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New Comedy Club Bans Swearing In Acts

Friday, February 23rd, 2007 at 11:26 by Bob Westwood

To put it glibly, it’s long been one bastard of a problem: how, in this day and age, do you make people laugh and at the same time keep the humour clean? By the phrase “this day and age” I know I may be sounding a tad judgemental and fogeyish, but it seems to me that a lot of comedians need to clamp a potty between their jaws before many top clubs or TV networks will take them on.Well, a new comedy club in Birmingham reckons it’s found the solution: the founder of the Laughing Sole (opening on Tuesday at the British Oak pub) believes that taking out swearing and crude material can enhance the humour of the acts.

Of course, it’s always been possible to make people laugh without swearing – witness the legendary status of the likes of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Goons, the Monty Python team, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise. What’s been happening in the years since then has basically been a slow pushing-back of the boundaries – to a point in the ’90s where Jim Davidson could get people laughing on the BBC, and a performer like Lee Evans could be portrayed as the epitome of cutting-edge comedy.

However, the question remains as to whether comedy nowadays has to involve toilet gags and bad language in order to work.

Toilet gags? Arguably the most successful comedy act at the moment – the “Little Britain” team – can rake in ratings and favourable critics for shows that involve vomiting ladies and incontinent pensioners.

Bad language? It probably depends on who’s using it. Whenever a show like “They Think It’s All Over” is on the box and some comic swears a lot, my mum never fails to say they’re ‘playing to the gallery’, yet falls about in peals of laughter whenever she watches one of Billy Connolly’s live shows.

What’s more, this new clean comedy club in Birmingham has raised all kinds of other debates about humour, and none more so than the fundamental one of: What Exactly Should We Find Funny, and Why? When people giggle at Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, for example, are they laughing at his ignorance of other races and nations, or laughing with it? Commentators in recent months have asked whether the high ratings for “Little Britain” have been mainly middle-class audiences laughing at middle-class comics Matt Lucas and David Walliams mocking all these strange working-class folk and their eccentric little ways.

There’s also the question of Offence and Humour (the “Is There A Conflict” case). In one of his many radio shows a few years back, Jeremy Hardy correctly pointed out that there’s a difference between offending somebody on the one hand, and seeking to degrade and humiliate them on the other. But where is the line to be drawn, and who should draw it? Last year, when Parliament discussed bringing in a ban on anything that incited religious hatred (partly in a response to the alarming growth in Islamophobia in Britain), there was a fear among some that they would ban comedians from making jokes about religion. Among the first to criticise the proposed ban was Rowan Atkinson. He may have been worried that this would stop him donning the robes of a bishop in many of his live acts, although how piercing such blows at religion really are is another matter. Don’t get me wrong: Rowan’s a funny guy, but Dave Allen he ain’t.

And we shouldn’t forget there are changing standards in comedy. I’ve noticed the BBC have started putting a “health warning” on some of their classic radio comedy CDs, which goes something like ‘Some of the humour on this CD reflects the times in which it was made.’ To put it simply, some jokes have stood the test of time, some haven’t. For example, we still laugh at the Marx Brothers and Monty Python, but wouldn’t dream of laughing at shows like “Love Thy Neighbour” and “Mind Your Language”, and increasingly wince at the “Carry On” films. But there are grey areas to test us, too. Is it OK, for example, for a supposedly right-on comic like Mark Steel to make jokes about the Welsh language? (I’m paraphrasing, but I remember him saying something like ‘they just make this jibberish up whenever they see tourists around’ on Radio 4’s “News Quiz” a few years ago.)

Finally, there’s the point best put by Jasper Carrott back in the ’80s. In his book “Sweet and Sour Labrador” the veteran Brummie comic asks the question “Does God Have A Sense of Humour?”

His point (which I’m having to paraphrase, as it’s been a while since I read the book) is that a sense of humour is one of the things that make us fundamentally human. Also, he was ‘yet to be convinced’ against the view that comedy – fundamentally, at its heart – involves some kind of misfortune happening to others. Yet (and here’s the problem) most religions teach us to be compassionate, understanding, and sensitive. So, to Jasper’s mind, those of us who believe that God created us all, and equally in His own image, also have to accept the view that the Almighty, in making us human, also gave us a sense of humour, which, paradoxically, makes God anti-religious. Apologies if this is making a few heads spin.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s certainly worth checking out this new clean comedy club on Tuesday. Apart from anything else, it’ll be an interesting way of marking the 1st anniversary of the untimely death of Linda Smith, who was voted “Britain’s Wittiest Person” in a poll in 2002.

Alternatively, you could just go to the Laughing Sole for a good night out and a good laugh, or just laugh at my pitiful attempts above to analyse comedy.

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