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Speaking truth to comedians

Thursday 14th August 2014

“My rape fantasies,” says Bridget Christie in full flight towards the end of an incendiary Edinburgh Festival Fringe set, “involve more prosecutions and longer sentences!”

It’s almost midday on a Saturday morning, in a room that is largely full of white men (albeit white male Bridget Christie fans, who obviously knew what they were getting themselves in for when they bought tickets to her very first show of the festival). After that statement, she has to wait for the applause to die down before she continues. No one in the room looks like they’re even thinking about equivocating.

a portrait of Bridget Christie. She wears a blazer and a gig tshirt.
Bridget Christie’s show was one of the “most exhilarating, challenging, and strangely reassuring mornings” of Charlotte Graham’s life.

Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Afterwards, on the way out of the show, a venue employee at the door hands each audience member an earnest envelope of literature about female genital mutilation, prepared by Christie herself. Its only concession to comedy is printed on the outside of the envelope: don’t read it just before seeing another comedy show. That afternoon, I read the fairly harrowing poem inside and check out the recommended links. I do it just before seeing another comedy show, but that comedy show’s about male anorexia, so I figure I’ll be fine.  

Bridget Christie’s is my first show of my first Edinburgh Fringe. It’s not even lunchtime. It has been one of the most exhilarating, challenging, and strangely reassuring mornings of my life. It makes me feel like there are more people who think the way I do than I’d previously realised. I can’t stop thinking of that room full of people on a Saturday morning, 100 per cent on side with a woman who is doing a vicious and funny and horribly honest bit about gang rape, and asking myself, “How would this play in the comedy festival back home?”

Comedy has always been a way for people to cope with things: it’s subversive and edgy and a way to speak truth to power that also speaks to people in bars who don’t want to be preached at. That’s by no means a new thing (Bill Hicks, et al), and we have some fantastic comedians in New Zealand who tackle issues of race, gender, class and politics (James Nokise, et al) to excellent effect.

Comedy is subversive and edgy and a way to speak truth to power that also speaks to people in bars who don’t want to be preached at. 

But the depth and breadth of content I just saw throughout the comedy programme at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe went beyond anything I’d seen at home in terms of the nuances of portrayal; how far comedians were prepared to take their ‘message’; and audiences’ willingness to receive things that, at times, might have made them genuinely uncomfortable.

At one point in her set, Bridget Christie wonders aloud whether she should even be speaking about female genital mutilation at all. As she takes the audience through her reasons for doing so, she goes a step further than much of the current conversation in comedy around how to talk about rape or race or gender  (especially when it’s not necessarily your issue to talk about) – and ater hearing Christie’s concerns and eventual conclusions around FGM, and how she’s educated herself to ensure she’s not being offensive, the rest of the audience and I are willing to come along with her while she creates stand-up around it. The number of similarly considered, educated and eloquent bits I saw from comedians at Edinburgh was mind-blowing.

Feminism in comedy, as reviewers have perhaps cynically pointed out, is trendy this year. Christie herself won a Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Award last year for her show A Bic for Her, and starts this year’s show recounting an interview in which she was asked by a journalist, “Now you’ve done feminism, what’s next for Bridget Christie?” The implication, of course, upon which Christie expounds in an entertaining rant, being that gender equality is ‘sorted’, when in reality it’s far from it.

But it is true that taking as given some basic inequalities allows comedians to tackle more complicated, less palatable parts of the discussion in their work. It also opens the door for audiences – who have heard from more mainstream comedians a brand of feminist comedy that is still relatively easy for newcomers to get on board with – to stretch further to something they might not have heard about. That might include, at this Festival, Christie’s bits about FGM, Josie Long discussing a period-sex disaster (“Come on, we’ve all been there”), or Sara Pascoe on pubic hair (“It’s like men’s facial hair – it shows you’re an adult, and you should only tidy it up for job interviews”).

On the other hand, a Guardian headline ahead of this Edinburgh Festival Fringe said the number of female stand-ups, while the highest ever, still only amounted to 17 per cent of the comedians there.

Christie herself has a fairly patsy (though ultimately hilarious) bit about Gisele Bündchen’s splayed-legged pose in an underwear advertisement, and whether Bündchen’s stuck by her labia to the rock she’s sitting on “like a mollusk”, and it gets one of the biggest laughs of her set. Christie clearly means for the joke to be on the advertiser, not the model, and as such it’s the safe, non-confrontational type of feminism that listeners have had years to get used to. Such bits in comics’ sets are probably still essential as entry points to get audiences onside with the more difficult stuff. Plus they’re really funny. But it’s been fascinating to see how much further comedians at Edinburgh will happily keep pushing through an issue.

