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Arthur Smith says Jimmy Carr is “working on a comedy algorithm”

Arthur Smith in a Soho alleyway

Arthur Smith at the Grouchy Club in a Soho alleyway

As Kate Copstick is still in Kenya, I was joined for this week’s Grouchy Club Podcast – in a Soho alleyway – by comedian Arthur Smith.

This short exchange cropped up:


ARTHUR
More and more, there are people creeping into the world who aren’t real. they’ve been fabricated by programmers.

JOHN
For example?

ARTHUR
Well, Jimmy Carr. I don’t think he’s a human being. He’s…

JOHN
Poor Jimmy Carr!

ARTHUR
No, he’s a synthesised creature working on a comedy algorithm that just creates jokes. But, obviously, there’s no feeling or soul or anything. And this is happening more and more. everyone’s job, soon, will be done by a synthesised creature and we’ll just be sort-of vegetables sat at home watching afternoon TV.

JOHN
But surely Jimmy Carr is a traditional old-style comedian, in fact. He tells jokes, which people don’t do now. There’s Jimmy Carr, there’s Tim Vine, there’s about three other people doing jokes and everyone else is telling stories.

ARTHUR
Yes. Because that’s all synthesised creatures can do, because they’re working on a series of algorithms, like I say. So they regurgitate the form of a joke.

JOHN
You’re not a joke man yourself?

ARTHUR
A man goes to a doctor. The doctor says: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.”

“Oh no!” says the man. “Why?”

“Well,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to im…examine you.”

I nearly fluffed the punchline… I’ll do another one.

A man goes to the doctor with a bit of lettuce sticking out of his bottom.

The doctor says: “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Oh, no, I like an ancient joke.

JOHN
But does this mean you’re an algorithm?

ARTHUR
Yeah, but I’m a Barry Cryer algorithm and that’s a different kind of creature altogether.

JOHN
Well, Barry Cryer is a sort of a gag merchant and Jimmy Carr’s a gag merchant. I have to say I quite like the gypsy moth joke myself.

ARTHUR
Hang on, whose gypsy moth joke is this one?

JOHN
Jimmy Carr.

ARTHUR
Oh, yeah, that one! Well he’s got in trouble again, I noticed. He’s quite clever. It was a classic; he wanted to do a very short joke and the joke was a dwarf shortage. But, of course, he was on The One Show and got in trouble for that.

JOHN
And, when people complained, he said: “Oh, grow up!” which, I thought, was a double funny.

ARTHUR
Yeah, I agree. I agree they’re good gags. I just wish he’d… Yeah, but he’s not a human, is he? There’s no heart; there’s no soul, is there?

JOHN
David Mills, who you probably don’t know, was saying that he…

ARTHUR
Yeah, I know David Mills – the American – he’s brilliant.

JOHN
He was saying he’s going to try and incorporate himself more into his act, because he’s never really done ‘himself’ before.

ARTHUR
The thing is, he was constructed, that’s why. He’s a synthesised comedian; I told you.

JOHN
David Mills??

ARTHUR
No, not David MIlls. Oh! I see! David Mills is going to incorporate…

JOHN
Yeah, David Mills is going to incorporate personal stuff whereas, before, he’s just been a man sitting on a stool.

ARTHUR
Yeah, well I think, in the end, that is a good thing to do.

JOHN
Sit on a stool? At our age?

ARTHUR
Well, you’re better off with a back to it. But I think having something of yourself is what makes you unique as a comedian whereas, if you haven’t, then you’re just a synthesiser.


You can hear the full 25-minute Grouchy Club Podcast HERE, in which Arthur talks about his theory of mindlessness, writing for Frankie Howard, being in a Danish pantomime, why he may go trans-gender, Shakespeare, being pedantic, semi-colons, creative writing courses, Daphne Fairfax and his several half-written novels… plus he performs the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno in the original medieval Italian. Oh yes he does.

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The filthiest joke in the world…

Kate Copstick and John fleming - Grouchy Club Podcast

The Grouchy Club Podcast – I am incapable of telling a joke

In this week’s 27-minute Grouchy Club Podcast, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I talk about performer Matt Roper and Wilfredo being robbed in New York… Chris Dangerfield & Ricky Grover… Lewis Schaffer & Bobby Davro… How I am currently locked inside my own house… Copstick’s involvement in actual bodily harm… Taboo comedy, shaggy dog stories & bad taste jokes… And the old adage that tragedy + time = comedy. But the filthiest joke in the world also came up in conversation.

