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One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in myself after a year of regularly performing comedy is a broadening of my comedic tastes. If you’d asked me a year ago what comedy I thought was good I would have replied with very strict and narrow parameters. “Stewart Lee is good.” I would have said, “I like all those British alternative comedians. People with clever, nuanced material. I’m not a fan of the more observational, mainstream comedians. I’m not a fan of ‘edgy’ comedians like Frankie Boyle.”
Often, looking back, I defined my taste more through what I didn’t like, rather than what I did. ‘What do you like?’, ‘I don’t know exactly, but I can tell you what I don’t like and in great detail.’
A year in and I basically just enjoy good comedy. Of course, I still love many of the alternative comedians; people who are doing interesting and clever stuff, but honestly I’m happy enough listening to observational comedy done well. A couple of weeks ago I shared a bill with a comic who did a long bit about the different mouth shapes men and women make when thanking people. It was little more than ‘look how different men and women are! Look at this weird thing we all do!’ A year ago I would have scoffed at it, but I enjoyed his set a great deal. It was well performed, it was slick. If there’s one thing that trying to succeed in comedy teaches you it’s that comedy is bloody hard. I respect anybody who can do it well.
There is, however, one type of comedy which I retain a strong dislike for, anything that defines itself by how edgy it is. Anything which seeks to offend, to push boundaries for no reason other than the idea of doing so. As soon as anybody describes themselves as a dark act, or difficult, or offensive, I steady myself for a five minutes that I will not enjoy.
There’s probably a couple of people reading this thinking, “hang on Dan, we’ve seen your act. You’ve got plenty of offensive jokes. You’ve got more than one gag involving paedophiles, you’ve made light of the Syrian refugee crisis, hell, the routine you’ve done the most, your ‘feminist routine’, is basically just you saying sexist stuff for about four minutes. You are a hypocrite. How can you look at yourself in the mirror. You are a disgrace.”
Firstly, calm down. Secondly, it’s difficult to justify one’s own, possibly offensive, material directly without coming across as more than a bit of a pompous tit, so I’ll attempt to do so indirectly over the next few paragraphs and hopefully only come across as a tiny bit of a tit.
I’m not annoyed by self proclaimed edgy comedians because I’m personally offended by their jokes. There’s not much that offends me, honestly. I am a white, straight, able-bodied (with a few caveats), relatively good looking (with a few more caveats), upper middle-class man. There aren’t really many jokes which can be made at my expense, and those which can are usually some variation on the theme of: “look how great you’ve got life, you massive privileged twat.”
I’m not really even much offended on the behalf of other people. I usually don’t feel that it’s my place to feel outrage on the behalf of marginalised groups. I’ll stand up to bullies when needed, but l sometimes feel that it’s difficult to know what crosses the line when you aren’t the person a joke is directed at. Offence is a complicated thing and it’s probably best to leave it to the marginalised and support them when needed. Life is too short to do take up every cause and claim it as your own.
Obviously I hate racism and whatever as much as the next man (and the next man to me happens to be Nelson Mandela) but there are plenty of comedians I love who do material that skirts on the edges of the various isms. Broadly, I feel that intent matters most with this material. People often speak of a punching up, or down, dynamic but I think it’s possible for a member of a more privileged group to do a joke about a less privileged group as long as the joke is not intended to belittle. In my year on the stand up circuit, watching hours upon hours of comedy, I don’t think I’ve seen any comedian make a joke which has actually offended me.
So my gripe is not with the existence of dark material but with its deployment for its own sake.
What I love about comedy is its inclusiveness. That you can unite a room full of strangers in laughter with ideas that you’ve conjured up in your own head. I cannot understand why anybody would enter comedy with the intent of making jokes that are going to make a lot of people unhappy.
Jokes should be written with the express intent of being funny. That’s what they are, they’re jokes. Obviously with that comes a whole load of other stuff, underlying subtext, a political point or whatever, but the laughter is the actual point of doing the comedy. If the through-line to that laughter comes across something difficult, or offensive, then so be it, but that’s not the end point.
Daniel Kitson, as is his way, said all of this far more sufficiently and better in his show ‘Weltanschauung:
“I find anything that proclaims its own danger in comedy or art or music just immediately just a bit tedious and wearisome. Ooh it’s dangerous, ooh it’s edgy. Ooh it’s dangerous and edgy. Is it? Wouldn’t it be better if it was just good?”
I’m distrustful of anything which has the central selling point of possibly upsetting somebody. A total reliance on something other than the actual quality of material, or performance, to carry an act. Of course comedy can have qualities to it other than raw humour, my favourite acts sell themselves on that very thing, but is ‘being offensive’ really a quality?
The ludicrous interpretation that what was good about Bill Hicks was not, “he was really funny and had an interesting unique way of expressing his viewpoints” but instead “he sure ruffled a lot of feathers.” By all means ruffle feathers but don’t break into an owlery with the express intention of doing so.
Furthermore, I’ve always felt there’s a smug superiority to writing material that you’re certain is going to be ‘too much’ for your everyday, BBC2 watching, people-carrier driving, chain restaurant-eating chumps. As if they’re thinking “I can make and enjoy this material because I am better than you.” That the comedian is some kind of worthy pariah, that they are making a necessary sacrifice, their own popularity in exchange for some higher artistic goal. That without their voice saying these things some vital part of public discourse would be missing. There is nothing of great importance found in being abrasive. Anything worth saying can be said to everybody.
There are lots of caveats to all of this of course. Firstly, as a response to the predictable braying of the ‘PC Gone Mad Brigade’, I’m not calling for offensive comedians to be banned. I’m not attacking free speech. I’m just calling them a bit shit. Secondly, there are lots of comics I love, respect and have gigged with who have emptied rooms because the audience felt they were offensive. Just the other week an audience member, after a gig, said that my material was offensive and sexist. This man was a fucking moron. There are always going to be audiences that misunderstand intent behind great comedy, and that’s not a shame. Some things are divisive, that’s just not all they should be.