Friday, 19 September 2008

The Offending Article

Another Myspace blog I'm afriad...normal service resumed shortly.

Recently my colleague Sarah and I had an argument after seeing Canadian Stand Up Jason Rouse perform in Edinburgh. Rouse, it has to be said, is foul. Every aspect of his act is aggressive, he's scary looking, and you could argue that most of his jokes are brutally sexist. One woman in the crowd heckled with "do you have any jokes that don't hate women?", and I was glad someone had said it.

Thing is, despite all of that, I laughed a lot during his set. An awful lot, actually: shaky, uncontrollable, tears-in-my-eyes laughing. He has that polished earnestness that Canadian comics do so well (see also Glenn Wool, Craig Campbell, Phil Nichol, Stewart Francis, and Tony Law just for starters), and he's SO offensive, so ludicrously, filthily offensive, that for me the gags stop being wrong. You're not laughing at the expense of the subject of the joke, you're laughing at the sheer gall of the man for cracking gags that are so very very dark. Rouse recognises the taboos, knows where the line is, and leaps across it, and that's funny. Or at least it is to me. The laughter comes from someone daring to open their mouth and deliberately say something wrong. This is Carl Donnelly pulling the same trick at the Edinburgh Fringe, and illustrating it perfectly:

The most offensive joke Carl Donnelly ever told, SPANK! 6-08-08

That's funny, isn't it?

Isn't it?

Anyway, as I said way back in my opening sentence, Sarah and I had an argument… well, a disagreement really, after seeing one particular comic. Sarah, you see, was quite offended by his material about disabled people, feeling that some things are strictly off limits. I had no problem with jokes about the disabled, depending on the context. It's a thin line to cross, but if the purpose of the gag is to make us laugh out of shock at the sheer gall of the statement, rather than at the expense of the subject then it's sort of okay, isn't it? I had to stop myself though. Was that really how I felt? Or was I just justifying my own response? Maybe I just don't want to be a bad person who laughs at the disabled?

Where exactly is the line? Comedy is so massively, entirely subjective it's hard to pin point what is or isn't offensive. We all know homophobia, racism, sexism and… well, whatever the word is for being prejudice against the disabled is, are wrong. The fact is that the meaning behind a joke isn't necessarily clear. Is a stand up trying to provoke a reaction by being outrageous, or are they genuinely being ignorant or even abusive? And just because they don't "mean it", does that make the fact they said it any better? Take 'Borat' for example… is Sacha Baron Cohen holding a mirror that shows us the shortcomings of our own society and makes us question our values? Or is he just laughing at the expense of people not as clever as he is?

There are plenty of comedians who don't get the balance right. You can see blatantly misogynistic, racist, old fashioned comedians in any town in the world. It would be unfair to single any out (except Bernard Manning, but it's okay because he's already dead. The fat racist shit.) It's an attitude that was supposedly swept away in the early eighties with 'alternative comedy'. But Ben Elton alone couldn't save the world, and bad-tasting comedy is still very much alive and kicking.

Quite a few comics constantly parrot a Daily Mail friendly view that "Political Correctness has gone mad". For the most part they're wrong. Political Correctness is just a way of saying 'stop saying things that offend or upset people', and has been – by and large - a positive force in our culture. There's a strong argument that anything that is offensive to someone is probably a bad idea. But where's the fun in that? Where would we be without South Park or Brass Eye? Both shows made with not-inconsiderable genius that have relentlessly made light of serious issues. Take Timmy in South Park, or the infamous Brass Eye paedophile special that actually managed to make the outraged front page of the Daily Mail (a delicious irony considering the piece was an attack on media over-reaction in itself.) Both are hilarious, and have buried serious points in silly comedy by crossing the taste line and being deliberately provocative and offensive. Are these overly offensive?

Check out this clip from controversial (but wickedly funny) American stand up Scott Capurro:

The Madeline McCanCan

Capurro is so offensive it verges on the ridiculous. He calls vanished child Madeline McCann a "little bitch", makes a blatant racist slur and milks someone elses horrible situation for a cheap laugh. Guilty as charged yer honour. However… after watching that clip, would you think that Scott Capurro is racist? Not really. Would you think he'd be delighted by the abduction of children? Of course not. On some level, as a viewer, you know that these aren't sincere statements. Of course sincere or not, should they have been said?

Unfortunately, offensive is funny. It's not an ideal thing to admit to, but there's no getting around it… a good chunk of what we laugh at is at someone else's expense, and it's for each viewer to decided what is and isn't over the line. When someone offends you, it's okay to be outraged. When someone offends others, it's okay to be outraged on their behalf. But don't confuse the intent to shock with the intent for malice.

It's a very sharp line in the sand, and a dangerous one to walk. But without 'offensive' comedians pushing back the boundaries, and defining for us what is and isn't right, comedy would be that much less rich an art form.

Marc B

Monday, 8 September 2008

Trainee Stand Up

Note to That Joke Isn't Funny Regulars...I wrote this for the new Myspace Comedy UK site I'm currently working for, although I don't think they're going to use it. I figured I may as well sling it up here too. Normal service will resume shortly, now I have more time to actually watch television. The Myspace blog also has review of Fringe shows wot I wrote. If you're, you know, interested.

