My war with Frankie Boyle

When edgy comedy is just bullying.

In the past few weeks, I briefly became a hot topic on Twitter; I was in a couple of national newspapers; I was written about exhaustively on every comedy website of note; and I became enough of a talking point - at least in certain small, Soho-based circles - that quite a few conversations I've had have begun with people asking, "How have you been?" You could say that I've been the centre of attention, which is what all comedians want, in a nutshell. So that's the good news.

The less good news is that I got all that attention by being called a c*** by a better-known television comedian, Frankie Boyle, in a tweet. This word is deemed so offensive that I typed it here with the asterisks already in place, rather than waiting for it to be censored, in case I should upset the feelings of a vulnerable sub-editor. I'm only half-joking.

A fair few people don't even like to look at that word on a page, let alone hear it. Imagine having it applied to you in full view of a large number of your peers by someone so influential that thousands of people will be inclined instinctively to agree without looking into the situation. That's been my month.

Shock doctrine

What I did to occasion the anger of my colleague was to write a blog, some months ago, which had belatedly come to his attention. In it, I remarked on how he had been involved in controversy after making jokes about Down's syndrome and then refusing to apologise to the mother of a sufferer who was in his audience. I wasn't the only comedian to feel uneasy about the impression of our industry that this incident gave to the general public. Several publicly criticised Boyle, feeling that, this time, he had gone too far in pursuit of shock laughs. But, for some reason, it was I who got on his wrong side. I'm reluctant to stir up the subject all over again, but it is a pressing one and I would like to clarify what I was trying to say: not about that comic in particular, but about comedy.

Stand-up has long been regarded as a kind of outlaw form of entertainment that exists somewhere on the boundaries of good taste and likes nothing better than to stray to the other side. This has made it one of the most successful art forms - for want of a less pretentious word - of the new century. And it has managed to hold on to this maverick reputation in spite of becoming more and more mainstream. You can now tune in to shows such as Mock the Week on BBC2 and hear gags that many comics would have shied away from, even in working men's clubs, not too long ago. I think most of us would agree that this is a step forward. We're adults, we know that a joke is a joke, we can choose to watch things or not, and so on.

The trouble is, if you don't draw a line somewhere, what may have started out as "edginess" can quickly turn into mean-spirited bullying of the weakest members of society. What's an acceptable subject for comedy? Those suffering from degenerative diseases? The Holocaust? Rape victims? I've seen all of these subjects covered by comedians in the past fortnight alone.

It is hard not to wonder whether comedy's freedom of speech is as much of a step forward as we thought, especially if all it means is that a largely white, middle-class audience gets to laugh at other people whose lives haven't turned out as well as theirs; or if, in the process, it allows stereotypes to be hammered home that comedy should be breaking down, rather than reinforcing.

Twitter trial

I am as guilty as anyone else of taking on soft targets to get laughs and saying things on the spur of the moment that, in hindsight, sound awful. I didn't intend to vilify the stand-up comic who called me a "coot" (as I paraphrased it to my mother), or anyone else who has let something slip while desperately chasing laughs, as we all do.

I am also aware - as my adversary pointed out - that I've done things that suggest a lack of integrity (advertising cider, appearing on shows that I knew weren't very good and giving a private performance for the Pope, though one of those may not be true).

I think that comedians should have a debate about the limits of their freedom to talk about things that could hurt defenceless people. If there are no limits, then fair enough. But live comedy might end up losing a bit of its faddishness. People will eventually tire of paying good money to see something that amounts to a crude exchange of insults. I mean, if I want to see that, I could just go on Twitter.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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The food trends coming your way in 2017 – from vegan butchers to, er, crickets

Insects are an economical alternative protein source to meat – and tastier than charred pizza base.

Eyeball to eyeball with a crispy cricket, the freeze-dried face of modern meat eating, I find it hard to imagine the UK ever embracing insects as a realistic dinner option, let alone coming round to the idea in the next 12 months. But, once I shut my eyes and bite down, the prospect seems less far-fetched. The flavour, nutty and slightly bitter, reminds me of roasted soya beans, while the texture is as blessedly dry and crunchy as a deep-fried prawn. While I’m not rushing for a second helping – to be fair, they’re completely unseasoned – neither am I reaching for the nearest napkin.

Insects are economical to farm in terms of land and energy and contain an impressive amount of protein. Nicola Lando, whose website, Sous Chef, stocks a variety of food-grade bugs (including the one I’ve just swallowed), believes that, though they’re
a novelty now, “In even a year’s time, they’ll be much less of one.”

I may cringe when I imagine a wing wedged between my molars but Lando points out that the bugs could be ground into flour, and: “Who even thinks about what they put in their protein shake?” (Certainly not me – even the most delicious insect couldn’t convince me to drink one.)

Yet, though insects have already popped up on menus at restaurants from the Michelin-starred Noma to the family favourite Wahaca, I suspect that because of deeply entrenched taboos in these parts, they will remain a niche ingredient for a few years yet.

The impetus behind the idea of introducing them to our diets – the need for the West to cut down its meat consumption – will have more mainstream effects in 2017, however. The number of vegans in this country has risen by 360 per cent in the past decade, and it’s a trend driven by the young: a fifth of 16-to-24-year-olds don’t eat meat.

In response, Britain has its first vegan butchers in the form of Sgaia – which makes “plant-based meats” – and Pret a Manger’s vegetarian pop-up in London’s Soho has not only become permanent but is expanding, much to the annoyance of a BLT-loving friend who works nearby.

This is shaping up to be a pretty worthy year for food. You’ll find grains you’ve never heard of in your breakfast cereal (M&S has launched some quinoa and sorghum clusters, while buckwheat sales at Waitrose are up 82 per cent). Meanwhile, sugar will be the new saturated fat, with government plans for a soft drinks tax nearing fruition, and the metropolitan elites are still krazy for fermented things such as koji, kefir, kombucha, kimchi and other suspiciously scented things beginning with K that are believed to be good for our gut.

Lest all this feels a bit dour, there is tropical sunshine on the horizon in the form of Hawaiian food, and I’m not talking about pineapple pizzas, which were, it turns out, created in Canada. Poke (pronounced “po-kay”), a Japanese-influenced raw fish salad, is tipped to be the “must-eat snack of 2017”, according to Waitrose: you’ll find it on the menu at Yo! Sushi and, in a veggie version, at Pret.

Barbecue will still be big and beefy. Charcoal will sneak into everything – black pizza bases may taste like dog biscuits but they look great on social media – and Mexican tacos are the new burritos. (Tacos are often deliciously meaty, greasy and smothered in sour cream. They even come stuffed with chocolate in Liverpool. There is hope for the year after all.)

We might well need a bit of deep-fried comfort in the months to come because, sadly, the winner of my Prediction Most Likely to Come True Award is Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, who forecasts “a tsunami” of food prices courtesy of – you guessed it – Brexit. Have a good 2017, everyone. Hang on to your Marmite while you can.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era