The comedian Bo Burnham was asked, in the Comedians’ Comedian podcast, if certain subjects were ever off-limits. Not really, was his reply, you just have to be a very good comedian to deal with them – in the same way that only expert sushi chefs can prepare pufferfish, relying on specialist tools and years of practice to remove the poisonous liver.
I’ve often thought about this throwaway metaphor, as it is much better than he possibly realised: yes, good fugu chefs cut out the poison, but, tradition goes, the truly great ones leave the smallest trace of tetrodotoxin, giving their customers a rather thrilling tingle on the tongue. That little tingle on the tongue is, for some, almost a definition of comedy.
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And comedians don’t always get it right. Sometimes that’s because they aren’t good enough, like the six foolhardy Japanese fishermen who die each year after preparing their own pufferfish; more often it is because they have misjudged the audience, or the audience has misjudged them.
I once did an Edinburgh show about feminism – it was a few years ago, before “male feminist comedian” had become shorthand for “sex pest” – and had a joke that always got a big laugh, from an audience largely made up of feminists. I have done exactly the same joke in a 20-minute club set and had women get so angry they’ve pelted me with popcorn. The words were the same; only the context was different. (I still have no idea what made the difference – was it the sophistication, or pseudo-sophistication, of the audience in Edinburgh? Or the fact that, at that point in the Edinburgh show, I’d already done ten minutes of feminist material? Or were they simply not drunk?)
But the great thing about live stand-up is that one can recalibrate instantly, one can read how the audience is reacting and adjust one’s set accordingly – that is the skill, and the joy. As Robin Ince puts it in his new book, I’m a Joke, “If the line between the acceptable and the offensive was straight and solid, there would be no fun in toying with it.”
Last week, though, a comedian called Konstantin Kisin received a contract and a lot of publicity: a student gig had asked him to sign up to a policy of no-tolerance towards “Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism”. It went on to say that these subjects could be discussed, “But it must be done in a respectable and non-abusive way” – that is to say, with the poison removed.
Now you can quibble with the form of the agreement, the way in which it formalises politeness and tries to make it legally binding – and any lawyer would tell you it’s very poorly drafted, void for lack of consideration, and leaving the tolerability of anti-Semitism unclear under the expressio unius rule of contractual interpretation – but it was only doing what comics do automatically every time they go on stage.
Yet this Behavioural Agreement Form – that heading was particularly unwise, smug and patronising – has become a cause celebre: David Dimbleby’s career on Question Time culminated with him asking the panel what they thought of it. And it was the only thing Jo Brand, David Davis and Caroline Lucas could agree on: it was an appalling act of censorship. Jo Brand, indeed, said that she did not know any comedians who would possibly “capitulate” to those terms.
She could have just said that she did not know any comedians who don’t have a fanbase big enough for them not to do the Circuit, the network of comedy clubs up and down the country. If you can fill a theatre every night with people who want to see you, then of course you wouldn’t capitulate. (Likewise, if you’re not being paid, which is usual for the first few years of any comic’s career.) But for the rest of us, the comics in the middle, capitulation to a promoter’s boundaries is a fact of life. As a friend of mine observed, while playing by your own rules may be the definition of “making it”, a comedian who has never been given guidelines is a comedian who is not very successful.
And it’s not necessarily a bad thing: the only time I have had a joke censored was when a promoter gave me a gig on the condition I didn’t do my line about Myra Hindley; the show was in Saddleworth and, after hearing what happened to another comic doing that gig, I am glad for the pointer. My favourite shows at this time of year are Paul Kerensa’s Comedians and Carols, which take place in churches so, obviously, have to be clean.
Even within the parameters of “clean”, comics have to make judgements – what is clean in a church gig may not be clean to a Muslim audience (I once found that out to my cost); and even doing Comedians and Carols, you can get away with jokes in Anglican churches of sound Incarnational theology that you can’t do for the Pentecostals. In this situation a contract might even be useful – it would certainly save scanning the church noticeboard for clues as to churchmanship.
The comics who fight against these guidelines are as ridiculous as Michelangelo in the Monty Python sketch, telling the pope that his demands for a painting of the Last Supper with one Christ, 12 disciples and no kangaroos were unreasonable and stifling, if not fascistic. So it was odd that John Cleese was one of the first comics to “salute” Kisin’s refusal to sign up to the students’ contract. I don’t see why a comedian should be given the artistic freedom that it would be ridiculous for a genius like Michelangelo to demand. There is nothing wrong in giving the audience what they want.
Kisin, though, argues that “it is a good thing to have our opinions challenged from time to time by those who hold differing views” – which is undeniable. But he goes on to say that “Nothing is capable of challenging orthodoxy quite like humour”. And that is nonsense: humour reflects orthodoxy. That is how it works.
I was once watching a Carry On film with my family. One scene had Terry Scott, as a doctor, entering a consulting room where a ‘dolly bird’ was sitting. “Good news, Mrs Smith!” he says. “Miss Smith,” she replies. “Bad news, Miss Smith,” comes his reply.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that joke – you can’t argue with the efficiency of set up, feed and punchline in 10 words. But only my parents laughed; my sister looked completely blank. It wasn’t so much that she was offended or disapproved of the morality behind the joke, it was just that the idea of a woman’s feelings about pregnancy being dependent on her marital status was so far outside her worldview that it just was not funny. My parents disagreed with her views, and argued with her – but it would have been silly to have forced her to watch Carry On films against her will, to ‘challenge her worldview’.
When Jerry Seinfeld says that he refuses to play college campuses any more, because they are “too PC”, it was conflated with the moral panic about the coddling of the American mind. But it is not that students are taking offence at his jokes, but because his jokes are, like the Carry On films, based on a worldview that is not shared by a younger generation. I gave up university gigs after standing on a stage in front of an audience of students and thinking “I have absolutely nothing to say to you” – and that is because my shtick is dependent on a mindset that Millennials do not share. This does not bother me (although it bothered my agent).
What did bother me was the time I did a show called Stand-Up Philosophy. This is a gig where comedians attempt philosophy, and philosophers attempt comedy, with varying degrees of success; this particular show was on the subject of Sexual Ethics. I made a point to the effect that, if opinion X was correct (which it isn’t), then rape would be permissible under condition Y – and spent the rest of the evening being shouted at by students who thought that I was advocating rape, and shouldn’t even have been allowed to mention the word, and so on – without ever considering the possibility that opinion X could be wrong.
There are situations where PC culture is dangerous, stifling wrongthink. But asking comics to make jokes that the audience is going to find funny is not one of them.