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  • Jon Matthews

Back to Comedy - in a Changed World.

After a gap of one hundred and fifty-one days, I was back performing stand-up comedy this week. The contrast between my last two gigs could not have been greater. The first was in a reasonably crowded bar in a brewery in Dorset, the second a socially distanced marquee in a beer garden, 200 miles away, in Derbyshire. I closed one and opened the other. Both were very nice gigs.

A lot of air has been through the engine in those 151 days, a lot has changed. With the government announcing that indoor live performances can return we are set to take another step back to normality. Gigging has started to become viable again, unless you’ve been to France recently. I am very excited to be back, as nothing quite beats the buzz of real proper live comedy, especially as I’m now living in a different part of the country with a new comedy scene to explore.

Safety is going to be very important, of course. Gigs will be using the world-beatingTM track and trace system; the audience will be socially distanced; acts will bump elbows; performers will have individual microphones; hecklers will be sprayed with disinfectant; one-liners will be handed out in sealed plastic containers and hands must be sanitised between each round of applause. Even then, it will still be better than a Zoom gig. Perhaps that is a little harsh, I made the decision during lockdown to not do any online comedy, for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t think my style of low energy and word heavy jokes suits the setting. Secondly, I was concerned that we would be setting a precedent by saturating the online market that would make getting people out to live comedy more difficult when the time comes; humans being such creatures of habit. Thirdly, I am a subscriber to the notion, suggested by Marshall McLuhan, that “the medium is the message” and the cynic in me remains unconvinced that the “message” of digital media is inherently healthy or compliments the “message” of stand-up comedy as a medium (whatever that is). That said, I do not wish to criticise those who worked very hard to keep comedy going throughout a difficult time in order to help lift the spirits of the nation, like an army of digital Dame Vera Lynns. I have no doubt that online gigs brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people and both Jeremy Bentham and I tip our hats to that.

Like the proverbial Arnold Schwarzenegger, stand up is back. Even when the need for all the safety measures has faded away, it will be a changed medium. The Black Lives Matter movement and a rather unpleasant confession (or brag, I still don’t know which) on the Joe Rogan podcast have triggered an avalanche that we hope will bury the small mining towns of racism and sexism in comedy forever. Many acts have bravely come forward to talk about the abuse they have received in the industry and most promoters have publicly committed to doing their best to protect their acts in future. This is an important step for the industry to make. I think that many people, myself included, were unaware of just how prevalent certain problems are in the community. It is vital that we are all better at both preventing and responding to these issues.

It goes deeper than many are willing to confess. I have witnessed a group of male comedians mock another comedians partner who they had just met, to her face, for describing herself as working class. I have heard some incredibly nasty comments be made about all sorts of innocent people, both behind their back and to their faces. I have also seen comedians call out racism online and then be attacked for doing so. There is a major issue of bullying in the comedy community that is often left unchallenged because the perpetrators are seen as being “nice” and supposedly “liberal”. The fine line between banter and bullying is bulldozed through on a regular basis and needs to be challenged more often.

The issue of diversity has also become an increasingly hot potato during this time. Organisers are keen to be seen to be promoting diversity in their line ups. There are many different ways of doing that but by far the most popular seems to be some kind of official or unofficial ‘diversity quota’ for each gig. This is fraught with issues and just goes to show that the British stand-up comedy scene has not learnt the valuable lessons on offer from the South African cricket set up. I am a believer that comedy should be a meritocracy and that whilst no one should be rejected from being on the bill because of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality, nor should anyone be on the bill because of it, instead of because of their ability to make the audience laugh. My personal approach is to book several months’ worth of gigs at a time. Rather than say that each gig I organise should have one woman, one BAME comedian, one LGBT comedian, one disabled comedian and one working class comedian, I create a list of people, from all walks of life, that I would like to have perform in that time period based on acts I have seen and videos I have been sent. I then try to spread them across the nights based on complimentary styles (I don’t want two comedians who are too similar on the same bill) and availability. In my experience this tends to result in reasonably diverse bills without having to resort to a quota, which seems like a bit of a headache and can result in very good acts missing out. It is possible that not every night will tick every box but over the course of a three-month period I think we mostly get it right because there are more than enough good acts to make that happen*.

It has often been pointed out that in certain areas there aren’t enough diverse acts for a quota system of work. Many attempts are made to get more black people performing comedy, for example, but fail to notice that the vast majority of audiences in the area are white. The gig I help to run in Bristol probably has the most diverse audience in the city and a big part of that is because of the venue and location. Most gigs are in white middle-class venues in white middle-class parts of town because they are organised by white middle-class promoters who know that venue and feel comfortable there. This makes sense, why would you start a night in a pub you aren’t familiar with? Most comedians start off as audience members; so, if the audience is mostly straight white men, then is it a surprise that most acts coming through are straight white men too? There are events in Bristol that most comedians don’t know about, events that happen in venues they’ve never heard of and feature a line-up of touring black comedians performing for an entirely black audience. I have seen some of these acts and know for certain that some of them would massively offend the sensibilities of a white middle-class audience (and promoters) and I don’t doubt that my act would bore their audience senseless. I am not promoting any sense of segregation of comedy; I am just pointing out that the situation is far more complicated than the simplistic solutions that are often offered. Diversity often means diverse world-views and sometimes that is uncomfortable, especially in a politically correct era. The cultural circles different groups of people operate in do not always overlap conveniently. There are, however, always exceptions and in the great cultural melting-pot that is Britain, I am sure there is plenty of room in our Venn diagram to create a scene that is beautiful, funny and diverse.

The other issue that I have encountered, when it comes to diversity, concerns a friend of mine who has given me permission to write this. He is a talented comedian who is polysexual** but is not “out”, for a variety of reasons. On multiple occasions he has applied for gigs and been told, either directly or indirectly, that he is at the bottom of the pile because he is a ‘straight white male’ – even though he is not. He is effectively being persecuted for not being “out” or for not talking about sexuality in his routine. He finds this difficult as he fears his sexuality not being accepted and understood. He also has mental health issues which he finds difficult to talk about. He has applied to do gigs at LGBT nights but has been outright rejected for not being LGBT enough, something he found upsetting as he had really hoped to get on and have an opportunity to talk about these things in a safe environment. This is the issue for me, although I agree with many of the attempts to make the comedy scene more diverse, I sometimes worry than in an effort to be more inclusive we have actually become too exclusive. I hope that if an LGBT comedy workshop was set up (in a similar vein to Funny Women that does a good job at promoting and supporting female comedians) my friend would be welcome and feel comfortable there.

These are complicated and contentious issues and I don’t pretend to understand them fully. All I know is that as an act and a booker, I have to do my best to do the right thing by both audiences and the acts I work with. I know that I won’t know every detail of an acts private life and nor should I - I just have to be as accepting and openminded as possible. I want to be supportive, inclusive and I want to do my part to resolve all unpleasant issues in the comedy community. I know sometimes this means making a difficult decision, speaking out or making a sacrifice but if we want a better comedy scene, we all need to be prepared to do these things.

*This is for a ticketed gig that pays acts, rather than an open mic night where anyone – regardless of merit, should be free to perform and some loose form of quota MIGHT sometimes be needed to address a lack of balance in the room.

**Sexually attracted to more than one gender identity (as opposed to bisexual (bi = two) or pansexual (pan = all)).

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