Most stand-up comedians bound on stage with a chummy grin and a 'Welcome to the show'. But not in I Was a Teenage Racist, Kevin Day's new show at the Assembly Rooms. As he takes the microphone and launches into a stream of racist cliches, you can sense the audience's double-take, the creeping air of unease. The odd nervous titter breaks out around the room. The non-racist joke that follows 30 seconds later - a throwaway line about a feminist theatre group being mistaken for the Sunday Sport Roadshow - releases the tension of those opening moments and provokes an explosion of what Day calls 'laughter of relief': 'The audience realises I'm being ironic and that they're not in for an hour of anti-Semitism.'
None the less, the fact that Day has chosen to base the show on his teenage experiences with the National Front is something of a calculated risk. He might suddenly find himself being labelled 'ex-Nazi Kevin Day'. If his sense of irony were not fully appreciated by the audience, he might even find himself on the end of a good beating. He admits, 'Every time I go on I'm tempted not to do the opening bit.' Fortunately, his early-evening slot has meant that most audiences have been relatively sober and in the right frame of mind to appreciate his stand-up soul-baring.
In terms of the material, there's also the risk of foregoing the standard machine-gun gag attack for a more considered comic approach based on personal politics. It may well be a smart move. The most powerful part of Donna McPhail's Perrier-nominated show is the chunk devoted to her coming out as a lesbian, and you'd be hard-pressed to argue that Eddie Izzard's wearing a frock on stage has done much to harm his career.
For the show, Day has settled on a format that occupies a halfway house between tales from his racist youth and the more usual topical material. 'I'm aware of not pushing it too far just yet, but when I tour the show I'm going to explore the racism much more.' Although he doesn't consider the show to be brave, the ending hardly conforms with the comedy norm - build 'em up to an almighty climax and leave 'em gagging for more. Instead, it takes the form of a dedication to his best childhood friend, Richard (who was black), who died after being beaten by warders in a remand centre where he was serving time for stealing a torch. It's a deeply personal, serious conclusion to what is, after all, a comedy show, but audiences have not been deterred. Day says he's had no walk-outs at all this year, and that interest has been heightened by the show's theme. 'Just about every comic on the circuit has been along, about two every night, whereas last year I had about two for the entire run. It would be good if they see there's room to explore stuff that isn't just punchline frenzy.'
Only two black people have come along so far. This he believes is not because of the nature of the material but because 'there are very few black people performing stand-up comedy and even less coming to watch it. The two that did come said they felt the audience were very uncomfortable with them being there, that they could see people checking their reaction, and that at one stage they wanted to stand up and say, 'Look, we're enjoying this. We're not offended.' They also mentioned that a black audience might appreciate the show more since even the most middle-class, liberal white person doesn't like to be reminded that he too might once have had racist thoughts'.
That Day is choosing to remind himself publicly of his former racist leanings is not, he says, an act of on-stage catharsis. 'It's not like an American comic stripping his soul bare. I just wanted to admit it happened. It's less guilt than honesty. I'm saying, 'Look, this was part of my life. All the time it was part of my life my best mate was black and at the time I saw nothing ironic in that.' '
Day was 15 when he started attending National Front meetings. He puts his involvement down to a number of influences. Firstly, a fascination with military history brought about by his father's interest in the Second World War. 'When you're 12 there's something really glamorous about seeing films of Hitler's legions, with all the banners and the emblems and the uniforms and guns. It's attractive and kind of mesmerising.' Then there was the intensely nationalistic terrace culture at England football matches where 'it was natural to support England by hating everyone we played against'.
At school he felt ostracised, being one of only five non-Irish kids. 'It was partly because I hated being non-Irish that I coped with it by becoming completely English. I wanted to find an English culture, a Lord of the Rings world of chivalry, honour and dignity. It was the Queen's Silver Jubilee around that time, and the attitude was 'If you're not pro-British, you're against us.' From there it's very easy to say that the people you assume are not pro-British are black and Asian immigrants.
'I never even considered myself right-wing. The politics I'd learned about were left-leaning, apart from this patriotism and desire for repatriation. I described myself as a nationalist socialist without realising the cachet those words together carried.'
The National Front meetings, as detailed in Day's show, were pure farce. 'Fourteen respectable family men' (no skinheads in the NF's Streatham branch) would meet down the pub every Wednesday. 'They were the most unfrightening bunch of Nazis you've ever seen. The drinks order would take about half-an-hour. Then Reg, our leader, would kick off the debate. 'Right, are we all agreed there's too many of 'em here? Yeah? All agreed. Right, what is it then, darts or pool?' '
The Nazis' organisation was so poor they won only 11 votes at a council election (despite there being 14 in the group). They were beaten by the Road Safety candidate.
These were the sort of people, says Day, who 'manage to reduce the entire Asian subcontinent to a mythical country called Paki. That's why racism exists, when people have no interest in learning about cultural differences. Yet if you accused one of them from Tooting of having come from Balham he'd do his nut.'
Another reason for doing I Was a Teenage Racist, says Day, is that racism is still engrained in society. 'There's a bloke down my pub who refuses to count goals scored for England by black players. He carries a separate league table in his head. He'll say, 'That was 0-0 that game', and you'll say, 'No it wasn't. We won.' Then he'll say, 'Nah, it was a draw, black goal.' It's astonishing. What positive statement is he trying to make about his own race?'
Only once, says Day, has there been a group in the audience laughing for the wrong reasons. 'I could see them nudging each other and saying, 'That's you that is Barry.' ' Again, it's the risk factor involved in introducing an emotive topic to a stand-up audience that has grown to expect regulation wanking gags with perhaps a touch of politics thrown in.
'Comics were telling me, 'Audiences aren't going to want to listen to that sort of stuff . . . It's not the sort of risk you want to be taking going to Edinburgh.' But Edinburgh's always been a testing ground. If you're coming up here for three weeks and your only object is to get a set that's safe enough to attract a lot of people and make money, people have got a right to be upset about the monopoly of stand-up comedy at the festival.'
'I Was a Teenage Racist', Assembly Rooms (venue 3), 54 George St, 031-226 2428. 6.15pm to 4 Sept.
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