Tonight I took part in an experiment for the ITV show "Tonight With Trevor Macdonald" (although apparently it is no longer with Trevor Macdonald) in which I did two gigs in different clubs in London, one in which I had to swear as much as possible and the other where I was (supposedly) meant to delete the expletives. I don't know where Trevor Macdonald gets his ideas from. Oh hang on, yes I do. It was obviously based on this recent article by Frank Skinner
. Obviously they asked Frank to do this stunt and that he turned them down. I am nothing in this life if not second best.
I was aware all along that this was not going to be much of a scientific survey of the subject. I was playing two different clubs, opening one and closing the other and in order to make the experiment work I was actually going to have to add swearing to the first set. I don't actually swear all that much in my sets. I talk about a lot of unpleasant things and joke about subjects that might be considered dark, but I don't really eff and blind all that much. So the rhythm of the first "dirty" gig would be all thrown off and the audience would be cold.
I decided to revive an old routine (potato/potarto) and add cuss words. It has a sweary bit right in the middle (where I call Steve Martin "a fucking cunt"), but really that only has impact because there has been no swearing up to that point. Though I thought that might be an interesting enough point to make anyway. That by adding swearing I would ruin it.
The team behind the programme clearly wanted to show that swearing was not necessary to be amusing, which is of course true, but that fact does not mean that it isn't sometimes really funny to swear. There's room for both Morecambe and Wise and Pete and Dud in the comedy firmament.
Predictably the first sweary gig went worse than the second. Partly because I threw myself by adding swear words, partly because I was not totally on top of the old routine I was doing and partly because the crowd had not warmed to me. I was on first, they were a bit freaked out by the cameras in their faces and actually they were a bit easily shocked. I should have done the clean gig first. It was too early in the evening to be filthy, and I didn't connect with the crowd. They weren't really tuned in to even my cleaner material though. As sometimes happens with a more traditional stand up club, many of the audience didn't get the set up joke "Who is it who says potarto anyway?" which makes the routine difficult to pull off, even when I am doing the original words and am top of it.
Comedy is also about precision, rhythm and confidence. All these things were thrown off by the false circumstances of the situation. I was adequate but not spectacular and stumbled over stuff and felt uncomfortable. It was probably in my worst three gigs of (an admittedly rather consistently good) 2008. And it was being filmed. And Trevor Macdonald was going to be watching it later (at least I enjoyed claiming that - as well as getting the crowd to shout "Trevor Macdonald has a big cock" into the camera). It was also fun to argue that it was Macdonald who had sent me out into the world with the instruction to pepper my language with fucks and cunts. It was all his fault not mine.
The second gig, where I was closing, was blistering from the start. Nothing to do with not swearing - the audience were just tuned into me and I think, in this case, many of them had come to see me, whilst in the first gig no one had any idea who I was (and thought I was joking when I said the cameras were there for me).
It was interesting to have to change the handful of swear words in my set to something more innocuous. And I did swear accidentally about five times, mainly when I was adlibbing about stuff. I was also just much more in the zone and now on top of the potato/potarto routine (remembering big chunks that I had forgotten the first time). It was probably in my top five stand up gigs of the year in terms of performance and response.
But all that was really proved was how the same material can go down wildly differently at different gigs. That might have made for a more interesting programme. It's actually quite disconcerting how differently the gigs went - even without me wrecking one of my routines with unnecessary cussing.
I think they will get a couple of interesting points out of it though (if they end up using the footage - I wouldn't be surprised if it hits the cutting room floor), though suspect they will use what they've got to prove that swearing isn't necessary, which isn't really what we discovered.
Having said that I think that some comedians do swear a bit gratuitously and artlessly and without understanding the power of these wonderful obscene words at their disposal. It's not a bad idea to have the occasional gig where you try to think of more imaginative ways to get your points across. But calling Steve Martin "a fucking cunt" will always be funnier than calling him a "reprehensible curmudgeon" or whatever term I came up with on the spur of the moment.
Swearing is fucking great. Don't let Trevor Macdonald tell you any different.