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Updated: Aug 22

Saturday 13 October, 17:30—18:45, Level G Studio

Andrew Doyle - writer and comedian; co-author, Jonathan Pie: off the record

Will Franken - satirist; contrarian; academic

Dominic Frisby – comedian and writer replacing Lisa Graves - satirist; freelance graphic designer; artist; co-writer, Godfrey Elfwick

Konstantin Kisin - comedian; co-host, TRIGGERnometry podcast

Ria Lina - award winning standup comedian; former forensic IT investigator, Serious Fraud Office; former research scientist, Herpesvirus bioinformatics

Andy Shaw – (Chair) co-founder, Comedy Unleashed

Andrew Doyle speaking about 'safe' comedy

The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. In order to make someone laugh with a joke, one has to take a risk. For the comedian, who makes his or her living from telling jokes, making a calculated risk is the difference between an income or no income. Comedy, in this sense, cannot be too safe or it is unlikely to be funny: political correctness, for instance, may be necessary in some contexts, but it is rarely funny. Politically correct comedy is probably a non starter. In this Level G Studio debate, four comedians considered the slippery issue of how far can comedy go at a time of heightened sensitivity to taking offence.

If someone sent an e-mail warning all stand up comics about what was acceptable and unacceptable, Will Franken’s name was definitely omitted from the list. Or perhaps he didn’t read it. Will Franken certainly reads and effuses about how he migrated from the US to the UK to be part of the British culture of great comedians, writers and thinkers. Now he’s disappointed. British comedy does not take enough risks, he claimed; I think that Will Franken sees it as his role to reinstate the equilibrium. He does this by telling jokes, even about the topics that other comics will not dare joke about, like religion and gender issues.

Sitting immediately to his left, host of online show TRIGGERnometry host Konstantin Kisin reminded Will Franken that there is a fiscal element to stand up comedy: namely that offended, paying audiences might not return. Konstantin Kisin has the task of booking acts for a comedy night: I wouldn’t book Will, he said candidly. A line can and should be drawn: it’s where the customer decides what they are prepared to pay for. Will Franken’s point was that the customer will pay for something different, edgy, that pushes boundaries. Konstantin Kisin’s point was that the marketplace decides what is acceptable: comedy is not funny when people don’t pay to watch it.

Ria Lina certainly agreed that audiences censor comedy by attendance or non attendance. They won’t laugh at what is not funny. This did not address the Franken/Kisin debate since it leaves open whether comedy that pushes the boundaries can be funny. Ria Lina focused her act simply on being funny; that focus has worked and so perhaps it is the comedian’s job to make the call on what will work. Like Will Franken, Ria Lina was attracted to stand up comedy by the freedom it gave her, not restrictions that had to be negotiated.

Dominic Frisby turned the discussion to political factors: most UK stand-up comedians voted Remain, not Leave in the 2016 Referendum. Most audiences, he thought, were loud and proud Remainers. What has happened to stand up comedy, which used to attack the establishment, and is now agreeing with the establishment’s views? It seems to some that comedy has been hijacked and is now occupied by rich, middle class comedians who play it safe. The Conservative Leaver meanwhile treats voting like a Tinder account: do it on the quiet and don’t ever admit to it. The second biggest ticket-selling event after The Olympics is The Edinburgh Fringe: comedy has the potential to reach large audiences.

On the political theme, Andrew Doyle expressed dismay at ‘woke’ comedy. Woke means ‘on message’ or repeating what the establishment wants you to say. Woke now represents the establishment and it has discretely introduced expectations on comedians: punching ‘up’ is acceptable and punching ‘down’ is not. These codes protect certain groups: comedy and free speech are the losers. Comedians should not apologise for offending, claimed Andrew Doyle.

Comedy is actually a serious business: it offers a good measure of how free a society really is. When you live in a society that places restrictions on what you can laugh at this is often a sign that it is not completely liberal. What is funny differs from person to person, but it is usually possible to recognise humour when you see it. For secondary school students the discussion of comedy in wider society should not be confused with school. School does need restrictions because it is not democratic and others around you cannot simply ‘turn off’ what other people say. In school sensitivity is needed. The debate is about how far humour can go in the comedy clubs, online, in public places and in private messages.

Discussion questions

  • What is meant by context? Why does it matter when to comes to telling jokes?

  • Are there any subjects, topics or events that should never ever be joked about?

  • Can a joke be an act or expression of hate?

  • How important is a sense of humour in life?

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