Brian Viner: Nothing in comedy should be sacred

He rounded on men. And then on women. Then children. The whole world, in other words
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The winners of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival's Intelligent Finance Comedy Awards will be named tonight. It's rather a shame that these, the Oscars of stand-up comedy, have to bear the name of their sponsor. This particular sponsor, anyway. Almost anything else would do: the Pot Noodle Comedy Awards, the Nike Comedy Awards, the Utterly Butterly Comedy Awards. But an Intelligent Finance Comedy Award is an oxymoron; surely, people listen to comedy at night as an antidote to engaging in intelligent finance by day.

Still, it's very nice of Intelligent Finance to put up the money. In my day they were called the Perrier Awards, and I say "my day" with proper croaky-voiced, misty-eyed sentiment, all but drawing on a big briar pipe.

In the 1984 Edinburgh Fringe, with a bunch of old schoolfriends, I put on a comedy revue called The Sound of Roebuck. It was successful because our audiences were bigger when we finished our run than when we started; at the Fringe you can hope for little more, except perhaps an Intelligent Finance Comedy Award.

One of the reasons we got audiences is that we marketed the show quite unethically. My friend Andy and I had wangled our way on to the air at a Radio 1 roadshow presented by Dave Lee Travis, and we told him that our forthcoming revue in Edinburgh would be "very, very funny". He looked sceptical. "Oh yeah, very, very funny, is it?" he said. So naturally we quoted him on our posters: "Very, very funny" - Dave Lee Travis, Radio 1.

I thought of this the other week when it was "revealed" that West End producers do exactly the same, cherry-picking words even from the most savage of reviews, sometimes actually turning a negative - "this execrable play is not to be missed only if you happen to be carrying a loaded blunderbuss" - into a positive - "not to be missed".

Other quotes we invented entirely. We probably wouldn't get away with it now. There's probably a Fringe ombudsman who ensures that all quotes are authentic. And yet such propriety does not extend to the stage, for this summer's Fringe, as far as I can make out, has been about the comedy of hatred. Doug Stanhope, Reginald D Hunter and Jerry Sadowitz, to name but three, have slick and highly popular acts predicated entirely on anger and abuse. Nothing is sacred. And maybe, in comedy, nothing should be.

In Edinburgh last Monday, I went to see Sadowitz, the epically foul-mouthed Glaswegian who is also a fine close-up magician, but whose television career appears to have stagnated. Even late at night on Channel 4, you can get away with only so many "fucks".

The show began with a respectable voice over the Tannoy saying that in the event of an emergency, people should make for the marked exits. The same voice then said that Jews should head for the showers. This was almost unbearably offensive, and the cue for anybody of a regular disposition, never mind a sensitive one, to leave. But nobody did. Maybe some people remembered Lenny Bruce, the father of angry comedy, and Jewish himself, as Sadowitz is. He used to start his act by asking if there were any "kikes" in the room. And then: "any micks? Any niggers?" His point was that there are offensive words to describe all of us, and it's hypocritical to laugh at only some of them. We should either laugh at all of them, or none.

Whether Sadowitz thinks of himself as an heir to that tradition, I don't know. He bills himself as an "Equal Opportunities Offender" and indeed was merciless at the expense of Jews, Pakistanis, Africans, short people, tall people, gay people, anyone who goes to a gym, anyone who does Sudoku, people from Dundee, the Japanese and Americans. Why, he wondered, do the Scots play bagpipes? "So we can hear ourselves over all the fucking Americans." But then he rounded on Scots as well. And then on men in general, and then on women in general, for being stupid enough to find men attractive. And then on children. The whole world, in other words.

I laughed. On occasion I laughed hard. I liked the gag aimed at the Japanese for inventing origami. "Who needs a dragonfly, far less a dragonfly made out of paper?" But that was a joke he could tell on the Des O'Connor Show, not that he's ever likely to be asked. I was unsure about the really splenetic stuff, but gradually it occurred to me that while we were laughing at him, he was laughing at us. At our discomfort and our hypocrisy. I might be seriously wrong about this, but I think he probably can call himself an heir to Lenny Bruce.

All I'll add, though, is that when he lambasted Jews as "hook-nosed money-launderers", there was a smattering of applause. And I was reminded of something the actress Meera Syal once said to me, that while she always knew the idea was to laugh at the preposterous Alf Garnett, not with him, the casual racism at her school near Wolverhampton was notably nastier on the morning after 'Til Death Us Do Part had been transmitted. Comedians shouldn't make the mistake of overestimating their audiences.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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