on a sold-out 75-date tour of the UK in 2019.
His time away from the stage roughly coincided with the rise of social media, which the long-time internet sceptic acknowledges has changed the game for comedians. Not only does it mean they can no longer work up material in small clubs for fear of audiences posting footage online, it also means jokes once only heard within the broader context of a show can be misinterpreted and spread like wildfire.
"It's a big theme of the show. I say my wife doesn't want me to do this tour because she is convinced I will say something that will be misunderstood, taken out of context, tweeted and before I know it my career will be dead and I'll be Instaf---ed."
WHAT'S IN A JOKE?
He's quick to point out cancel culture concerns are not new - he was facing the same questions decades ago, long before the net became dominant.
"Thirty five years ago I was being asked 'are there any subjects you wouldn't cover? Would you do jokes about AIDS for instance?'. I said 'well of course I would do jokes about it - but it depends on the joke'. I would do a joke I can answer to my own conscience. The AIDS crisis or indeed the Holocaust is not beyond humour - humour is part of the human soul and to ban humour from the darkest experiences is madness and the opposite of what we should be doing. But it depends on the joke. If it's a joke that punches down, to use a modern phrase, then it's a bad joke."
The world has changed beyond measure since the UK leg of the tour and Elton says he wrestled with how to incorporate a global pandemic into his routine. He spent the bulk of last year in Perth - during which time a local amateur production of We Will Rock You became the highest grossing theatre production in the world - while COVID-19 ravaged the country of his birth.
His first West End play in 25 years, The Upstart Crow (a comic take on the life and times of Shakespeare, based on his hit sitcom of the same name), was forced to close the day after it received a prestigious Olivier nomination, and Elton had to postpone his planned Australian stand-up dates, prompting him to embrace the relative safety of Western Australia and he "started taking notes, wondering if I was going to be doing pandemic jokes".
Within weeks however, he decided that gags about baking bread and browsing Netflix were already out of date, and decided to mostly stick to his original material.
"I think the audience want to hear maybe three or four minutes about our shared experience, but everybody has been Zooming it and memeing it and talking forever about nothing else other than pickling onions and trying not to drink before three in the afternoon. So, in that respect the set won't change."
As much as he's champing at the bit to get back in front of a crowd, Elton is also proud and passionate about helping the arts sector recover from what he calls "a cultural catastrophe" and will do whatever it takes to make sure the tour rolls out as planned.
"I feel deeply emotional talking about coming back on the road," he says. "Theatre is part of the human soul. Of course, it's not an indispensable activity when we are talking about first responders and health and police - but after that, I think it's pretty bloody important. Once we are all not dying, I think that theatre needs to come back quickly and I am very proud to be a part of that and I will risk as many bloody hotel quarantines on state lines as necessary. So, if people want to come and see me, I will be there."
Ben Elton Live 2021 tours nationally next month. Dates and ticket details, benelton.net or livenation.com.au
Originally published as Why Ben Elton is proudly politically correct