As a result, please excuse the foray into the self indulgent waters of first person. I hate breaking my own house style.

Marc B

I suppose it was inevitable. I've worked in Comedy getting on for two years, I've been obsessed with it ever since I can remember (I had the entire series of the Young Ones memorised by the time I was about nine), I've been quoting bits of other peoples stand up ever since I was old enough to know what it was. I've seen hundreds of comics and I go to gigs all the time. Basically I love stand up comedy, and I've been pretty passionate about it for a pretty long time.

I was going to have to go give it a go.

Let's get this out of the way now. I wasn't going into Stand Up expecting to be any good at it. I wasn't going on stage to succeed…I was doing it to see if I could pull it off at all. To not-fail, rather than actually succeed: these are two very different things. It was an experiment. I've had some loose material knocking around my head for a while now, and it had gotten to the point where I just had to know if it was any good. I'd reviewed and booked and worked with hundreds of comics. At the Edinburgh Fringe I was watching them all day, and maybe every fourth comic I saw made me think "with some work I reckon I could do that". Just (admittedly every other comic I saw made me go "Damn. I'm not clever enough.")It got to the point where I had to give it a go.

So I asked a comic-friend who put me in touch with someone, and bang…5 minutes at the Tron in Edinburgh on a Thursday night. Simple as that.

Oh. My.

At which point I realised I was actually going to have to write some material, get the stuff out of my head and on to a page. So I wrote it all out. I said it out loud. I crossed most of it out. I wrote it again. I said it out loud.

Bugger. There were no jokes in it.

What I'd written was a reasonably engaging comic story about looking slightly younger than I actually am, with a reasonably funny ending. I was sort-of happy with it, but there weren't enough gags layered through the whole thing, they were all stuck at the end. Watch any half way decent stand up and you know they win or lose an audience in the first 30 seconds of their set…my best bit wasn't until minute 5. So I did a little rewriting, and worked on performing it a little. It was…okay. Stand up convention dictates you should start by voicing whatever the audience is probably thinking when you hit the stage…it pre-empts heckles, and gets a cheap laugh at your own expense in the first 5 seconds. For example… "I know what you're thinking…Paedophile" (Daniel Kitson), "I know what your thinking…the body of Peter Crouch and the head of Postman Pat" (Tom Wrigglesworth), or "don't worry…I've never heard of you either" (Stewart Francis). I had one of those, but decided not to kick off with it, because I wasn't sure it was strong enough. I insterted it about a minute in. To be honest the opening gag was the thing that had me most worried. I'd got the rest of the act –such as it was- into a reasonable condition. Other things did occur to me, but I thought I'd best stick to what I'd got for now.

The night of the show approached, and still I wasn't quite there. I had the timing right, I took the night off, I made sure no-one knew what I was doing (if I was going to fail at this I was damned if anyone would ever know about it), but I still needed some tweaking. The day drew on, my stomach twisted itself into knots.

On the way to the venue I thought of an opening. It wasn't a great opening, but it was okay. I'll keep the details to myself in case it never works again.

I got to the show, met Sean the compere –nice bloke-, there were only 17 people there. Fine by me. Then two things happened that weren't supposed to. First of all I had to follow James Dowdeswell, whose been in Extras with Ricky Gervais and is a very funny man. Then there was Nick Doody who is an exceptional stand up, then right before me was Shazia Mirza whose been on Have I Got News For You and everything. Okay, this isn't going great. I'm not going to compare…I hastily re-wrote my opening to "hello, my names Marc, and yes I am the first act tonight whose not actually been on the telly".

The second thing that went wrong, and for my money the very last thing I expected, is an old friend from University walked in, and was delighted to see me. And even more delighted to know I was performing. Great.

But you know, I'm a pro (natch) so I ignored the distractions, and waited my turn. The nerves actually settled, and having someone to talk to sort of helped.

I did it.

I've left that sentence on its own, because it's a small achievement by itself. I did it. I did 5 minutes of stand up comedy. And you know what? It wasn't bad. Okay, it wasn't by any stretch of the imagination actually good…I doubt any of those 17 punters will remember me except for a faintly amusing sorbet between two proper acts. But I wasn't bad. I got laughs…small ones, but I expected that. It confirmed that my material didn't really have enough jokes in it…as I suspected it was a reasonably compelling comic story, but didn't provide enough laughs. I was surprised (okay, read disapointed) to find it was the cheaper gags that got the laughs, where as the funnier moments of my story warranted mere politeness and some giggles. But it proved that I could, just about, do it. Sort of. It was something worth perusing.

I'm not saying I'm looking at Stand Up as a career, or even thinking about doing it a lot. But that one gig went okay, if nothing else it proved to me I should do another one, and then another. Just to see. At the very least I can say I've had a go.

It'll be easy. I just need to write some jokes.

Marc is coming to a comedy club near you. Except he won't be telling anyone before hand, in case he's rubbish.