A headline in the Brighton Argus recently ran “Anger as political comedian is heckled at Brighton Dome performance”. Is it really news that a comedian has been heckled?
Prior to the commoditisation of comedy, comedians were regularly heckled; it went with the territory. If you stood in front of a lot of people (who had probably been drinking) and started shooting your mouth off then you had better be able to handle a bit of blowback. Then along came “alternative comedy”, the Comedy Store and The Perrier Comedy Awards and “stand up” became popular, political …… and profitable. Comedy was no longer a working class niche, but an intellectual forum for middle class lefties to lecture the great unwashed. Sexual innuendo was lowbrow and bashing Thatcher became de rigueur. Comedy clubs sprang up creating a demand for comedians. To meet this demand the tips and tricks used by comedians became systemised and courses appeared purporting to teach stand-up comedy. The craft is now so widely understood that Stuart Lee has even made a career out of deconstructing it.
Like any industry it strived to maximise profit. Pack in the shows, get the punters in and out quick and don’t waste time with hecklers. I recall being gobsmacked when some apparatchik at The Comedy Store told us prior to the act that heckling was not allowed. Stand-up comedy has become a stale parody of itself. Without the necessary foil of hecklers comedians have become complacent and frequently descend into political diatribes which might go down well when you’re preaching to the converted but alienates half the audience.
One night at the Krater Comedy Club in Brighton that I realised just how far “stand-up” had strayed from humour. We’d got our drinks, we sat down and the compere came on. After a brief preamble he bawled “Are there any racists in the audience?!” – Of course this was a rhetorical question and no racists came forward. The compere did not want to hear from racists. The question was not intended to be funny. It served two purposes; first it was a tribal dog whistle to all the lefties in the audience who roared their approval. Secondly, it was a warning to anybody who might have concerns over numbers of immigrants, integration, bias or a multitude of other, often nuanced, issues that they should keep their gobs shut.
The comedian heckled at the Brighton Dome recently was Nish Kumar who had also been booed off at some cricket charity bash up in London recently so that probably prompted the Brighton incident. What is surprising is that, until now, comedians such as Mr. Kumar have got away with dressing up dogmatic left wing rants as comedy for so long. Indeed the idea that left wing dogma is now not only inviolate but can stand in for comedy has become so entrenched that Kumar refused to leave the stage. He seemed to think that his freedom of speech was being infringed “If you clap me off, I wont leave”, “I was ready to leave but now that you lot of have started behaving like pricks I’m not going”. He complained that he was doing the act for free but what he missed was that the audience had PAID! This was not the Labour party conference but a bunch of half-drunk sportsman on a night out. If you can’t entertain them then all your political ideology is worth nothing.
In some respects Kumar did quite well to continue under the barrage he received in London and who gives a toss if he decided to continue anyway but it is the fact that it is news that a comedian got heckled that is weird. A comedian got booed off stage – Big fucking deal!
It seems to me that the UK has imported this style of comedy from The United States and along with it we have also imported the “issues”. A few weeks ago on the Mash Report I heard some “comedian” complaining about abortion rights in Australia. Yes, we know that America is polarised by abortion but these are not major issues in the rest of the world and it would be an absolute tragedy if we allowed global debate over such sensitive issues to become as poisonous as they have in the United States. Likewise with guns. I have seen UKIP tweeting in favour of laxer gun control in the UK. Why? There is no popular demand for it. Why assume that issues that have spawned hatred and division in the United States should be globalised?
I visited a friend in New Jersey a few years before Trump and one evening we sat watching Stephen Colbert churning out his political opinions. My American friends laughed but I couldn’t see the joke. I agreed with much of what he said but was repelled by his self-riotous arrogance. For me, I think it comes from a British cultural irreverence WHICH I VALUE. Irreverence is good. Irreverence means I’m sceptical. Irreverence means politicians have to justify themselves and not rely on my class, race or “protected attribute” to get me on side. Because I’m irreverent I reject both the conceited pontifications of Jacob Reese-Mogg along with the hysterical accusations of fascism by Paul Mason.
Irreverence is a bulwark against authoritarianism. It is born of a mature democracy that has seen leaders come and go and has no use for “saviours”. Irreverence means I embrace pragmatism not ideology. It also means I don’t need to be trained in political or comedic sophistry – I can just blow a loud raspberry at the appropriate moment or, failing that, lob a bread roll.
That night in the Krater Comedy Club when the guy yelled “Are there any racists in the audience” I felt not like a punter about to be entertained or even challenged but like I imagine a Jew must have felt in 1930s Germany at a cabaret night had the compare yelled: “Are there any Jews in the audience?”
It seems to me that the drunken revellers at the charity cricket event in London have done the country a service by playing the part of the little boy who notes that the emperor is not wearing clothes. I suggest that the next time some apparatchik at a supposed “comedy club” tell you heckling is not allowed that “we heil (pffft),heil (pffft) right in der Fuehrer’s face”