Updated: Aug 22
The London comedy club where audiences can have a sense of humour without feeling guilty.
Every second Tuesday of the month, at The Backyard Comedy Club, Bethnal Green, Comedy Unleashed greets comedy fans with its unique brand of uncensored, stand-up comedy. Twenty years ago, the expression free speech comedy would have been nothing more than tautology, but times seem to have changed. Suddenly, it seems presumptuous to assume that comedians can feel free and at ease to use whatever material they like. Thankfully, two comedians, Andrew Doyle and Andy Shaw, have created their own comedy club (called Comedy Unleashed) with the strapline: London’s free-thinking comedy club. In terms of its venue, The Backyard Comedy Club is as friendly and well-run (with some great bar and security staff) as it is accessible: barely two minutes walk from Bethnal Green tube station.
For the January gig, Tuesday 8th, I arrived early. As I supped a Guinness and stared at the unoccupied microphone, and the banner saying “free-speech comedy club” behind it, I started to reminisce on when comedy came under threat from the whims of ‘tolerant’ people. I thought about watching Spitting Image in the days when political satire was available from one’s own living room. There is no doubt the satirists still exist, but maybe the platforms have changed. I wonder whether 1997 was not an important year. In the wake of Princess Diana’s sudden death in a car crash in 1997, the late Christopher Hitchens hosted a documentary about the ‘nation in grief’, called The Mourning After. He interviewed a stand-up comedian who was told by comedy venues in the immediate aftermath of the accident that jokes about Princess Diana’s death would not be acceptable (certainly at that time). In short, comedians were being censored. There are other less prominent ways to censor stand-up comedians: just don’t book them. If the clientele for a given comedy night happens to include children at a private party a degree of censorship might be a good idea. If the audience are adults in a public setting it seems much less justifiable to start to tell comedians which aspects of their humour is palatable enough for the audience.
Russian-born comedian, Konstantin Kisin, opens his set by describing his experience of being sent a comedy ‘contract’, by the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), with a list of topics that should not be included within the show. He refused to sign it. It was a relatively long list, enough to fill Kisin’s five minute slot at Comedy Unleashed back in December. Now he seems almost panicked after a fellow comedian suggested that he was a racist: “I don’t have any racist jokes,” he shrugs. Instead he ponders life as the subject of a Twitter-inspired, firestorm, such as becoming the feature story in national newspapers and which belligerent television presenters he would rather avoid. The strangest part of the new censorious value system of middle class, (supposedly) educated, Twitter account holders is that their outrage offers free publicity to the very comedians that they claim seek attention through malevolent jokes. Notoriety also means that Kisin barely needs to write anything anymore, not when he can get laughs by quoting the very people trying to censor his comedy.
Then there’s Brexit. Most comedians are Remainers who struggle to comment much on the most important political issue for generations. Will Franken responds to political correctness frameworks by conducting his own BBC-style interview with a typical Brexit voter. Unfortunately, Franken’s Brexit voter does not play ball, justifying his decision to vote ‘leave’ with sophisticated intellectual arguments about sovereignty and innovative freedom. Franken’s interviewer is determined to interrupt and elicit from the voter the kind of reactionary opinion that, we are told, Brexit voters hold about immigration and foreigners. Audiences do not laugh at Franken, they laugh because of him. Laughter is ripped out of you, untimely, involuntarily: call Franken a Caesarean comedian if that helps. Franken’s accents are startlingly wide-ranging and he finishes with an energetic impression of an SNP spokesperson celebrating the rise of Nicola Sturgeon.
In all there are seven acts, before ‘headliner’ Scott Capurro reaches the stage. Capurro’s delivery is so pristine he is practically unquotable. Make a list of the ten topics that you might think a typical comedian simply would not touch in a gig, including the most sensitive news issues you can think of, and I guarantee Capurro’s poetic style will airily breeze through at least eight of them. It is hard to imagine him sitting down writing such a set when many of the lines which rouse the audience are throwaway asides and under-the-breath quips. For twenty minutes the room is inconsolable as Capurro inspects the fragile topics of the last year. Still, if you are going to open a good restaurant, a few Michelin stars would help; a free speech comedy night needs at least one Capurro or two.
This was my fourth visit and I’ll be going back. Comedy Unleashed resumes in February with a clandestine refusal to publicise the acts, according to the website. In April, Andrew Lawrence is headlining. Here’s the link; the tickets sell out quite quickly.