What comedians can teach politicians: audiences are angrier than they used to be

There you are: a boy, standing in front of a whole bunch of other boys and girls, asking them to love you. But when times are tough, people need a target and politicians are much too canny to actually go out in front of a crowd, says Keith Farnan.

Being a comedian can give you an insight into the country’s mood more quickly, and more forcefully, than any newspaper or TV report. 

A few weeks ago, I was performing in Birmingham when I was heckled – albeit rather indirectly. I was in the process of pointing out that the love of the Irish only extended so far in England when a punter interjected, “Not everyone on this island loves the English either, mate”. It was a direct reference to the killing of a soldier in Woolwich, which had happened only a few days earlier, and it had the immediate effect of silencing an entire audience. 

Although the heckle wasn’t aggressive, there was anger behind it and a reflective quiet ensued. I politely pointed out that it was unfortunate that immigrants were causing so much trouble, but then explained this had happened 20 years before when another troublesome bunch struck fear into the land - oh, what were they called? That’s right; the Irish.

Regaining momentum and control of the gig by being able to counter anger with wit is something that every comedian learns as they pass through various baptisms of Sambuca-fuelled fires. The difference is that in my early career, the anger more often stemmed from a drunk's inability to get served in the club, or an egotist’s inability to get noticed as his ribald wit went unappreciated. Now, the anger often comes from some vaguer social injustice fuelled by fear and economic strife.

Jimmy Carr found that out at a charity gig recently. During the show for Arts Emergency, a charity set up by Josie Long to defend arts education and help students struggling financially, Carr was heckled with shouts of: “You’re not one of us!” Connecting with an audience in some way is vital for a comedian and a phrase like that pretty much cuts you off at the knees.

Carr is far from the only person to use a legal tax planning loophole, and quite frankly, it's something we would all probably take advantage of if we could. Right now, however, there is a danger that comedians can become the lightning rod for general feelings of injustice and anger that pervade cities up and down the country. Unlike actors, there is no script or character to separate your life from the audience three feet in front of you. There is no suspension of disbelief (unless you start talking about how hard it is to maintain a yacht on only two million a year).

There you are: a boy, standing in front of a whole bunch of other boys and girls, asking them to love you. But when times are tough, people need a target and politicians are much too canny to actually go out in front of a crowd that hasn’t been tightly vetted and controlled so they get the maximum return for their tested and meaningless sound bites.

Comedians are in danger of becoming the canaries down the political coalmine. When one of them doesn’t come back up, you know it’s time to cede control of that voting district to some extreme left or right organisation.

It’s a dangerous time to be at the head of a crowd, because if you’re not leading a revolution and you don’t appear to be part of the revolution, pretty soon your head and your body no longer get to hang out together. I’m not saying there’s going to be a revolution (this is Britain after all, and you haven’t had a revolution since Cromwell), but there’s a shift in mood that’s spreading. Although it might have started with the likes of Occupy, it’s moving into the empty high streets where jobs and businesses are disappearing, creating a whole new movement known as Unoccupied.

As in all times of economic strife, the “outsiders” are being blamed and, while this traditionally and obviously means “immigrants”, there must surely be a cautionary tale in how the comedy clubs of the Weimar Republic were shut down after violent unrest at various 'why did the German cross the road jokes'. (Because zere vas a zebra crossing, ja, it is safe to go now. Ok, I made that bit up; Ireland is now a German-economically-occupied state, what can I say?) 

Whether it’s a strategy or a natural consequence, there has been a rise in surreal and abstract comedy as well as mime-comedy. Mime-comedy is the perfect comedy for any time of social upheaval, because you can’t enrage a crowd when you’re literally saying nothing. If you’re going to play the fiddle while Rome burns, then play the fiddle and shut up about it.

As the heckles from the audience escalate, so will comedians’ need to adapt with their responses. A questioning of your stance on tax evasion cannot be met with the response, “Do I go to your work and shout at you while you serve fries?” as it will make a comedian appear superior and aloof. However, you cannot cede ground as a comedian in the face of this anger, so you need to be able to engage with it and, as even the master of putdowns Jimmy Carr would agree, when someone shouts “You’re not one of us”, that’s pretty much the ballgame right there.

Of course he could come back with the fact that “One of us” was first coined in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic film Freaks about sideshow performers and in many ways he would fit right in, thus deflecting the anger with a little bit of self depreciation. Only time will tell. 

Keith Farnan will be performing his new show, Fear Itself, at the Edinburgh Festival. For more details, see www.keithfarnan.com

Keith Farnan, with a skull.
MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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