Prospect Magazine mentions Hitler Moustache
What makes Britain laugh?
24th February 2010 â€” Issue 168 Free entry
Why do British comedians not talk about black people? Is a Madeleine McCann joke ever OK? And when is a Hitler moustache funny?
â€œA real comedianâ€”thatâ€™s a daring man,â€ Eddie Waters tells a group of would-be comics in Trevor Griffithsâ€™s 1975 play, Comedians. â€œHe dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth, about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about whatâ€™s hard, above all, about what they want.â€
Identifying what an audience wants has long been one of the trickiest parts of a comedianâ€™s job. But today it may be harder than ever before. The archetype of the ageing white male stand-up comic, able to rely on well-established and widely shared social norms, was relegated to history both by the growth of alternative comedy in the 1980s, and indeed by multicultural Britain itself. Take Leicester. In February each year, the city hosts Britainâ€™s longest-running comedy festival. In just a few years, it will also become the countryâ€™s first city with a majority non-white population. Andâ€”as I found when I attended this yearâ€™s eventâ€”this makes it one of the most exciting places in modern Britain for comedians to test, challenge and redefine what is (and isnâ€™t) deemed acceptable, thinkable and sayable.
Director Geoff Rowe started the festival in 1994 as part of a university project. His timing was fortuitous: the year before, NME magazine had declared comedy the â€œnew rockâ€™nâ€™rollâ€ with a cover featuring Rob Newman and David Baddiel, the first comedians ever to grace a music magazineâ€™s front page. Meanwhile the first handful of stand-up comedians were starting to play big arenas. Live comedy was taking off.
Leicesterâ€™s comedy festival has been at the forefront of the burgeoning scene ever since. From a relatively modest nine-day affair it has grown to a 17-day blowout, incorporating 300 shows in 40 venues across the city and county. It serves both as a showcase for new talent and a draw for bigger stars like Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Dave Gorman, Rory Bremner, Bill Bailey, Ross Noble, Johnny Vegas, Harry Hill and Alan Carr.
The festivalâ€™s success is by no means unique: Edinburghâ€™s fringe has become, in effect, the biggest comedy trade fair in the world. Other yearly or biannual events have sprouted all over the British Isles, from Kilkenny to Brighton. For better or for worse (and probably both), the industry is becoming increasingly professionalised: itâ€™s now possible to do a degree in stand-up, and there are evening and weekend courses for aspiring comedians across the country.
The live scene has diversified as it has grown, in form as well as content. On offer this year in Leicester, for example, were not only the standard fare of one-man acts squashed into the attics and backrooms of pubs, but also a four-player sketch show featuring a drug-addled Sherlock Holmes and his lovesick sidekick Watson; interactive animation beamed from a giant screen in the heart of the cityâ€™s shopping district; and a cabaret featuring sword-swallowers, ventriloquists, acrobats and musicians.
The quality varied dramaticallyâ€”the Sherlock Holmes production wholly misunderstood the meaning of the word â€œfarce,â€ while the cabaret show, The Crack, managed to elicit nearly all the different possible categories of human laughter in under two hours. Among the cabaret performers was a German stand-up called Henning Wehn, who threaded clichÃ©s long thought to have been killed from overuse into a monologue skewering (bad) British comedy with surgical precision. Heâ€™s lived in England for so long, he confessed, that when he goes home he expects his countrymen to be goose-stepping around in lederhosen, towels under their arms, munching on sausages. Heâ€™s also started to notice that Germans donâ€™t swear half as much as the English doâ€”â€œprobably because, in Germany, things work.â€ Other acts in the cabaret, meanwhile, riffed on the concept of performance itself: ventriloquist Nina Contiâ€™s monkey was quick to declare ventriloquism a â€œdead artâ€ and ask her why she was talking to herself. The whole show was at once puerile and intellectual; improvised and beautifully structured.
