Andrew O’Neill: I hate my smug, right-on fans

When I was growing up it was the Christian right that wanted things censored. Now it’s an authoritarian tendency within the left. Among my fans!

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The trouble with having fans is that some of them can turn out to be pricks. As a weird, left-leaning stand-up, I am lucky to have cultivated a fan base that reflects my own biases and prejudices. They are happy to be reminded of their own anti-authority, egalitarian, generally right-on world-view. I’m a budget Michael McIntyre for people who listen to Rage Against the Machine. At arts centres and small midweek independent gigs throughout the country we agree that fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me. I pay half my rent through other people’s confirmation bias.

When I get it wrong, in their eyes, they get really pissed off. They moan about me on Twitter, saying: “I expected more from you.” They email me, telling me I shouldn’t do material about such-and-such and I shouldn’t use certain words. They try their very hardest to get me to change what I do.

Conversely, at the weekend comedy clubs – the coalface of comedy – it’s a different story. My Radio 4 profile counts for nothing and I am an unknown weirdo; a cross-dressing metalhead with politics that are provably at odds with those of the general public. Surprisingly I never seem to offend that audience. Despite my ripping into what I imagine to be their lifestyles, their religion, their aspirational decking, their vocal transphobia, their latent sexism or racism, there seems never to be a comeback. They laugh, they drink their jugs of Stella and they get on with their evening. They don’t send me emails. They are not on Twitter.

I seem to be one of the few offbeat comedians who really enjoy the club circuit. Most of the more unusual comics avoid the stags and hens, the blokes in short-sleeved shirts and their gift-wrapped girlfriends; hooting proletarians with the audacity to enjoy themselves unashamedly. I think they’re missing out: preaching to the converted gets boring very quickly. It’s much more fun to address critiques of society at the people I’m criticising. And for some reason they lap it up, the pricks . . . as long as I’m making them laugh, they love it. Offend the sensibility of the arts-centre crowd, though, and you’re in for a digital row. When they kick off, they really kick off.

I’m pretty sure that generating controversy is evidence that I’m doing something right with my comedy. I’m not an iconoclast, nor am I one of those Spiked magazine contrarian dickheads (“Oh look, a new article by Brendan O’Neill about how up is down, chalk is a type of cheese, and volcanoes are made out of cakes. How refreshing”), but I do believe the justification for standing up in front of people with a microphone needs to be that, at the very least, you think a bit differently.

And that means thinking differently from the audience in front of you, not from a third party of them out there, the barbarians at the Yates’s. My corner of stand-up is in danger of becoming a smug circle-jerk of consensus: religion is stupid, rape cannot be a subject for comedy, the Tories are evil, etc etc. In truth there is a sweet spot, just beyond the threshold of offence, that makes stuff really, really funny.

As long as I get the sense it is coming from the right place, I often find “offensive” comedy really funny. Sometimes you are supposed to be offended. Just think about that! The bit where I compare milking cows to milking humans with equal cognitive functions? (Using the trigger-word “retarded” as the offensive engine of the bit.) Yeah: you’re supposed to find that offensive. It’s an offensive idea, but in context it’s a funny and surprisingly reliable piece of vegan propaganda.

In my own politics I genuinely try to keep an open mind. I try not to be blinded by my own socialisation or trapped within my own ideology. The comedy I produce hopefully reflects this. Stand-up ­comedy can be an amazing forum for exploring ideas; there’s nothing else like it in popular culture. It is possible, quite literally, to say anything. It is only your skill at making the subject matter funny that counts.

The effect of the increasingly censorious tendency among the left is extremely worrying. Censorship claims an authority to truth. It is an exercise in power. If we allow it when we think we are right we cannot claim moral authority against it when we think others are wrong. When I was growing up it was the Christian right that wanted things censored (or “no-platformed” – same result). Now it’s an authoritarian tendency within the left. Among my fans!

What a bunch of pricks.

Andrew O’Neill is a stand-up comedian and musician. He tweets at: @destructo9000

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable