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.
Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.