a hasty reply, apologies for errors of spelling, punctuation, and possibly logic. This is not about a joke, but about how the situation for the joke occurred.
After one of the Nine Lessons shows this week, I received a furious complaint. One of the acts, in character, had said something about rape. I didn’t hear what she said, as I spend most of my time offstage getting everything ready for the next act, checking on technical stuff, who needs to plug something in or wants a clothes line to hang out the details of what has been going on in the universe since the big bang.
Whatever the rape reference was, it left the viewer with a general feeling of disgust and disappointment. It is a pity that whatever these sentences were mired all other acts and everything else that had gone on, and a pity I can neither condemn or defend the act as I didn’t hear it. The audience member is glad that the shows are to be no more if this is the way it’s going.
I now disagree with my next sentence – I found this a little sanctimonious – but I think it is odd to think “this is the way the shows are going”. If a third of the acts were doing rape jokes and gags of a similar ilk, you might think, “woah this direction is new, and I don’t like it”, but it was one person. The immediate leap to moral high ground, to being utterly appalled, seems a popular position to move to without passing Go or any area for debate or thought beyond the certainty of your grand morality.
The comment was written soon after the show, so it may have been in the heat of the fury, but it was certainly heavy in its judgement, which meant the person had been highly offended, so I don’t take it lightly and I gain no joy in their upset. The shows are not about shock.
So I thought I would tell you how these, and other shows I curate, work within the iron grip of my creative control. I choose people whose work I admire. Whether it is Alan Moore or Josie Long, Jim al Khalili or Grace Petrie, I like what they communicate and how they communicate, based on what I have seen. From that point onwards, they are free to do what they wish, the audience will be the judge. I guide people a little if they ask, especially if it is the first time.
“Does it have to be all about science or atheism?”
No, you can do what you want, but it is a good opportunity to explore the science side as you have an audience hungry for it. As for atheism, if you have something you want to get off your chest, pro or anti, you are free to do it, but the show is not quite the worship of atheism that some people presume. It is a night of enthusiasts, eccentrics and sometimes dabbles with the borders of sanity. The Norwegians of Comedy provided one of my favourite 8 minutes of experimentation, anarchy and nudity. From 3 minutes of comedy in Norwegian, language barrier being no barrier to the audience laughing, to a visit from a man from the future to tell us of what 2019 would be like, to the entrance of a feral and naked deity. I had seen none of this before. Since meeting them in Oslo, I trusted that they would, at the very least, be interesting, and they were far more than that. (and they were easy to persuade to return to the stage as the naked feral deity to shock Steve Pretty and his jazz men during their experiment in noise).
I do not wish to be prescriptive. I enjoy working with people and giving them artistic freedom. Sometimes, this leads to artists working together over the run and creating new collaborations. Though the risks pay off most of the time, sometimes it may lead to things going awry and there is the possibility of offence or even boredom. If I could write out the rules that must be religiously kept to, that would always lead to the most interesting and satisfying performances, and nail them ruthlessly and Luther-like to the stage, then I would. But dogmatism doesn’t lead to the best performances, though it might lead to the safest.
When Johnny Ball notoriously overran by 12 minutes, and went on an anti climate change tirade that led to booing, I spoke to him lengthily the next day. I told him he could do still do whatever he wanted, just as long as he kept to his time (some in the press, not wishing to sully their copy with facts, made a story about the censorship of Johnny’s views).
This is one of the reasons I did not sign a pledge “to never perform rape jokes” (though I believe the pledge was started with very good intentions) . Firstly, I don’t know if I have ever performed them. Secondly, who defines what is a rape joke? Context is pretty important in humour. Thirdly, by signing a pledge or a contract, I am able to opt out of thinking on the subject.
“Why won’t you do that joke?”
“Because I signed a contract”
“what do you think is wrong with the joke?”
“Well, it just is. It is a contractual thing.”
This is the key to fundamentalism. Thoughts are not required, you must follow the rule of law.
It is not regulations that will change such humour, it takes people not laughing anymore.
I don’t know what the joke on the night was, so I remain without comment on that. I am sorry they were so offended the other 13 acts could not make up for it.
Being in an audience can be risky, the unexpected can occur, both for the performer and the audience. I warn you that the work has not been scrutinised, pasteurised or neutered. Hopefully, the times you are offended will be made up for by the surprises that can occur by unfettered creativity (as long as you don’t run over time, then I find fetters).
I am back on tour with a new show about the mind – Norwich, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and many more, plus tour with Grace Petrie and Josie Long, and Skeptics in the Pub Tour (Gravesend and beyond) Details HERE
happiness through science DVD (incl Prof Brian Cox commentary) is HERE
and our science app Cosmic Genome has Chris Hadfield and all new Brian Cox stuff in a couple of days http://www.cosmicgenome.com
As a footnote, here is something I wrote last year about rape jokes and offence. I don’t think it contradicts what I have written here, but it may turn out I am a hypocrite. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/a-joke-is-just-a-joke-apart-from-that-one-about-me-now-thats-offensive/
Further footnote – this is what the act says of the incident – “our characters are a parody, so anything highly inappropriate they do is what we’re laughing at,hopefully.”