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Thursday, March 22

Dangerous Ashley

When I was just starting out doing comedy, I used to dispair of the sort of act who made it their mission to be offensive or provocative to the audience for its own sake. These were people who felt that their views were more important than their audience's sensibilities and, more importantly, the jokes. I'd hear words like "I'm going to ruffle some feathers tonight" before they went on, and then, when they got there, they'd make some wan references to marijuana and porn to a stony-faced crowd and then they'd feel like they'd said something important.

I don't want to be that sort of act. I don't want to offend for its own sake. There must be a laugh. An audience's sensibilities are important.

However, the jokes must be told.

Over the last week, where I've gigged every night, there have been incidents where I've caused offense to an audience. Sometimes it's been funny and I stand by what I've said. Sometimes I've felt perhaps a little embarrassed/cringey/unimpressed by my own behaviour. Here's a quick run down of the week in being offended.

Thursday - sang a deeply un-PC song at a charity gig for Comic Relief. A punter complained that I was gleefully mocking the very people the charity was there to help. I started to try to point out that it was so ridiculously un-PC that it couldn't be real, let alone meant, but ended up just apologising unreservedly for his offence. Looking back, it hadn't been so funny at the time that it was causing someone offence... though it can be funny if the room "needs" it.

Friday - I was offended to be playing in a room full of drunken twats. As a result, I invented some insults which I threw at various members of the audience. Some were deserved and may stay in my mind as useful ambush jokes (in fact, one got re-used on Tuesday and got a round of applause). The audience weren't offended by my material. If only they'd understood how much I looked down on some of them... they would have been offended enough to maim.

Saturday - No offence caused. Lovely gig. Lovely crowd. Lovely promoter. Shame I only came second in the competitive aspects. Great conversation on the way home on the subject of racism and I really learned something.

Sunday - Another tough gig. For the first time ever I bottled out of a song because it only works if a crowd is ready to take hedonistic pleasure in its slightly dark offensiveness. My mind was so convinced that it wasn't going to work that it purposely deleted the lyrics from the screen behind my eyes where I read my words from when I'm performing.

Monday - The Catface Cabaret. I used a joke I've been doing now for a year. It's at the end of a routine where I've become ridiculously intimidating in song form, and comment that the person on the receiving end looks scared. The line I use is "Sorry about that. You're scared, I'm out of breath. This isn't a gig. It's a rape!". The point is to ridicule the moment. For the first time ever, and the small crowd and theatre setting were partly, if not entirely, to blame for this, this didn't get the usual laugh. It got an "ooh" from the girl in question and a tension. I then pointed out that it clearly wasn't one and that "it's all just a bit make-believe" (a Gavin Webster phrase that popped out of my mouth in a slightly desperate attempt to defuse the situation). It didn't kill the room, but mirth had stopped. I pondered in a split second whether the girl in question might have been the victim of a sexual assault and decided she probably hadn't. I finished the gig fine and it was fine. Another girl came up to me, though, and said I shouldn't joke about rape. She also said I could maybe use another phrase like "sexual assault". She said there's nothing funny about rape. What I wanted to say was that "rape" is a powerful word and that's why it's funny in that context, especially with the way it sounds - the rhythm, the sharp stab in the air of the word. However, I told her I agreed that there's nothing funny about rape. I guess she couldn't see the joke. Describing it now, it doesn't seem that funny. Maybe it's only funny when I've created a slightly cartoonish rapey mood and then debunk it by pointing out that it's supposed to be a gig, not a rape... Anyway. Rape is a funny word, but rape is not funny.

Tuesday - the rape joke brought the house down. The "racist material" didn't.

I'll describe my behaviour on Tuesday in a bit more detail than the other days. It's my decision-making process from Tuesday which I sort of regret, and I'm sort of glad about. I was at a try-out gig, with a bunch of people I knew in the room. I felt fairly safe to do whatever I thought was, or might be, funny. I was also going to do a bunch of stuff which previous experience told me was funny. I was also closing the show. I had a lot of rope and I planned not so much to hang myself with it, as twirl it around my head and lassoo the crowd in. Don't you love it when a metaphor gets out of control?

Anyway, I decided to play with fire. Fire's fun. Fire can be funny. I did it in a controlled fashion - like putting a sparkler into a metal bin full of sand (oh dear - a metaphor AND a simile). I decided that I was going to do the Cheryl Tweedy material which had worked really well first time out and then died sorry horribly, causing me to be considered racist, on its second time out. I decided also, if the Cheryl stuff worked, to do the material I blogged the other day (here).

I didn't really offend anyone - except perhaps the comedian who missed the sarcasm in my post-gig comment. I said something like "I was being a bit edgy there" and he said something like "no you weren't, you should have just been racist". I replied that I thought I'd probably stick to mildly amusing slightly rude comic songs as normal. The thing is, I didn't so much break boundaries as stop being funny and start a pointless and facile lecture on the power of words to offend. This helped me exorcise a demon, but was more about words than it was using them. Going into the 3rd person in a comedy set - i.e. talking about the material you're doing - isn't an aid to comedy. It's a turn off. I won't do that again. It wasn't edgy.

However, the Cheryl Tweedy material worked and, with my central aim of tweaking taboos if necessary, but not actually hurting anyone, I reckon I know how to do it again to more sensitive audiences without offending them. The problem with this material is that I have to use an acronym. The gag is that I don't like the lazy journalistic use of the word "WAG" to describe an individual person. It's a crap word and it's inaccurate, since it stands for Wives And Girlfriends. The correct term should be the acronym for "Wife Or Girlfriend". The problem is that that's a term of racial abuse. Saying the word "wog" on stage, even when you're referring to a white geordie girl, and even when you've already set it up as an acronym, is, to some fucking imbeciles, an act of racial abuse. Twats. They probably wouldn't enjoy this paragraph either. However, the problem with the word, even when qualified with the context I've described, is that an audience that's only partially listening, might not realise what's been said, just hear the word and then be offended out of context. I've been here before.

At the very least, Tuesday night's version, put the point of the joke right up front and then backed it up with the racism skeleton from Cheryl Tweedy's past, so that I could point the finger of racism at someone other than the messenger (i.e. me). It worked pretty well... though I forgot a bit of it.

The material about the power of the word "Paki". Well, it wasn't that funny. It was quite funny in discussion with other comedians backstage somewhere... but I think comedians can find the saying of any taboo word funny. That's what comedians like to do. It's not edgy and it's not clever, it's just getting drunk with the power of the microphone... which is what I used to hate in those open spots at the start of my comedic career.

Jim Jeffries and Brendon Burns have both dealt with these taboo subjects in a way that I can't. I'll leave my need to push those buttons unsatisfied and I'll just do it vicariously through listening to their CDs. It's not edgy, but it's more me.


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