This piece is also a classic example of how I am incapable of telling a joke effectively. Because I have a shit memory. I may have mentioned that before.


COPSTICK
…It’s like when the marvellous Paul Provenza made a documentary film called The Aristocrats.

JOHN
…about the filthiest joke ever.

COPSTICK
Well, I kept hearing about this film The Aristocrats and ‘It’s brilliant!’ and I thought: What would it be about? About posh people in comedy? Comedy about posh people? And then they did a special showing of it at the Edinburgh festival and, the minute they started, I went: Oh! It’s The Debonaires! Because, in Scotland, the joke is The Debonaires.

I think, in the UK, tagging it with The Aristocrats is just not funny, because it’s got this fantastic… Well, you tell it…

JOHN
We’re not going to tell it. The whole point about this joke is it has to last as long as possible. You can probably see it online.

COPSTICK
Yeah. Some people do it with more actions, some people do it with more swearing, some people make it last longer than others. I first heard it about a hundred years ago in Scotland done in broad Glaswegian and then when you get… Oh, so, eh, what’s it called? – Well, we call it The Debonaires!…

JOHN
… because the whole point about the joke is you have to be as filthy as possible and then, at the very end, the supposed punchline is actually an up-market, clean, sweet name. I heard the reverse of this joke at Granada TV, Manchester in – God knows – it must have been the late 1970s, early 1980s, but it was the reverse.

COPSTICK
The reverse?

JOHN
It was called Porky. It wasn’t a showbiz joke; it was a joke about a family. There was this sweet boy who was the son and you had to do sweetness and light and love and bluebirds flying and everything glorious for as long as possible and then, at the very end, the person in the joke says: What’s his name? and the answer is Porky… No… You say that at the beginning of the joke… His name is Porky and then there’s all sweetness and light…

COPSTICK
This is not going well, John, as jokes go.

JOHN
I can’t tell jokes… His name’s Porky…

COPSTICK
So we establish at the beginning of the joke that the boy’s name is Porky…

JOHN
… and, for as long as possible, you do everything sweet and light and beautiful and lovely and, at the end, the person in the joke says: And why is he called Porky? And the answer is: He fucks pigs. So you have beauty and then…

COPSTICK
Right.

JOHN
…and then there was a reverse of that and I can’t remember what the reverse was. It was similar to The Debonaires, where you have to do filth and then it’s a clean ending. And it actually wasn’t as funny as Porky, because the whole point about the joke is the skill in the telling of it. It’s not actually the joke. The joke is not funny. It’s the telling of it.

It’s quite easy to make it interesting if it’s all four-letter words and filth. It’s really difficult to make it last and last and last if it’s sweetness and light and prettiness. So there’s actually more skill in the reverse one where the punchline is He fucks pigs, but everything else before that is Sally Sunshine.

There was a bloke at Granada (Graeme Wells) who could tell it brilliantly. People just lined up to hear him tell the story.


This week’s full 27-minute Grouchy Club Podcast is HERE.

And there is a trailer for the very highly-recommended Aristocrats movie on YouTube.

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Serious comedy – Why this blog was mentioned in an academic bibliography

A serious publisher is desperate for comedy

A serious publisher is desperate for comedy

It is a cliché that comedy is getting to be a serious business. But that won’t stop me writing it again.

This morning, I got an e-mail from Brunel University’s Centre For Comedy Studies Research saying  that Palgrave Macmillan publishers are actively looking for academic comedy books. By coincidence, yesterday afternoon, I had a chat with Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri.

He is in the first year of a three-year PhD research project for the University of Surrey at Guildford. It is on the self-translation of stand-up comedy – comedians who translate and adapt their own material from one language to another – and he had sent me a short section he had written which was centred on a blog I wrote in December about going with comedy critic Kate Copstick to the fortnightly Italian-language London comedy show Laboratorio di Cabaret – Il Puma Londinese.

“We must meet up and do a blog about it,” I told Giacinto. “It will seem like I am increasingly prestigious because my blog is in someone’s bibliography. Also, it’s the perfect academic thing – where you are studying the act of studying.”

