Why do British comedians not talk about black people? Is a Madeleine McCann joke ever OK? And when is a Hitler moustache funny?by Mary Fitzgerald / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Miss Behave: a sword-swallowing cabaret madam
“A real comedian—that’s a daring man,” Eddie Waters tells a group of would-be comics in Trevor Griffiths’s 1975 play, Comedians. “He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth, about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what’s hard, above all, about what they want.”
Identifying what an audience wants has long been one of the trickiest parts of a comedian’s job. But today it may be harder than ever before. The archetype of the ageing white male stand-up comic, able to rely on well-established and widely shared social norms, was relegated to history both by the growth of alternative comedy in the 1980s, and indeed by multicultural Britain itself. Take Leicester. In February each year, the city hosts Britain’s longest-running comedy festival. In just a few years, it will also become the country’s first city with a majority non-white population. And—as I found when I attended this year’s event—this makes it one of the most exciting places in modern Britain for comedians to test, challenge and redefine what is (and isn’t) deemed acceptable, thinkable and sayable.
Director Geoff Rowe started the festival in 1994 as part of a university project. His timing was fortuitous: the year before, NME magazine had declared comedy the “new rock’n’roll” with a cover featuring Rob Newman and David Baddiel, the first comedians ever to grace a music magazine’s front page. Meanwhile the first handful of stand-up comedians were starting to play big arenas. Live comedy was taking off.
Leicester’s comedy festival has been at the forefront of the burgeoning scene ever since. From a relatively modest nine-day affair it has grown to a 17-day blowout, incorporating 300 shows in 40 venues across the city and county. It serves both as a showcase for new talent and a draw for bigger stars like Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Dave Gorman, Rory Bremner, Bill Bailey, Ross Noble, Johnny Vegas, Harry Hill and Alan Carr.
The festival’s success is by no means unique: Edinburgh’s fringe has become, in effect, the biggest comedy trade fair in the world. Other yearly or biannual events have sprouted all over the British Isles, from Kilkenny to Brighton. For better or for worse (and probably both), the industry is becoming increasingly professionalised: it’s now possible to…