READ Elle Hunt on why we need more points of entry to feminism. 

And it’s not only feminism. Nathan Caton is a master of subversion in his discussion of his “typical” experiences as a young black man. When he drinks hot chocolate in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas, he’s failed at being a “bad boy”; he talks about crossing the road one night to avoid a white woman after hearing a white woman was wanted in connection with the Nairobi shopping mall terror attack. Of course he has the Chappelle-esque bit about being stopped in a Nissan Micra by the police who assumed he’d stolen it, and it’s funny and truthful and worth listening to, but the nuance and subtlety of his conversation around race goes much further over the course of the show.

Towards the end of his set, in order to explain his seemingly immature response to his mother’s remarriage, Caton tells a story about his difficult upbringing and the fiercely protective feelings he has for his brother and mother. For about five minutes, no one laughs because there’s nothing to laugh at. But it’s brilliant, and no one’s suggesting afterwards that the bit should have been excluded in favour of a full hour of comfortable chuckles.

Across town, I go to watch a brilliant show called Over It, which in one half features Dave Chawner speaking in an unvarnished, brave and implausibly hilarious way about his struggle with anorexia, and in the other fellow comedian Robyn Perkins talking with extreme honesty about her boyfriend’s death and how no one will tell her when it’s OK to have a wank afterwards. The audience in the Irish pub, where the show’s being held for free in the early evening, seems a little incongruous: I’m sitting next to a big chap in a rugby jersey, for example, and I can’t imagine why an earth he’s here, although he seems to be enjoying himself. But that’s sort of the point. No one seems remotely ruffled or uncomfortable, and later, when Dave is leaving the pub, a middle-aged woman who’s part of a rowdy group of locals stops him to tell him about her own experiences with an eating disorder. He says he has such conversations on a daily basis during the show’s run.

All over Edinburgh are posters for a show by a fairly famous face, with a quoted review describing him as “A thoroughly vicious Woody Allen” with, as far as I can tell, no irony at all

Even some of the comedians I went to see purely on the basis that they are masters of the craft – including Simon Amstell and Daniel Kitson, whose sets were sublime and almost note-perfect – ran occasionally past issues of social justice, in casual ways that suggested that of course their audiences’ sympathies lay with the oppressed. If anyone felt otherwise, they kept those views to themselves.

It’s not a perfect world, of course, and my experiences have been skewed by the kinds of comedy I like, and thus the kinds of things I went to see. All over Edinburgh are posters for a show by a fairly famous face, with a quoted review describing him as “A thoroughly vicious Woody Allen” with, as far as I can tell, no irony at all. Publicity material for the show sent to journalists proudly stated that the show in question (admittedly based on a historical text) takes aim at women, gays, and immigrants, as though the world has been long-anticipating the arrival of an old white guy who would finally put those people in their places. I assume lots of people went to see that show and that a lot of them enjoyed it. But it was only a passing annoyance (well, every time I was passing one of the stupid posters) because there was a whole city full of other things to see, which at some comedy festivals is not really an option.  

Towards the end of my time at the festival I went to see another comedian, who I won’t name because I did really like his show – it’s funny and clever and he’ll get great reviews and deserves them because he’s incredibly talented. It was also completely inoffensive and thoroughly unchallenging, and you’d be right in thinking that that’s not really a positive review. I went because I’ve been watching his work on Youtube for years, and before arriving at the Fringe, I’d anticipated that seeing him live would be one of the best experiences of my time there. But after some of the challenging topics and unconventional structures and brave decisions I’d seen over the preceding week, I left the theatre content but feeling a little hollow.

READ Eamonn Marra’s list of values he tries to abide by as a conscientious comedian.

Sure, it was funny – and what? I’d laughed through his jokes about his inability to get girlfriends and his desire to stop accumulating stuff, and I’m not remotely suggesting that there’s anything wrong with those jokes or the people who like them. They were really good jokes. But personally, I think if I came again I’d stay away from such acts altogether, because in this city, and in comedy in 2014 in general, you can actually hurt from laughter in a show about female genital mutilation.

Which is unexpected, really.

I hope, dream, beg (honestly: someone tell me who to beg and I’ll do it) that New Zealand’s and other comedy festivals can create and foster diverse and challenging environments in which such shows can flourish, and that people will actually get a chance to see comics who really speak to them, completely unvarnished – even if it makes them uncomfortable at times. I’ve learned over the past week that comedians can take their craft into dark and disturbing territory, and that audiences are capable of going there with them, and that good can come out of such comedy. I hope to see more of it.

Radio New Zealand’s Charlotte Graham is covering the Edinburgh Fringe with assistance from Creative New Zealand.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

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