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A Lower Low

2011 April 21

Please welcome the glorious Hannah Eiseman-Renyard to the guestpost soapbox…

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?


I love live comedy, honest I do. I spent two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and I’ll be there for the full three weeks this year. Some of my best friends are (very good) comedians. However, as a scene: live comedy has a problem. I haven’t been an aficionado for many years, so maybe it was always there – but if recent articles are anything to go by; it seems to be growing. Increasingly, the search for ‘edgy’ material is translating into a scene where the recoil laugh – the I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that laugh – is the only one aimed for. The targets are ‘soft’ – minorities and marginalized groups – and the jokes prod at the same old prejudices. The numbers of times I come home from a comedy gig wanting to dry-clean my brain is rising.

Photo showing a red and white plastic windup 'chattering teeth' toy. Photo by Flickr user elasticcamel, shared under a Creative Commons licenceMy hackles were finally raised enough to write this article after an especially bad gig I went to recently. A sketch group of white, able-bodied young men performed a series of female grotesques which were so consistently unpleasant that – though cheerily presented – the unmistakable undercurrent to the evening was ‘we really don’t like women much.’ Most sketches involved a member of the group donning a plastic wig to ‘be a girl’ – and every female character was a Lolita, a whore, a woman giving birth or a mother who hated her children. The punchlines ranged from coat hanger abortions to incest to rape to paedophilia. At my table, from about halfway through, we didn’t laugh so much as look to each other for reaction shots and a reality check. This troupe’s final skit was a song and dance number, the ‘Cell Block Tango’ from Chicago, with the words changed to ‘she had it coming’. Had there not been other people on the bill who I really wanted to see, I would have walked out then and there.

The problem is more widespread than just one shit comedy troupe . People more eloquent than myself have pointed out this return to the bad old days. It seems like the decades of hard-earned progress, a basic standard of ‘don’t be a shit to the marginalised’, is being discarded because now it’s apparently ironic. Sexism is increasingly tolerated (after all, everything’s sorted and equal now, so just lighten up, bitch) and other kinds of prejudice are also creeping back, too. ‘It’s not racist, it’s just un-PC, and no one likes political correctness. So, while we’re at it, what about those immigrants, homos, and the disabled, aye?’

Increasingly comedians who get pulled up for saying genuinely unpleasant things (I’m looking at you, Frankie Boyle) have taken this to be their selling point and then upped the ante in general douchery. While Jordan, the gossip-magazines’ favourite glamour model, might seem a fair target, when exactly did her disabled son become fair game, too? Let alone in a joke about incest and rape. I’ll repeat that: an incest-rape joke about a disabled eight-year-old child.

While I’m sure there has always been some truly unpleasant comedy around, its apparent mainstream acceptance is a new trend. The Frankie Boyle joke aired on Channel 4. This worries me because our words do carry a power – they reflect how we see the world, but they also set our standards for what is normal, acceptable, okay. The trickle-down effect has real-world consequences. The rise of the rape joke can be a horrific trigger for those who have experienced it. In increments, these themes – packaged as entertainment – normalise these horrors and dismiss their seriousness.

This is not an argument for censorship – I had fervent arguments a few years ago with Daily Fail-reading colleagues about whether Jerry Springer: The Opera should be shown on TV (yes, yes, a thousand times yes!) – but there is a huge middle ground between Mary Whitehouse prudery and comedy which is getting pretty close to hatespeech. Please, guys: self-regulate a little by engaging the brain.

Some would argue that if I don’t like this brand of comedy, I just shouldn’t watch it. To some extent they’re right, and I do try. When I saw a poster in Edinburgh for a standup show called ‘The Lying Bitch and the Wardrobe’ (I see what you did there) I had a pretty strong inkling that this wouldn’t be my kind of thing and I didn’t go. But on a mixed bill (as almost all small live comedy gigs are) there’s rarely any warning what each person will do – so while you might have gone along because you recognise one name that you like, there is no disclosure until you’re hearing it that the third act, Joe Bloggs, will be your prejudiced asshat for the evening, berating you all with a microphone for at least ten minutes.

Oh, and you paid to see this.

I don’t think anything should be off-limits – but some topics are so unpleasant (not to mention increasingly over-mined) that if a comedian wants to tackle them they will need to be so damn funny, so ingenious, original, tactful – that 80% of comedians just shouldn’t bother. Needless to say, the 80% that aren’t up to speed don’t get this, and the 20% that can do it well often have better things to do than prod triggertastic subjects and tired old clichés with a great big stick. They’re off crafting material that makes you belly-laugh (and think) rather than just titter nervously in disbelief.

Fat Kitten Improv logo: a cartoon cat with a mischievous expression peeping out of a yellow basketAs my friend James Ross, who runs the consistently wonderful Fat Kitten Improv group and the Better Living Through Comedy night put it: “From a purely technical standpoint, shock humour suffers acutely from a law of diminishing returns: the audience build up a resistance to it, and that alone would be good reason to limit its use.”

I think the thing which is missing (besides originality) is a measure of basic empathy. In the increasingly desperate search for ‘dark’ and ‘cutting edge’ material, comedians forget that a lot of their lazily-picked targets are people. Real people. People with feelings and also (self-interest alert, guys:) people who go to comedy gigs.

