Edinburgh Festival `98: Don't mention the d-word

Death, racism... paedophilia? Do right-on Nineties audiences really want to hear jokes about that sort of topic? Judging by the success of those comedians who've gone for the jugular, they probably do.
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The Independent Culture
Taboo or not taboo. That was the question for many comics at this year's festival. With so many acts on offer to the supposedly politically correct audience of the Nineties, performers must have found it more difficult than ever to write their shows.

Edinburgh may be an open forum for art, but visitors want to be amused, touched and provoked. "I'm not interested in seeing somebody being rude for the sake of being rude," says a fan of comedy in the Pleasance courtyard. And here lies the satirist's dilemma: do I tackle a sensitive issue? And if so, how do I make it accessible and acceptable to the audience without losing that all-important edge?

Needless to say that few have chosen this route, instead following the less risky path of "mainstream" comedy. Some uncompromising performers have, however, accepted the challenge. They have, defiantly, decided to make us face up to very British taboos: racism, homosexuality, death and, most unspeakable, paedophilia.

"There are two ways of dealing with racism," says Junior Simpson, a black comic who mixes a variety of topical issues with the taboo of racism. "You can either pick-up a base-ball bat or a microphone. I think the latter is more effective, and it's less dangerous for me. When I do my show, I like to talk about lots of different things to demonstrate that we all have common experiences. It's not about being black or white, it's about being an individual." But if Simpson's show doesn't solely concentrate on racism, it is a subject which features prominently.

"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tackle the issue. I mean, if you are going to refer to topical matters, you can't ignore racism. Look at the last few months: the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, for example, was big news; you really felt that there was a moment of pause in London during those three/four days."

The question for Simpson, though, is: do people want to deal with this? "Sure, audiences are nervous about racism. Whenever I mention it, I can feel their sphincters tightening. They think that because I'm black and they're white, I'm automatically blaming them for the problem. But I don't need to tell other black people about racism; that would be like stating the obvious." Not that Simpson ever forces people to take note. "I just lay out my stall, offering the audience a number of issues from which to chose." For Simpson, fighting racism isn't an obsession, it's more of a personal crusade. "I am as fervent about splitting-up the Spice Girls as I am about ending racism." You feel that the latter will take a bit longer to achieve.

Mike Gunn always wanted to be a funeral director: "The look, the slow pace and the ridiculous hats; they're all slightly sinister and quite sexy really." It's little wonder then, that his entire show is based around the taboo of death. "Something like 200,000 people die every year, and nobody talks about it! It's such a typically modern British attitude towards something that's just part of life. Look at the Pharaohs, they made such a fuss when one of them died. And there's this tribe in Madagascar, who cut off one of their fingers and have wild, incestuous sex after a family member dies. While, in Britain, what do we do? Hand-over our loved ones to a complete stranger."

Death is unquestionably a subject which people chose to ignore. But Gunn believes that most of us are fascinated by death. "After I've made a sick joke about death and a couple are laughing, I'll often ask them whether they knew that their partner found this kind of stuff funny. Most of the time they had no idea; it's not a subject they'd ever discussed."

Has comedy lightened the burden of the taboo then? "I think comedy is much funnier when you're not meant to laugh. It's like being in assembly at school: you know you shouldn't laugh, but you can't help yourself. By joking about death, I'm getting the taboo out into the open and helping people deal with it." Already Gunn has had offers to do his stand-up routine at a funeral and at an undertaker's Christmas party. "I turned the first job down because there's no sense in two people being buried on the same day. But the second offer is appealing."

"I chose to do a show about a gay man because I wanted to push buttons and challenge people's perceptions," says Scott Capurro. "The vast majority of the population have such double-standards; their attitudes towards gay men are totally one dimensional. They harbour this notion that gay men are simply nice and friendly - a bit like teenage girls. But the truth is that gay men are, first and foremost, men: they can be racist, bigoted, competitive and nasty just like straight men."

For Capurro then, the essence of his show is to challenge their preconceived ideas about homosexuality. "I don't think that the average person on the street sees homosexuality as a taboo anymore. But, the straight-white- males are creating and compounding the problem by limiting people's exposure to the subject."

Certainly this year's festival has few gay comics and, even more startlingly, less than four per cent are women. The result is that performers like Capurro are standing-out, and his material is shocking people. "To start off with, the audience is often quite taken aback, but then they laugh at a few jokes and slowly come round." So is his audience now ready to ditch the homosexual taboo? "I doubt it," says Capurro. "What usually happens, when the curtain comes down, is that individual audience members accept homosexuality and the taboo is temporarily lifted. But once they're outside, they collectively revert to their previous position and the taboo is back in place."

Racism, death and homosexuality are issues which we prefer to avoid: paedophilia even more so. Marc Haynes, the 22-year-old winner of the Telegraph's Open Mic Awards at the Festival, discusses it in his act. Why? "It challenges people's perceptions." For him, tackling taboos is a duty, not a gambit for an easy laugh. "The comic must hold a mirror up to society," he adds. "If he isn't tackling taboo subjects, then he's just like any other man in the street."

In challenging their audiences to face up to taboos, the Edinburgh comics have shown courage. Some have even been surprised at the response: "I was worried that people wouldn't want to hear any criticism of Diana and her funeral," says David Benson. `The nation's response to her death appeared to be so powerful, that questioning any of last September's events might seem inappropriate." But Benson has found that most of the emotional outpour was due to boredom and the British need for large, Live Aid-style, events. "Most people can't believe how they reacted to her death. I think many of us woke up a few weeks after the tragedy and felt slightly embarrassed about our behaviour. It was as if the nation suddenly realised what it had done at the office Christmas party."

As far as Benson is concerned then, Diana's death is no longer a taboo and the "madness" of last September warrants open discussion. "Most people are telling me to take the show further now," says Benson. Maybe we like our taboo-talk after all.