The Week in Comedy: Why the vote's no laughing matter for Scottish stand-ups


If you're visiting the Edinburgh Fringe next month, you might expect comics to be cracking jokes about the referendum for Scottish independence, which takes place just weeks after the festival ends. But for many stand-ups it will be a case of, as the Scots say, haud yer wheesht on the subject. One funnyman from north of the border told me it has become "toxic" and there are even some No supporters among stand-ups who genuinely fear violence if they go public on how they will vote.

Several Scottish comics I have spoken to – who refused to be identified in this article – said they have decided not to do material about the issues surrounding the referendum, still less suggest that Scotland might be better off staying in the Union.

They pointed to the appalling treatment meted out on social media to Edinburgh-based Harry Potter creator JK Rowling when she made a donation to the No campaign earlier this year, and to Glaswegian comic Susan Calman after she made some lighthearted comments about the referendum on Radio 4's News Quiz in 2013. One comic told me: "I normally include some current political comedy in my set but the referendum is a no-go area. It's toxic and the passions it arouses border on the insane."

One stand-up who has dared to tread into this poisonous territory is Andrew Maxwell. Last year his critically acclaimed Fringe show, Banana Kingdom, was about a possible post-independence British Isles and he lampooned Alex Salmond's presidential ambitions, calling him a "buffoon" and describing as crass the moment when the First Minister unfurled a Saltire in the Royal Box at Wimbledon after Andy Murray's 2013 victory. This year's show, Hubble Bubble – about the witches' brew of nationalism (at Assembly Rooms) – is equally political and will reference the vote.

Maxwell said he has no fear. "I understand the caginess that some comics feel but I don't scare easily – I've been trolled by conspiracy nuts and all sorts."

I asked why he thought supporters of independence haven't received the same vitriol. "The Yes voters are idealists and the No voters are pragmatists, and pragmatists tend not to get angry," he said.

The Dubliner, who has lived in London for 20 years, said he doesn't have a view on which way September's vote should go. "It's for the people of Scotland to decide their future," he said. "I'm not campaigning for either side but I see the absurdities of the issue, and my job as a professional clown is to point out when the emperor is wearing no clothes.

"And as an Irishman, I see that the nth degree of tribalism always ends in violence."

It's sad that fear may prevent many comics from commenting on the most momentous point in Scottish history since William Wallace's time. Then again that spawned Mel Gibson's Braveheart – and that was a laughably poor effort too.