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