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Reginald D Hunter: “Old and middle-class people, if you scare them, they vote”

The comedian talks about race, Republicans and why stand-ups shouldn't be nice.

Should good comedy challenge the audience?
It can do many things. If anybody says that it "should" be this or that, that's the first step towards extremism. Some nights, I'm pissed about something political; some nights, I'm pissed about something personal. Some nights, I'm thrilled about something weird.

You're from Georgia but you've worked mostly in Britain. What is it like going back to the US?
Recently, I did a lot of the black comedy clubs in LA and New York and they have a whole different value system to white, middle-class audiences. They feel like, "I don't have much money and I spent my money coming to see you. The least you could do is wear some nice shoes." And they mean it.

Do Americans see you as quite anglicised?
No. They think I'm this odd, Jamaican-looking dude who sounds really well-educated. People are comfortable with recognisable types, so I had to give them a few minutes. I had to open by saying, "I'm told I'm weird-sounding but suffice to say I'm a bit of country, a bit of 'nigga' and a little bit of Europe."

And did that relax them?
Stand-up comedy is about breaking that wall of polite company - calling out the elephant in the room. The audience didn't come to see you be nice; they can do that themselves. They came to see you do something they can't do.

How do you gauge how far to go with that?
With comedy, you can talk about anything you like. The deftness lies in how you talk about it. If a joke moves you, then work backwards and find a way to say it to uptight people who want to hear it but don't have the nerve to admit it.

You tour nine months of the year. What is that like?
In the US, I have to pull back on a lot of subject matter. Because of talk-show culture, we're conditioned to talk a lot but we're conditioned not to talk about anything. It's one of the reasons why we haven't made any headway with race issues. We talk in soundbites. There's no discourse between races.

What do you think of the Republican Party's challengers to Barack Obama?
The Republicans are suffering the aftermath of being infiltrated by something that looked like them, sounded like them and had a lot of money but didn't share their core values. Genuine Republicans love a certain vision of America and, to that extent, they're patriots. But something came into their churches and screamed, "Praise the Lord! More jails! The Mexicans are coming!" and it scared them. It happens in this country, too. Old people and middle-class people - if you scare the shit out of them, they vote.

So, you're no fan of politicians.
The political process has become absurd: I can only reach the highest levels of office if I can prove I've never done anything wrong, never said anything wrong. There's an insistence on getting perfect people to represent us, even though we admit we're not perfect.

What was your first stand-up show like?
It was only as the MC announced me that I realised I didn't have any jokes. All I had was an attitude and an accent. By the time I got to the microphone, I'd come up with my first joke: "I'm in Britain because I've gone against everything my family wanted me to do. They keep trying to control me. So I keep doing the opposite . . . That's why I joined the Ku Klux Klan." It got a big enough laugh to carry me through.

Do you have a comedy philosophy?
I see comedy as an art form. If you approach it with head, heart and balls, you'll be OK.

That must be a problem for female comics.
Oh, I know some female comics with balls! One of the troubles is that women are socialised to want to be seen as nice. Also, women are more insistent on having a life, whereas men are more, "Fuck it, man, I'll just tell jokes."

How do you deal with hecklers?
The trick is trusting that you have an innate ability to handle assholes. Some people, you have to drop the hammer on them. For that moment, in the auditorium, you're their dad.

Was there a plan?
I trained as an actor but I didn't love it.

Do you love comedy?
Yes. It's my religion. I feel like I'm part of an order of travelling monks.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Every night I'm alone in a hotel room, I'm remembering old gigs, jokes that fucked up.

Are we all doomed?
Systems are crashing all around the world - Islam, Christianity, even weather systems. I don't think seven billion people are too much for the earth, but it's too much for our social systems, and people haven't made the connection with the right to create a human being just because they're drunk and lonely.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Albany, Georgia
1988 In court on shoplifting charges. His lawyer gets him acquitted, then hires him
1996 Travels to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
2002 Nominated for the Perrier Award
2005 Makes his television debut in Blackout, shown on Channel 4
2006 Wins Writers' Guild Award for Pride and Prejudice . . . and Niggas. Posters for the show are banned from the Tube

Reginald D Hunter is appearing at the HMV Apollo in Hammersmith, London, on 24 and 25 June. Tickets here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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