The relationship between comedy and politics is confusing and tangled, but always bubbling underneath the surface. We’re all very used to the comedian as a social commentator, whether it’s Frankie Boyle, Stewart Lee or even Michael MacIntyre. These people throw out a perspective and their careers would be nothing if there was not a cross-section of society ready to lap up succinct acerbic vitriol, lengthy repetitious vitriol or prancing middle-class navel gazing.
The birth of the alternative comedy movement that gave us these comedians-as-storytellers was fundamentally a political movement of anti-authority and anti-Thatcher sentiment, a rejection of prejudicial punching-down and a new way of approaching the medium that was in line with the politics of identity and inclusion.
When you grow up as I did, with the pre-conceived notion that “Hey guys, let’s try not being racist or sexist on stage” was set in stone, the world of contemporary comedy brings with it some short, sharp shocks. Our current society is one in which the left of centre and the right of centre both feel disenfranchised and are seeking alternative forms of representation, so end up butting heads in the comedy world. I regularly now hear horror stories of young humanities graduates taking up comedy and performing routines about Das Kapital to the pointed indifference of a stag night in a lager-infused function room and, conversely, lads who end up in community arts spaces shooting their mouth off about rape and immigration.
Everyone ends up feeling hurt, territorial and excluded. One group simply cannot abide any hint of misogyny or racism and will decry it whenever possible, while the other group feel like they’re being silenced by the thought police. To those who decry the notion of political correctness, they live in a world where no one is able to explicitly discuss the problems of the age for fear of recriminations, and now even here in the comedy circuit, their last refuge for self-expression, they’re even being policed by their fellow performers. Well, that wording’s come from myself to try and create a balanced argument – the last time I criticised an act for joking about burning the Qu’ran, they said they’d get a bus of mates round to my nights and beat me up – but I reckon if they had longer to draft their response it’d more closely resemble the above.
That’s the environment I’ve been doing comedy in for years now and it seems hard to say or do anything meaningful without throwing yourself into the very heart of politicised trench warfare – endless mud-slinging and each holding on for dear life. My solo show at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, Diffident, was my attempt to address and build on these issues – the inability of the left to express itself or make its point seem palatable without getting on a soapbox and being holier than thou. Two weeks in, I realised that getting on a soapbox and being holier than thou about how rubbish it is when people get on a soapbox to be holier than thou was a catastrophically expensive waste of time. But the main reason I had become disillusioned was because of The Glang Show.
The Glang Show was originally designed as a parody – a parody of The Fringe, a parody of competitions, a parody of comedy. Billed like a normal compilation stand-up competition, people who arrived could at any time request to change the show in any way they liked. Move the entire show into the bathroom? Sure thing. Recreate Les Miserables? Okay! Smother my face with brown sauce? I’m on it! The show was hosted by BearHeadMan, a semi-naked man wearing only women’s underwear and a plush teddy bear head, and two producers who were more likely to get angry or upset than help in any way. Into this environment we booked random comedians, only to encourage them to drop all their material and just try and play in this anarchic environment that became steadily more disruptive and unstable as it went on.
The results were fascinating. For every person who hated the show immediately, there were one or two who not only thoroughly enjoyed themselves, but came back 4 or 5 times, just to see what would happen this time. We created a space where audience and performer alike were encouraged to play. This was not a show about addressing the real world. It was about your immediate environment and the people around you.
As I hunched over on stage, retching as the vinegar fumes from brown sauce in my beard caught in the back of my throat, pleading with BearHeadMan to help me as he honked his clown horn and stared back with dead impassive eyes, I felt safe and I realised there might be another way in which comedy could be useful.
Words: Sean Morley.