Insiders tell me that the appetite for these productions, and for live comedy in general, has surged in recent years. â€œIt used to be that if someone hadnâ€™t been on the telly, audiences werenâ€™t interestedâ€”but this has totally changed,â€ says Rowe. Why? He thinks itâ€™s partly because, compared to the price of a night at the theatre or even the cinema, comedy is low-cost, low-tech funâ€”and itâ€™s a social experience. Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, agrees that an appreciation for shared laughter has long been in our national DNA:
â€œBefore television, there were hundreds of old variety and music halls across Britain and we had this great tradition of going to see comedy as entertainment separate from theatre and other forms,â€ she says. â€œThereâ€™s certainly a gap to be filled.â€
Many comedians also suggest that the revival of the live show is a reflection of the â€œpainfully unfunnyâ€ direction of comedy on television. Their common objection is not so much to censorship, but the simple fact that too few executives now wield too much power, allowing their own (bad) taste to affect their commissioning decisions.
What makes it onto television, or into live performance, is always going to be a matter of taste; but itâ€™s revealing on a deeper level, too. â€œConsider the psychology of this,â€ says Australian comic and Edinburgh award-winner Brendon Burns. â€œNo one in Britain who isnâ€™t black will talk about black people, yet they will do rape and paedophilia until the fucking cows come home. Does that mean that, deep down, people in this country think that being black is worse than being raped?â€
â€œNot being willing to talk about, or to, a certain group of people is a very covert, very sneaky way of being hateful,â€ he continues. â€œI donâ€™t mean we should go in for that hackneyed Bernard Manning shit. But we should be able to talk to specific truths within a culture.â€ Despite the numerous (popular) British Asian comediansâ€”Hardeep Singh Kohli, Shazia Mirza, Meera Syalâ€”who do just this, Burns argues that Britain is generations behind the US in its comic evolution. Race is a problem in America, he concedes, but it is openly discussed by black and white comedians alike; comedians who draw mixed audiences. The British, he says, badly need to start having a conversation â€œbeyond either â€˜racism is badâ€™ or â€˜racism doesnâ€™t exist.â€™ Itâ€™s just a little more complex than that.â€
Whether or not you agree with Burns, his argument hints at the broader cultural role that comedy can play. As both writers and performers of their material, comedians are particularly well placed to expose, challenge and subvert our understanding of the worldâ€”and, if they so wish, to vanquish social problems with laughter.
Take Richard Herring. His Edinburgh show last year drew on his experience of sporting a Hitler moustache around the streets of London. His goal was to reclaim the â€œtoothbrush moustacheâ€ for its rightful owner: Charlie Chaplin. Surely, all these years later, itâ€™s time to let the better man have his dues?
Herring is a master of the double bluff. â€œThere are some things you just donâ€™t say,â€ he claims during his show, â€œlike I wouldnâ€™t tell Carol Thatcher that when her Mum dies Iâ€™m going to wank on her grave.â€ (Laughter.) â€œI am of course, but I wouldnâ€™t tell her.â€ Itâ€™s a neat joke that uses a soft target and guarantees a laugh, but itâ€™s aimed at our own hypocrisies. Why, he is asking, do we think that saying something awful is worse than actually doing it? Should it be? He explores this in part by debating, with himself, whether or not his jokes are â€œappropriate.â€ After a Madeleine McCann gag, he ponders: â€œItâ€™s human to think these things, but is it evil to express them?â€
Musing on his choice of moustacheâ€”worn both by the 20th centuryâ€™s most evil man and its funniestâ€”he suddenly asks, in mock horror: â€œIs this the point where comedy and evil meet?â€ Later, he repeatedly uses the word â€œPakiâ€ to demonstrate that context is everything when it comes to meaning: a â€œstone isnâ€™t a weapon unless you throw it.â€ Herringâ€”no moral relativistâ€”knows, just as Trevor Griffiths did, that â€œa joke that feeds on ignorance starves its audience.â€
Itâ€™s here, in its sheer variety and appetite for self-examination, that British comedy is at its best. If there have been too many paedophile jokes doing the rounds in recent years, there are now as many comics lampooning such jokes for their unoriginality. As Jill Edwards, who runs comedy workshops in Brighton and has worked with several of todayâ€™s most successful comedians, argues, itâ€™s impossible to pin down a â€œBritish sense of humour,â€ because tastes now diverge so widely not only between cities, but between different clubs on different nights.
My visit to Leicester certainly bore this out. Yet I also saw teenagers, gay men and women, British Asians and white working-class pensioners all collapsing in laughter at the same jokes. As Eddie Waters notes at the end of Comedians, despite our differences, we all share an important gift. Weâ€™re the only animal that laughs.