Stay strong, Jimmy Carr - I've been heckled too

Stand-up comedy is turning into a battleground, and you need to have your weapons at the ready

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The Independent Online

There’s one thing new stand-up comedians love more than the sound of laughter. And that’s the sight of a seasoned pro dying on their arse. So I couldn’t be more sorry that I missed Thursday night’s legendary Arts Emergency gig at the Hackney Empire where comedic giant Jimmy Carr apparently had a bit of a rough night.

The glee over a Carr comeuppance was palpable all over social media yesterday. Reports are mixed. According to several accounts, the reaction to Carr’s appearance was intense heckling and horrific rancour, which left the always affable hostess of the night, Josie Long, at a rare loss for words.

It’s very fashionable in comedic circles to “diss” Carr. almost as fashionable as hating Michael McIntyre’s millions. In fact, both men are intense workaholics who have given their lives over to joke-telling. It doesn’t matter what you think of their comedy or their money or the discrepancy between performing at an arts fundraiser when your tax savings could fund several hundred university places, you can’t knock their work ethic or their dedication.

Carr’s crime? Having an excellent accountant, of course. And his one-liners. “We hate you” came one heckle. “No one wants you here. Go home.” And the liberal accusation of choice: “Misogynist.” That won’t have pained Carr. Educated jibes are often deserving of respect. I’ve had “Show us your mammary glands” and I greatly admired it. If BBC Radio 4 made hecklers, this would be their catchphrase.

Others reported that Carr turned the situation around and won himself a host of reluctant admirers in the process. At one point he ended up complaining: “This is turning into a town hall meeting, not an arts night.” Which seemed finally to appease the crowd.

The awkwardness of the night, however, is telling of an emerging clash in comedy. There’s a wave of comedians taking on society and politics in a way that hasn’t happened since the 1980s. Josie Long’s very much at the heart of it: she’s the inspiring force behind Arts Emergency. (Motto: “An arts degree is not a luxury.”) At the same time, though, “offensive” and “edgy” comedy has never been more popular, with lots of newbie comics trying to make their names with rape gags even Jimmy Carr wouldn’t touch.

This week those worlds collided and it wasn’t pretty. The moral of the story? If you’re going to use the most efficient tax loopholes, know your Neil Diamond lyrics. Jimmy Carr steered himself out of trouble by closing on the chorus of “Sweet Caroline”. Where politics and comedy fail, karaoke always wins the day. Good times never seemed so good.

A larger-than-life battle of the sexes

More than 100 miles away from the Hackney Empire in my home county of Somerset, offence of another kind was being caused by someone else being a bit of a cock. The Central Somerset Gazette had the honour of the headline of the week, if not the year: “Woman dressed as vagina stops fight between penis and man in Glastonbury.”

The story was about a scuffle between a passer-by and two performers from the gloriously named Nomadic Academy for Fools. A man and a woman were dressed as six-foot genitalia in folds of pink fleshy fabric (neither entirely anatomically accurate but both strangely realistic). Amusingly, no one seemed to take offence at the giant naked vagina with a grumpy lady’s face poking out of the top of it. But the penis was beyond the pale. Never mind misogyny, surely this was a classic case of misandry.

Meanwhile, the Somerset equivalent of crowd-pleaser “Sweet Caroline”? “A woman dressed as a vagina tried to calm the situation down.” Whatever it takes, people, whatever it takes.

Viv Groskop’s ‘I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took On Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life’ is published by Orion at £11.99

Philip Hensher is away