Laughing Matters?

[11 September 2003]

By Simon Warner

Once they said comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll; it embodied the intimate excitement of the pub gig or the cellar show once rock had moved from the street to the stadium. Now, of course the new rock’n'roll is rock itself, as heavy metal and indie, garage, and punk re-assert themselves as a returning symbol of adolescent aggression, attitude and angst. But comics haven’t gone away: in every city of the Western world — certainly the English-speaking parts — stand-up clubs have become the focus for entertainment that is both edgy and contemporary.

Britain isn’t the capital of very much these days — our movies, our television, even our music, rate some way down the global ratings league — but comedy is still something we can justifiably crow about. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now paradoxically considerably bigger than the mainstream Edinburgh International Festival (home to orchestral concerts and legitimate theatre), has comedy and comedians as its absolute cornerstone. The Edinburgh Fringe, which for the first time in its history sold more than a million tickets during its three week August season, is the Mecca of mirth-making. It’s a place where comics have that marvellous — not to say terrifying — opportunity to test their mettle in the hottest cauldron of all. Unlike Toronto, where stand-ups get seven minutes to chance their material, comedians at the Scottish festival have to commit themselves to an hour-long performance, night after night. If you can make it there, to appropriate an anthem from another place, you can make it anywhere.

The festival climaxes with the Perrier Award, presented to the best comedian at the event. Like all arts and entertainment competitions, the contest is charged with claim, controversy and counter claim. It’s always the case when an aesthetic practice is judged as if it were a track race. How can we ever show that one comic is better than another? But the Perrier, named after a widely consumed mineral water (a little ironic as the Fringe is an alcohol-soaked jamboree) has become the Holy Grail for the thousands of jesters who cram the hundreds of clubs and cabarets, bars and dives that sprout mushroom-like each summer.

The prize-giving process begins in earnest once the judges — promoters, impresarios, journalists and so on — have narrowed the plethora of acts down to a manageable six nominations. There’s always discontent generated by this initial decision. This year, some critics suggested and certain comics implied, there were too few Brits, too many Americans, and a dismal paucity of women amongst the winners. British acts found themselves sidelined because, perversely, if you’ve already achieved a degree of success, like a TV series, you can’t receive a nomination. Yet anomalies, as ever, abound. Reginald G. Hunter, a likeable black American based in London, has had television work in the UK but he was named in the final six. Women are always a sore point; it’s been many years since a female comic won, so the patriarchy continues to dominate the comedy circuit.

Yet the main talking point this time has been about the decline of comedy that toes the line of political correctness. Until the 1970s, the UK had a long tradition of working class stand-ups whose targets were wives and mothers-in-law, the Irish, gays and blacks. The punk explosion — rock, again, playing a role as social catalyst — threw up a new generation of middle class, university educated comedians who fiercely rejected the sexist, racist and homophobic obsessions of their predecessors. It helped that with the rise of Thatcher political comedy, a blend of social comment and stinging satire, became fashionable and established.

Almost a decade and a half after Thatcher’s demise (she slipped from grace in 1990) the mood of comedy, like a barometer of the times, has shifted. PC no longer has the hold on the joke-tellers of today. Comedians, certainly of the alternative school, have always been prone to transgress boundaries and dabble in taboos. In the early 21st century, young performers want to break the rules their forebears have set in place. But does it mean that comedy is slipping back into a mire of prejudice, even hatred?

Two gags offer a test of this new libertarianism in comedy, a freedom to ignore the old anti-racist and anti-sexist manifestos of old. Please excuse the examples I provide. If you’re offended do leave the room for a paragraph or two. Whimsical English comic Jimmy Carr asks: “If men always fall asleep after sex why don’t the police catch more rapists?” Raucous Scot Jerry Sadowitz, an obscenity-fuelled veteran, remarks: “You lend that black c*** Nelson Mandela a fiver then you don’t see him for 25 years”.

Whether you find the jokes hilariously funny or deeply shocking, mildly amusing or gently ironic, may well depend on your own status and your take on life. Are they sexist? Are they racist? I only share them with you to illustrate the changing climes. Edinburgh’s stand-ups and its media coterie are presently debating the different atmosphere; the less respectful air that permeated the stages of the Fringe in 2003. Have we maybe now entered that post-modern world where sophisticated audiences can “read” the levels of a joke without being corrupted by the main text? Perhaps political incorrectness is the new rock ‘n’ roll, if that statement isn’t already fraught with too many layers of contradiction.

As for the Perrier Award, an American ran off with the honour. Ex-Yale scholar and law school dropout Demetri Martin, actually a first-timer at this year’s festival, became the 23rd recipient of the prize. Reviewing his act, the influential newspaper The Scotsman said: “This show is a stunningly clever symbiosis of intellect and humour, nurtured along with some traditional educated American neuroticism and charm”.

Martin, although little known to Edinburgh comedy-watchers until his triumph, has already made a mark in the US. After regular appearances on the website Comedy Central, plus high profile spots on The David Letterman Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, he is currently developing a sitcom with NBC, home, of course, of those mega-hits Friends and Frasier.

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