August 16, 2023 - 7:00am

Five years ago, Andy Shaw and I set up a monthly comedy night in London called Comedy Unleashed. Our objective was to challenge what we perceived to be the groupthink that was developing within the industry. Promoters, television commissioners, critics, even comedians themselves, had begun to turn on acts who failed to convey the “correct” political opinions, and many fellow comics confessed to me that they had begun to self-censor for the sake of their careers.  

And so we launched a night which would encourage innovative and free-thinking acts, where we might cultivate a comedy-literate audience who understood that the art form cannot exist without the potential to cause offence. Not that the acts we booked necessarily had to be offensive; rather, they would be free to tease the limitations of the audience’s tolerance should they wish. The only condition was that they should be funny.  

This year we decided to make an appearance at the trade fair known as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We liaised with a local promoter and booked a venue in Leith, on the outskirts of the city. The bill was to include Bruce Devlin, Mary Bourke, Dominic Frisby, Alistair Williams and the co-creator of the classic sitcoms Father Ted and The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan.  

Graham has been considered controversial for holding a range of beliefs. Most notably: that human beings cannot change sex, that women deserve the right to single-sex spaces and the chance to compete fairly in sports, that feminists such as J.K. Rowling should not have to put up with rape and death threats for stating biological facts, and that gay and autistic children ought not to be medicalised and put onto a pathway to sterilisation. What a monster. 

Those who claim that “cancel culture does not exist” will struggle to explain how it is that one of the most successful sitcom writers of all time now cannot work in the comedy industry, and why his musical adaptation of Father Ted has been effectively held hostage by the rights holders, Hat Trick Productions.  

Given that we knew our show would sell out, we did not advertise Graham in advance, preferring instead to tease the audience with the prospect of a “surprise cancelled comedian”.  With the show just a few days away, we finally announced his appearance, and within 24 hours the venue, Leith Arches, had posted a statement on Instagram stating that they “DO NOT suppprt [sic] this comedian, or his views and he WILL NOT be allowed to perform at our venue and is CANCELLED from Thursdays [sic] comedy show with immediate effect”. 

The histrionics didn’t stop there. “We are an inclusive venue,” the statement continued, “and will not allow such views to violate our space.” The venue later deleted the post and replaced it with one that was marginally more literate.  

Quite how a venue can claim to be “inclusive” when it excludes performers who do not subscribe to the ideology of its staff is anyone’s guess. Those who complained to the venue could simply have refrained from buying a ticket. Instead, they sought to prevent the audience members of a sold-out show from making their own decisions. 

It is for this reason that we are determined to find an alternative venue. The Fringe has always been known for controversial performances, but whereas the protests used to come from the Christian Right, they now seem to be driven by the identitarian Left. These are the same Pharisees, only now they wear rainbow-coloured garb. 

All is not well in the comedy industry. Last year Jerry Sadowitz had his show pulled by the Pleasance Theatre. This year it is the turn of Graham Linehan. These moves represent precisely the kind of authoritarian thinking that led to the creation of Comedy Unleashed in the first place. So although we regret the cancellation of our show, at least these activists have proved our point. 

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath