Wednesday 18 September 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Politically correct comedians with their 'woke' jokes are no laughing matter'

Star name: Billy Connolly is one of many top comedians who cut their teeth at the Edinburgh Fringe
Star name: Billy Connolly is one of many top comedians who cut their teeth at the Edinburgh Fringe

Patricia Casey

The world's largest arts festival got under way last Friday and it's very exciting to be here in Edinburgh, in the epicentre of high and low culture. It comprises drama, music, comedy, dance, circus, spoken word and any other art form you care to mention. Indeed art is defined very elastically where the Edinburgh Festival is concerned. It is flanked by two others, the International and the Book Festivals, that are much more predictable and strait-laced than the Fringe. These are definitely high culture.

Comedy, however, is the form that the Fringe is best known for. Ardal O'Hanlon cut his teeth here, as did a raft of others like Dara Ó Briain, Rowan Atkinson, Graham Norton, Billy Connolly and many more, all familiar names to Irish audiences. Irish comedians still participate here in large numbers.

Jason Byrne, Andrew Maxwell, Neil Delamere, Tommy Tiernan and David O'Doherty are among the well-known names here this year. Their events are among the 3,398 shows spread over 300 venues.

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But comedy wasn't part of the original Fringe and it's only in the past 30 years that it has become its spiritual home. Dublin now hosts a much smaller Fringe with many of the acts repeating their shows in venues around our capital in September.

Interestingly the one-hour comedy show evolved in the 1980s when comedians needed more time to present their material to their audiences, occasioned by the politics of the period.

The social unrest generated by Margaret Thatcher was fodder for the politicisation of comedy and the Edinburgh hour-long stand-up was born. The tradition of poking fun at easy targets, particularly politicians, has continued and remains immensely popular but sadly predictable.

Humour is of course personal, differing hugely from one person to another, even in the same family. The study of the genetic contribution on how we respond to jokes is limited but some genetic element has been identified. And genes play a role not just in our sense of humour but also in determining if we actually "get" the joke.

Clearly environmental and cultural factors are at play also. The type of jokes that were once so fashionable, such as mother-in-law yarns, are no longer so funny or acceptable. Slapstick, with its reminder of Laurel and Hardy, for some reason has eternal appeal and Paddy the Irishman or "missus" jokes are definite "no-nos" in our current climate.

Here in Edinburgh this year Brexit is the predominant issue both in conversation and on stage. There is much more urgency, disbelief and anger at its imminence than has been noticeable in the past. And of course the people most often lampooned by the comedians are Boris and Trump, although Theresa May, Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg also feature.

The line is predictable - they're baddies, racist, stupid, slightly doddery and even selfish, like the people who voted to leave. Indeed the predictability of these ideas in many of the shows is perhaps why they seem so unfunny and to be devoid of wit.

These gags have been running for three years, since the referendum to surpass all others was passed. Gone are the clever punchlines, the key to a good stand-up comedian.

They are more akin to preachy political monologues directed at those who mistakenly ticked the leave box. About one-third of the performers are female and I have to resist the temptation to tell them that jokes about vaginas, menstruation and the menopause are not especially funny despite their shows being described as edgy and empowering. Hopefully as I explore others in the coming weeks I will be proven wrong. Thankfully there are performances that are devoid of political comment and these are refreshing.

The Irish trio Foil, Arms and Hog are performing in the biggest venue here and as ever, with scant attention to Brexit or politics or religion, they are utterly hilarious.

Their engagement with the audience, their improvised asides and their larking about with each other like teenage pals demonstrates that they represent the best in Irish comedy. Their shows are selling like hot-cakes.

While comedy at the Fringe has been dominated by a certain left-leaning world view, there is a new breed emerging this year. As a riposte to the social justice warriors who censor certain topics and language in their shows, Titania McGrath, the brainchild of Andrew Doyle, is here and with her politically correct world view in her show Mxnifesto. She wants to ban the word "black" because it contains the letters "lack" which means inferior and also words like woman because of the last three letters. She is as likely to induce convulsive laughter as she is an explosion of anger, depending on whether you believe that 'Dad's Army' was responsible for Brexit or not. She is of course a spoof.

The presence of Doyle and Konstantin Kisin, a first-timer who refused to sign a safe space agreement for a university gig last year, are challenging the limitations of free speech imposed by "wokeness".

While tearing down the sacred icons of triggering, safe spaces, gender neutral pronouns and such ideas promoted in current comedy, these new performers are generating a potentially alternative political direction. And this is the opposite course to that created in the 1980s.

Hopefully the presence of iconoclasts among the comedians here at the Fringe will lead to better comedy. Their sense of the craziness in what is and is not allowed to be spoken and their lampooning of the received wisdoms in politics will hopefully restore the humour, the clever punchline and the impeccable timing that create good comedy free from the dreariness of dogmatic predictability.

Irish Independent

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