“Well,” said Giacinto, “your blog entry was partially about the experience of watching my set. So I wrote about your blog’s reaction as part of my research and now we are discussing, for another of your blogs, my act of writing about your blog. I love circularity.”

Giacinto and I chatted at King’s Cross

Giacinto & I chatted at King’s Cross station. I don’t know why.

“I think,” I said, “when this conversation becomes part of a new blog, you should write about that too in your research.”

“I will,” said Giacinto. “It will be like Escher. Mirrors inside mirrors inside mirrors.”

“And,” I suggested, “when you write some more research about this new blog, I can write another blog about that… Anyway… Why did you decide Copstick and I were worthy of inclusion in your academic research?”

“Because you were observing bi-lingual comedy and that gave me the idea of observing you observing it and analysing your perspectives and expectations.

“Copstick said of me: In Italian, it’s like someone has lit a fire under him. In English, he is black and white; in Italian, he is in colour.

“Of course there is something objective there; I am not saying it is all a projection of expectations. But comedy is not just a performance. It is always an interaction: a projection of something meeting an expectation of something. It’s a dialogue. Why is she experiencing me as more in colour? Is it because I am performing differently? Or her expectations are different? Or because she likes Italy? It is probably a mixture of all these things.

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after last night’s show

(From left) Marouen Mraihi., Giada Garofalo, Giacinto Palmieri, Romina Puma, Alex Martini after a Puma show

“All of us regulars at the Puma Londinese are sort-of developing our material in parallel in both languages. Some routines are born in English and translated into Italian. Some the other way round. Some stay in one language and are never translated.”

“So,” I asked, “have you done some of your English material in Italy?”

“Yes, but only in English. I want to do it in Italian now, because it’s interesting for my research. But, of course, comedy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So, if I do material in Italian in Italy, I’m also dealing with different expectations and different types of audiences, different types of comedy clubs. That bit scares me the most, because I don’t really know the comedy scene in Italy.”

I said: “You told me sometime that Italy didn’t have a tradition of stand-up, gag-telling comedy… that the tradition was character comedy…”

“and sketch comedy,” added Giacinto. “Yes. Stand-up comedy is emerging now as some sort of alternative.”

“Why research this idea of translating comedy?” I asked.

Giacinto Palmieri costumed

Giacinto in a previous Edinburgh incarnation as Pagliacci

“First of all to describe the phenomenon,” explained Giacinto. “It is a subject that has never been studied: I found a gap in the scientific literature and it’s a gap I can fill because I have direct experience of it and I can observe other comedians doing the same.”

“No-one has ever done this research before?” I asked.

“Not as an oral form. There has been research about sub-titles and dubbing but none, as far as I know, about adapting stand-up comedy from one type of oral form to another. The Guardian recently published an interview with Eddie Izzard, but I don’t think the phenomenon has been studied academically.”

“Even dubbing is bizarre,” I said. “I always wonder what happens with the James Bond films, which are full of English language puns. There’s a bit in Diamonds Are Forever where a girl says her name is Plenty O’Toole and Bond says: Named after your father, perhaps? Now that must be impossible to translate because it revolves round O’Toole being a surname. I mean, in Goldfinger, presumably Pussy Galore must have had no double-meaning outside English. What was it in the Italian version?”

“I think it is kept as Pussy Galore,” said Giacinto. “In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the character is called Alotta Fagina.”

“But translating puns in Bond films must be impossible,” I said.

“You look for a way to replicate the same kind of wordplay,” explained Giacinto. “In a way, puns are the easiest jokes to translate, because you don’t have to keep the meaning, you just create a new pun in the other language.”

“So,” I said, “it doesn’t matter what the joke is, provided there is a line which provokes a laugh at the same point in the action?”

Giacinto at the Christmas Puma show

Giacinto at the Christmas Puma show

“Yes,” said Giacinto. “Some are so brilliant in Italian, you wonder what the original was. In Young Frankenstein, there is a brilliant pun in Italian but I have no idea what the original was. A lot of things are lost in translation, but a lot of things are also found in translation. Translation is a creative activity and if it is done by creative people – by comedians and so on – it is a great chance to express new comedy ideas.”

“Have you delved into this before?” I asked.

