Last November, in an interview with London Real, I spoke briefly on the subject of British stand-up comedy and my discontent with what much of it represents. When the interview was uploaded to the channel’s 82,000 subscriber network, my thoughts on the subject seemed to attract a wave of inarticulate and misjudged vitriol on both Twitter and the YouTube comment section. This experience wasn’t new to me. I’ve been performing my poems for over six years around London. There have been nights when I’ve been booked to perform alongside emerging and established comedians, which if truth be told, have forced me to endure hours of unnerving and insufferable sets of rehashed, debasing gags, underpinned by the same five common motifs: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and self-deprecation.
Perhaps these recurring themes reflect the awkward and unhealthy fascination of the age we live in, inviting the public to forge a way of coping with and making safe the heady emotions that accompany such societal obsessions. As an audience member, I find myself drifting in and out of the humour being worked, trying to remind myself not to take it all literally. It’s just a joke. It’s only banter. I try to persuade myself to see the clever irony, the science and deep intelligence involved in building witticisms.
As a poet I appreciate the power of language and comedy shares some uncanny similarities to poetry. On closer inspection it’s not the actual jokes themselves or the comedians who secure the apoplectic feeling I’m often consumed by. It’s more the people who pay to hear such toxicity and who inadvertently demand that the scale of crushing deprecation be sustained over a set. Styles differ, but for humour to do its magic, there has to be some common ground; as such comedians converse with us in the manner of our alter-egos.
To expound the point a little more, minoritised comedians, by which I mean those of colour and who are not British, have an unhealthy predilection for focusing their humour on egregious racial and gendered stereotypes. A Black male comic is almost expected to deliver jokes about a stern Caribbean or West African upbringing, with hyper-sexualised references, which crudely segue into either selling drugs, an altercation with another man or an overzealous girlfriend, then finally getting into trouble with the authorities. The jokes, although nuanced, allude to the racialized tribulations of most Black men living in Britain. An Asian man prior to 9/11 would always seem to reference an authoritarian upbringing, or an arranged marriage, invariably underpinned by references to business, property or the hospitality industry. Today it would seem every Asian, Arab or olive-skinned man with a neatly kept beard is somehow implored to joke about Western defined terrorism, ISIS or Al Qaeda, along with references to explosives, train journeys and rucksacks. It’s almost become something of an anti-climax if a comedian’s set fails to deploy at least one of these associated narratives. Well versed in this racialised comedic genre, the audience seem to expect it from the moment the comic walks onto the stage. Despite the skill required to build suspense and to craft a joke, when stripped down to its bare engine, this sort of humour fortifies the distorted and stereotypical views many audience members may already hold, whether openly or unconsciously. And let’s not avoid highlighting how androcentric British comedy is, not to mention the regrettable handful of widely celebrated mainstream comedians who are nothing but vile misogynists and who do a disservice to those who are regarded as the more artful purveyors of their craft.
Personally, I’ve come to accept that I don’t have the ‘stomach’ for most of what British stand-up comedy has to offer and that’s fine. I know of metrophobes who shun written or recited verse, finding it to be nothing more than a community of self-righteous liberals who feel everyone should agree with their sixth-form politics, or at least have the decency to sit silently and endure their sententious declamations. My personal reservation with contemporary British comedy is that it can’t seem to function unless it is picking on society’s underdogs.
We live in a contradictory world, with high rates of transnational movement and a global interconnectedness of markets and media. Yet for many of us, our main reference point when forming common-sense ideas about others comes directly from a nationally aggressive, supercilious, conservative press-machine. The danger is that when we are faced with stand-up comics who might try to undermine dominant stereotypes, if that humour is subsequently taken at face value and not understood as something which has been pulled from a much larger conversation, then comedy becomes complicit with the status-quo. The apparently counter-cultural comedian has in effect become an unwitting partisan of the same Establishment he or she disdains. The saddest irony is those who write and perform comedy, and those who consume it, are often of the same disparaged nexus.
To bring the argument back to my own profession, it’s not often that promoters book poets to read or perform alongside comedians. The infusion of poetry creates an unsettled and peculiar synergy with the aim being that comedy should recover the atmosphere lost to the lachrymosity of poetry. But there are certain individuals who have become exceptions to the rule. A friend of mine, Mr Gee, has been a comedian for over a decade, recently supporting Russell Brand on his infamous Messiah Complex tour. Gee is also a revered poet and broadcaster who curates Chill Pill, one of London’s most distinguished nights for live poetry, so his insight on the matter of comedy and its purpose is something which I feel holds substantial weight. ‘Firstly, I’m a big fan of comedy. I grew up listening to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy albums. I’m also a big fan of Dave Allen and Harry Enfield. In my opinion, comedy presents us with a situation forcing us to see an alternate viewpoint. At its best it can be thought-provoking and groundbreaking but at its worst it can be cruel and divisive. It acts as a pressure release — people need to be able to laugh at life’s taboos no matter how uncomfortable they are. Extreme jokes about sex, rape, pedophilia, homophobia, Islamophobia and race can be heard in comedy clubs up and down the country. Some are genius and some are insensitive. Personally, I don’t believe in censorship. These jokes will always find their audience. The question isn’t whether an un-PC joke is “out of order”, the question is “why does such a joke still resonate with us?” That is a much more difficult question to answer.’
I’m in agreement with Gee as I’m sure are others who are able to appreciate comedy in all its multiplicity. As a child I watched similar comedians shine a sketchy and often singular light down into a world that existed away from mine. It’s humanly impossible to be everyone and everything all in one lifetime, so part of the role and labour of art is to offer other insights into the unfamiliar. Film, music, painting and literature all have this capacity. There was a time when I could watch stand-up comedy and not feel offended by its incendiary nature. I was capable of being another punter in the crowd, or another bloke at home unwinding, but that was before I became aware of the vicious hardships engulfing people living on the other end of a joke.
So are we more partial to certain kinds of humour? Does comedy perform a vital social function as Freud believed, in providing an outlet for suppressed and socially dangerous feelings? If so, can comedy allow us to express culturally-specific humour, and perspectives? Is this more about particularity rather than a sweeping, unfair assault on the entire comedy world? I would answer yes to all of the above. If a comedian like Stuart Lee or some of the old-school American mavericks such as Bill Hicks or George Carlin were to antagonise the Establishment, I would and still do find myself whooping in my living-room just like some Brits do when the intolerable Michael McIntyre runs a sequence of public schoolboy taunts aimed at trying to anglicise Asian surnames. This again reaffirms the central point that it’s not comedy per-se that needs reconsidering, but the way that it is used. to both normalise and trivialise grave social injustices.
I’m speaking from the perspective of not only a libertarian but as an artist who believes in plurality, in the importance of adopting and embodying an art-type which has the ability to evoke and provoke countercultural thought. I firmly believe comedy holds such a capacity. It just hasn’t fully exhumed it yet.
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Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed British-born Cypriot writer of poetry and fiction. He’s the writer-in-residence at several secondary schools around London and works closely with children in care, prisoners and refugees. He’s published eight books of poetry, a collection of short stories and a spoken-word EP while having also written for theatre. In 2012 he founded London’s Out-Spoken night for poetry and live music and their sister publishing house Out-Spoken Press. Visit his website anthonyanaxagorou.com. Find him on Twitter @Anthony1983
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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