The Politics Show

Nottingham Castle
There is a problem common to most activist comics. Their acts are both funny and political -- but the parts which are funny are not political and the parts which are political are not funny. You get a Stop The War talking point, then a bodily fluid gag, then two talking points, then a children’s TV reference, then another talking point in a funny voice.
You might expect this to particularly affect Rob Newman, who since leaving The Mary Whitehouse Experience and splitting with David Baddiel has increasingly focused on revolutionary causes. Newman is on the polysyllabic wing of the anti-globalisation movement, and no matter how good your Johnny Rotten impression is -- his is brilliant, by the way -- it's not going to sugar a phrase like "nexus of multiple causation".
He solves the problem, and raises many of his best laughs, through sharp, poised self-awareness. The "nexus" clunker he follows with a genial "that's my new catchphrase". When discussing the role of an American called Kermit Roosevelt in installing the Shah of Iran, he pauses to point out the Kermit the Frog gag he has avoided, sketching briefly the seventies-TV-and-dictatorships routine he could have built from it and, at greater length, the sense of dissatisfaction it would have left us with.
Last night's show, titled Apocalypso and with a subtitle that would take up most of my remaining word-count, included formidable-sounding doses of history and economics, but held a packed and not particularly political-rallyish marquee with scarcely a waver. It may seem tough, when you read it in cold print, to imagine a tentful of comedy fans laughing through a case that the Iraq war was partly caused by the switching of oil trades from dollars to euros, but you must also imagine the grace with which Newman manages to dance around his wandering thoughts, the power of his enthusiasm and his skill and imagination as a mimic.
That routine, the first-half climax, builds to a sustained one-man play of world politics as a Brooklyn slum, with the US as "the biggest crack dealer on the block", being taunted by a sarky little Venezuela and a hulking, Darth Vader-ish China. It comes complete with sound-effects and Tannoy announcements from Iraq. You could have a cartoon version on to BBC Four by this time next year and it'd be a hit.
He also had a ukelele, which is less easy to defend. Well, it's about the simplest way to generate a musical backing and, on the plus side, he did keep forgetting to plug it in. The songs it accompanies put across maximum lyrical wit with minimum vocal ambition: his version of Bob Dylan is oddly akin to Dead Ringers' Robin Cook.
In the second half, after a successful attempt to connect William Wordsworth and ID cards, we came to a subject even Newman finds difficult to make funny: peak oil, or the certainty of a coming energy crisis. He drove home his message -- "there is no way out" -- like the best teacher you never had, but had to segue back into observational comedy about green groups to end it on a laugh.
After that, a searingly funny encore about a sinister-voiced landlord demonstrated the art Newman has muffled to suffer for his politics. His "serious" routines are a tightrope walked with style, if not always without wobbles. But this was a reminder that they are also a real sacrifice of money and fame for principle.