“A few years ago, the comedian Becca Gibson organised a literary festival in Earl’s Court and invited Delia Chiaro from the University of Bologna, one of the biggest experts on the translation of humour. Becca booked me to do stand-up comedy during the event, because she knew a lot of my material was based on language. As a result, Delia invited me to do the same during a conference about translation at the University of Bologna. So I discovered there were these two fields – Humour Studies on one hand and Translation Studies on the other which, of course, overlap in Humour Translation. And I realised, if I researched the way comics translate their own material, it could be a way to bring together all these threads of interest.”

“It’s the ideal research for a stand-up comic,” I suggested. “You can write about yourself.”

Giacinto’s image for his Leicester show

Giacinto’s image for his Leicester Comedy Festival show

“Yes,” agreed Giacinto, “I am doing research which is partly about me doing comedy, but I can also do stand-up comedy routines about me doing research about me doing comedy. I am performing my Ride of The Wagnerian show at the Leicester Comedy Festival this Saturday. I am probably skipping this year’s Edinburgh Fringe because I will be too busy with my research. But I am planning to do a show at the Fringe in 2016 about my research. My plan is to call it Giacinto Palmieri needs a PhD For It.

I laughed.

“You see?” said Giacinto, “The show is working already.”

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Jim Davidson on being “racist, sexist, homophobic” – and Operation Yewtree

Candy Gigi being advised by Jim Davidson  last night while critic Kate Copstick appears to have a fit in the background

Candy Gigi with Jim Davidson last night while comedy critic Kate Copstick appears to have fit

Who makes a good chat show host? Someone who can ask difficult questions and get revealing answers without the interviewee really noticing.

Last night, I went to Bob Slayer’s Christmas pop-up venue – Heroes Grotto of Comedy – in the City of London, where Scott Capurro and his friend David Mills were hosting their chat show. Their guests were London mayoral candidate Ivan Massow, 2014 Malcolm Hardee Award winner Candy Gigi and British comedy legend Jim Davidson. An interestingly eclectic trio.

Before anyone complains – as I am sure they will – about what follows. I myself would have mentioned an alleged incident of wife-beating. But this is not my interview.

Scott Capurro met Jim Davidson for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Last night he asked Jim why he had stayed at a hotel out by Edinburgh Airport.

“I thought I don’t want to get involved with everybody,” said Jim, “but, more than that, I didn’t want to go in a club and get blanked.”

“Did that happen to you?” Scott asked.

“Well, it did a bit,” said Jim.

Jim Davidson’s current Edinburgh Fringe show

Jim’s Edinburgh Fringe show this year

“We went to the performers’ bar at the Gilded Balloon,” Scott explained to the audience, “and a couple of comics said: Why did you bring Jim in here? I said: Because it’s a public bar and he’s a comic. Why the fuck are you here? Why don’t you fuck off if you don’t like him? These were people who had not seen his live performance. But they had made up their minds about who he was.”

“I am,” admitted Jim, “regarded as an old school/ racist/ sexist/ homophobic horrible person. I understand the perception of me. I really do understand that. Perception, yeah. How many times have we said: I fuckin’ hate that bloke and you meet them and they’re absolutely wonderful? What you’ve done is you’ve spent all that time wasting emotion.

“I’m the bad guy,” said Jim. “When Bernard Manning died, they had to have someone else. Someone said to me: Jim, you’re the bad guy, because it makes other people better by default.

“I have always been unhappy to be called homophobic because it’s fucking annoying. The racist thing I can get because I used to do jokes about black people and it’s a bit more sensitive than doing jokes about gay people.”

“The night I saw your show in Edinburgh,” said Scott, “there was a wheelchair guy in the front row – and a blind person.”

“Yeah,” said Jim. “What’s the point of a fucking blind person being on the front row? That’s what I actually said to him. He could sit and face the fucking wall and…”

“Do you,” asked Scott, “revel in that sort of…”

“Yeah. I do,” replied Jim. “Don’t you? You do.”

“Yeah,” said Scott.

“This is it, right?” said Jim. “In the front row here tonight, we’ve got an Australian, a mad woman, a baldy man, a blonde girl and a person that’s wearing boots that are too young for them. Let’s say we also have someone in a wheelchair…

(From left) David Mills, Jim Davidson, Scott Capurro last night

(L-R) David Mills, Jim Davidson and Scott Capurro last night

“What you do is try and get that person in the wheelchair involved. Include him rather than take the piss. But what happens is some fucking Guardian-reading leftie that wants an excuse to hate me might say: Jim took the piss out of a man in a wheelchair. So do you take that chance? I do. And then I get slagged off for it. I hate it. I hate it. But I can’t stop myself. I want to include people. I don’t want to take he piss out of someone in a wheelchair: that’s fucking easy. I want to include the person… Include the person.”