The rising amount of ‘ironic’ misogyny is not creating a particularly friendly environment for a certain 50% of punters. Last year I went to the Comedy Store to see twelve different comedians being filmed for The World Stands Up. I wasn’t entirely sure if the person who’d invited me along had intended the evening as a date or not, so it was potentially awkward already. Then, as the evening unfolded, four out of twelve comedians used ‘bad fellatio’ as the bedrock of their sets. One standup spent his whole set mocking his wife for not pleasuring him correctly. In the narratives that we heard that night, women’s main role was as dispensers of sexual favours – and we couldn’t even do that right. Thanks, guys. I haven’t been back to the Comedy Store since.

For another example, I was once out with a group for a friend’s birthday when a standup did a set about making a mess in the disabled toilet and blaming it on a disabled person. While he wasn’t to know that birthday girl, sat in the front row, had cerebral palsy, why did he think this would be a good topic in the first place? How many times has he encouraged the able-bodied to laugh at this disadvantaged minority’s expense?

Photo showing Catherine Semark, a dark haired white woman in a blue shirt and black leggings, performing on stage at Edinburgh Fringe

Example of good standup! Catherine Semark performing at Edinburgh Fringe. Photo by me.

One piece of etiquette that people seem to be riding roughshod over is whether you have a ‘claim’ to your material. While there aren’t any rules about who is allowed to talk about what, whether or not you’re on the receiving end of a prejudice can make a huge difference to whether or not you have the empathy, warmth, and originality to do it well. Richard Pryor, Omid Djalili, Sarah Silverman, or Goodness Gracious Me on race: usually very good. Jim Davidson on race: enough said.

This isn’t an argument for ‘nice’ comedy. Some of my favourite comedians are pretty darn dark and twisted – Bill Hicks, Dylan Moran, and I heartily recommend London sketch group The Beta Males – but the ‘type’ of twisted is crucial. Jokes are about status – people use them every day to agree boundaries of what’s acceptable, and with that comes a certain amount of responsibility. When activist comedians such as Mark Thomas or Kate Smurthwaite use humour to mock people in power for making bad decisions, that’s something very different to a middle class standup laying into ‘chavs’ for ‘talking funny and drinking cheap booze’.

Anger and humour are very often interlinked, but where you aim that anger makes all the difference. Aim it ‘up’ at deserving, more powerful targets and it’s subversive, it can hold people to account – satire has a long and proud tradition. Aim that anger ‘down’ at the underdog and it’s tired, old and – frankly – it’s bullying.

  • Hannah Eiseman-Renyard is a short, fat, ginger four-eyes who nonetheless loves live comedy. She works as an editor by day, a writer/performance poet by night, and on the weekends she fights crime. She’ll sleep when she’s dead. Hannah runs the Whippersnapper Press, a web-publishing site for short, innovative and funny creative writing. She is twenty-five and lives in North London with her three grandchildren and thirty cats. Her turn-ons include moss, handicrafts and Bohemian clichés.
5 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    April 21, 2011

    I’m seeing the same trend, especially an absolute torrent recently of “political correctness is bullying me and isn’t needed anyway now we’re all equal”.

    I love some of the good shock-jokers (Pryor, Bill Hicks) but they’re so full of humanity and *an actual message* that they never grated the way half the examples you give above do.

    Aiming the anger ‘up’ or ‘down’ is a brilliant way of putting it. My example would be Tim Minchin. His song “Some people have it worse than I” covers bad things happening to thalidomide children, policemen in Iraq… but it’s done to ridicule people with 1st-world problems. You can include the targets which will make people gasp, but still aim the anger up (in this case at entitled whiners). His comedy has never come across as cheaply using minorities, and you nail why: empathy and warmth. Empathy means putting yourself in the same group, not setting up a wall and laughing at them from the other side. (For contrast, Jim Davidson.)

  2. Lydia permalink
    April 21, 2011

    Good stuff. I agree entirely. A few points for debate:

    Depending on how it was constructed, a joke about blaming mess in a loo on a disabled person could be deeply self-deprecating- pointing out the flaws of the maker of the mess and their inability to own up to their actions, and their shame at passing the buck. Or it could be a damning indictment of the person who would believe that the mess was made by someone disabled rather than someone able-bodied but drunk/nasty/thoughtless.

    Or it could be a cheap shot at people with disabilities. I’ve honestly seen circuit comics do the same joke (not THAT joke, but equivalents) all three ways depending on the audience.

    Also I have a deep fear of where the “avoid this subject as it may trigger flashbacks” argument leads.

  3. April 24, 2011

    I’m both surprised and shocked at how many of my friends, in day to day life and through Twitter etc, have expressed independently their dismay at the apparent backwards time-travelling comedy seems to be going through of late.

    A lot of these friends have around about zero interest in gender issues, and even they have picked up on and been disgusted by it, at various stand-up shows, and on various TV broadcasts.

    I’m not sure I have anything that’s actually useful to include in this ‘debate’, except joint irritation and oft-disbelief though.. so… GRARGH!

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