The distinctly millennial rising star of the Edinburgh Fringe

A BBC New Comedy Award finalist, Jacob Hawley uses his show to rally against Brexit, and lampoon outdated ideas of race, sexuality and gender.

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If the cues written messily in biro on the back of Jacob Hawley’s hand appear a little amateurish, the performance he delivers is anything but, despite it being the 26-year-old’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut. 

He exudes a confidence beyond his years; with a real skill for story-telling and slow-burning gags. The Middlesex University graduate smirks and shrugs backstage at Just The Tonic at the Mash House, offering up an explanation for his practised manner: “2.1 in theatre studies, mate”. 

Stevenage-born Hawley, who describes his show Howl as “political without mentioning too many politicians”, has been touted as one of the Fringe’s rising stars. A finalist of the BBC’s 2017 New Comedy Award, Hawley doesn’t disappoint; his hour-long set charts a journey from the white, working-class subset of the Home Counties to liberal, middle-class, metropolitan London. “I’ve even got a vegan girlfriend,” he laughs.

Howl discusses social mobility, racial diversity, the flawed logic behind nationalism, gender roles, drug culture, and free speech. “I talk about things that interest me,” Hawley says, “and I want to labour the point that St George didn’t actually slay a dragon.”

The issue of class is a particularly personal one for Hawley, who uses Howl to explore the awkward limbo he finds himself in. He feels “alienated” both by the “liberal, metropolitan elite” who seem to “look down” on his working-class roots, and by his working-class family and friends who view his new life as a grab above his station. 

Where other artists might suggest they fell into their line of work, Hawley does not hide the fact he set out to be a career comedian. “The reason I chose the degree at Middlesex,” he tells me, “was because it had a module on stand-up.”

But clear-cut ambition alone, Hawley has found, isn’t enough – acknowledging that being in comedy has made him more aware of his own background. The issue of class is underscored, he says, by the reality of the comedy industry’s social make-up.

“Performing at the Fringe has opened my eyes to the privilege that exists,” he admits. “I’ve met people from the Oxbridge sketch groups, and I get along with them, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve seen that they often have parents who can afford to pay for their accommodation, their posters, or their venue. It’s a really different experience for someone like me.”

While Hawley resembles the vast majority of Fringe comics – he is a straight, white male after all – his act, refreshingly, does not lack perspective. Stand-up comedy, Hawley says, offers him a platform to “raise points and issues that don’t really get a lot of attention”. While he insists his aim is not to tell people how to think, he believes that by asking the questions that don’t often get asked, he encourages the audience to “reach the answers by themselves”.

He says that his jokes about a tampon tax, for example, are “not meant to make male audience members feel awkward”, or be part of any grand feminist agenda, but are simply meant to ask people to “consider an issue from another point of view”.

While he flatly rejects the idea that the working class is more prone to prejudice simply by virtue of being working-class, Hawley suggests that a “lack of exposure” is the leading cause for social division. “People who have travelled more are likely to have met a wider variety of people. Those people that stay in their own little bubble are at a risk of isolating themselves and their opinions.”

At 26, Hawley’s comedy is distinctly millennial. He rails against Brexit, and lampoons outdated ideas about race, sexuality and gender. By extension, Baby Boomers are often the butt of his jokes. Asked what he would say to older critics who might consider his jokes ageist, Hawley replies: “I think that a generational divide might exist, sure, but age tends to be aligned with other contexts: class, income, where someone lives and so on.”

As for critics who might suggest that his comedy is too politically correct, Hawley says he’s not bothered. “If right-wing people start to use the freedom of speech argument to suggest that comedy is being policed and that you can’t tell certain jokes anymore because young people are too sensitive, then I think that’s stupid. The jokes aren’t [not] being told because they’re not allowed, it’s because people don’t like that sort of thing now.”

It may be politically correct, but Hawley’s sense of humour is far from tame. A lengthy section of Howl is dedicated to recreational drug use and his “getting mashed” at the hospital while his sister gave birth. Does Hawley worry that explicit content could potentially cost him a more high-profile television slot later down the line?

“I think there’s a risk of alienating some people, for sure. Sometimes the drug jokes make people feel uncomfortable. But I don’t play a character and I won’t pretend that I’m not flawed. As for whether it hurts my chances, it may well do. I had a review a while back that was largely positive and gave me three stars, but it criticised the drug jokes. I had an internal conflict, then, to ask whether I should drop the jokes. If I didn’t joke about drugs, maybe that review would have been four stars. In the end, I decided to keep them.

“To be honest, I quite enjoy the confessional aspect of stand-up comedy. But more importantly, I find the drug jokes funny. When I talk about drugs, I’m not endorsing them, but I am analysing the effects that they have on people’s lives. And that’s what you want from comedy isn’t it? Maybe I can offer some analysis with entertainment.”

Ultimately, Howl is “not about telling people what to believe or how to live their lives”. Rather, Hawley stresses, it’s “about encouraging people to question the systems and situations that they live in”. And while he doesn’t expect everyone to agree with the answers he offers, he says: “If they do, then I guess that’s a bonus.” 

Jacob Hawley is performing Howl at Just The Tonic at The Mash House every day at 3.40pm until the 26th August

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.