When you make a Brexit gag at the Fringe, the audience no longer laughs – what has happened to our sense of humour?

From Brexit gags to feminist shows, left-leaning audiences, when faced with awkward political issues, can often be ostentatiously po-faced

Danielle Grufferty
Saturday 19 August 2017 15:36
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Fliers advertising Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows litter the streets of the Scottish capital
Fliers advertising Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows litter the streets of the Scottish capital

Since my return after two weeks performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve come to the realisation that you can divide comedy audiences into two groups: there’s the Remoaners and then there’s the Brexiteers.

I expected Brexit to come up more in the shows I went to – it’s almost as if people are a little fatigued by it all. I saw a variety of reactions to different takes on the issue – David Trent used the most elegant of PowerPoint presentations to convey how “Great” Britain is (spoiler: it isn’t). There’s James Acaster’s much cited teabag/Brexit analogy which feels almost prophetic to those of us who still feel there may be a way out of this mess.

At a gig I performed at the other day, I asked, as I usually do, if there were any fans of Brexit in the room. For the first time this Fringe, I got a cheer from the back. I felt it my duty to communicate that this was one of the first times this had ever happened, probably due to how leftie and liberal the festival is. I welcomed these “ordinary people”, as I felt was my duty, to the world’s biggest arts festival, and continued on with my set.

After the show I chatted to the couple who had cheered from the back. They heralded from Sunderland and remarked to me how “middle class” they found the festival. One of them went onto say that I was clearly playing a character when, in my set, I remarked about how dull it is, as a member of the liberal elite, to be right about everything all the time. I was relieved to find they assumed I was playing a character.

“I don’t think the rest of the room enjoyed it so much though” one of them continued. “But they should probably learn to laugh at themselves more”. The couple spoke some truth and this wasn’t a one off – from Brexit gags to feminist shows, left-leaning audiences, when faced with awkward political issues, can often be this po-faced.

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Seeing a comic rant about the state of the world is something we all enjoy. Maybe it’s because it makes us feel better about our privilege in being able to access what is an increasingly inaccessible artform? Perhaps the problem with liberal, dyed-in-the-wool left-leaning audiences is that for them it is an act of duty to see things that are politically “right-on”. Nish Kumar has done material before about how “right wing” jokes would be a rather odd thing, and I tend to agree. Though the problem with performing satirical material is that sometimes people in the room begin to worry that you are not, like they are, politically “right-on”. When I perform at all-women line ups, I tend to talk about how I personally, don’t find “female comediennes” funny. I am still surprised at the surprise I see from the crowd – surely people know that I wouldn’t actually say that? (Though perhaps like women in general, I am simply not funny).

Another example is female comedienne Sindhu Vee who has a line about being "Sindhu the Hindu". She says this immediately splits an audience as religion apparently isn't something liberals should be talking about. She then goes onto say in her set that if she was a Muslim, it would be weird (because it doesn't rhyme with Sindhu). Cue liberal audiences being visibly uncomfortable, who misunderstand the line and assume she is saying that Muslims themselves are weird. "Performing to very liberal audiences is much like performing to my mother" she told me recently. Perhaps through stand-up comedy, liberal sensitivities are more easily exposed?

I guess that if one mentions an issue of inequality without ranting about how awful inequality is, you start to muddy the waters. An audience will tense up and become nervous. In the end, the build-up of tension usually makes the laughs even louder – just see Bridget Christie talking about FGM or Fin Taylor talking about why he’d rather date a Brexiteer.

As Molly Ivins said, when satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel – it's vulgar. I think there’s something naturally funny about the liberal elite, not all of them think they know best about everything but many of them secretly do. The best satire exposes the powerful to ridicule, conveying their prejudices directly to the audience to make a deeper point. If liberal audiences are only going to smile and nod in agreement at comics who make them feel at ease because they feel like they are at a political rally as much as they are at a comedy show, perhaps we need to open things up a little more.

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