“The really disabled people,” said David Mills, “are people who have got no sense of humour.”

“A blind man can still see a good joke,” said Jim.

“Some comics think,” said Scott, “if you do an accent, immediately that’s racist.”

“Yeah,” said Jim. “What’s that all about? I don’t get that.”

“You did a brilliant accent in Edinburgh.”

“The West Indian thing? Or the Indian thing?”

“The Indian guy.”

“This is true. I don’t care if you think this is racist or not. My mate in Dubai was a Sikh and he had (at this point, Jim started to imitate the accents) a real broad Glaswegian accent. He had a brown face, didn’t wear a turban and could drink like a fish. Halfway through drinking, his accent became slightly Indian and then it became Scottish but still Indian and, at the end of the evening, it was totally Indian but with a Scottish personality – Who you fuckin’ looking at, ya cunt?

“Someone said: How Seventies is that – thinking that Indian people are funny? But how fucking insulting is that?

“I’ll tell you where my West Indian character Chalky comes from. I used to do jokes about West Indian kids I went to school with and it was 1976/1977 Blackpool, Little & Large – remember them?

Little and Large with Susie Silvey in the 1980s.

Little and Large with Susie Silvey in the 1980s.

“They had a manager and, when I did this West Indian accent, he said: Oh, fuck me, we can’t have this! It was never offensive in my mind and people would laugh their heads off at it. But he said You’ve gotta drop that and the producer said Why don’t you make it one character and make that character someone everyone can laugh at, even the black people in the audience? So Chalky was based around my mates: all the black kids I went to school with had West Indian accents. Chalky was a character to be loved. I didn’t invent that character to ridicule anybody and, if I have ridiculed anybody, I apologise from the bottom of my heart. He was made to be loved. He was Dennis The Menace. He was Minnie The Minx.

“Unfortunately, there is a perception of me and I’ve got to take that on the chin. I’ve done well, I’ve been doing this for forty years. I’ve afforded four divorces.”

Jim was arrested under Operation Yewtree, the police investigation following sex revelations about the late Jimmy Savile.

“I thought Yewtree was fucking great when it started off,” said Jim last night, “because it was arresting all those funny people at the BBC that I didn’t particularly like. And then Freddie Starr got arrested and I thought: This is ridiculous. I think he’s the greatest act I’ve ever seen: I mean, really, really old school but brilliant.

“There were about twelve reporters outside my house every day for a couple of weeks. The police investigation lasted a year. Everyone knew it was not for under-aged sex and everyone knew I was a bit of jack-the-lad and a pretty easy target. I’ve never hid the fact I like girls. But I think arresting me was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People started to realise: Hang on a bit; it’s getting silly.”

Jim explained that one woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by him at the London Palladium later (after he had provided evidence to the police) changed her story to having been assaulted at the Hemel Hempstead Pavilion. He says a policeman questioning him over another charge said:

You came off the stage at The Green Man in the Old Kent Road and you saw a woman there with a short skirt on and a garter belt hanging down under her skirt and you twanged her garter belt. Can you remember doing that?

“In 1978?

“Yes.

“I can’t remember doing that.

“Is that something you would have done?

“Yeah, probably. And then what? Then I sexually assaulted her?

“No. That IS the sexual assault that we have arrested you for.

“And that’s how it went on,” Jim said. “It cost me a year and about £500,000 and, at the end of it, they said: No further action. They didn’t say sorry or anything. It was horrible. Horrible.”

“What is the motivation of the accusers?” Scott asked.

“No idea” said Jim. “Schadenfreude? I really think that’s what it is. How dare he have such a good life when I’ve had such a shit life. And there’s a lot of bandwagon jumping. But it’s not for me to say.”

“Did you,” asked Scott, “believe in the legal system before this?”

“I still believe in it,” said Jim. “I don’t think the police had any alternative but to investigate. I read the other day that the Inspector of Constabulary said that the police should record more crimes. Someone can go in and say blah-blah-blah and it’s got to be put down as a crime and the person is arrested before the interrogation. I think that’s the wrong way round. I think, in this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. But I’m not going to shout out about it because I’m frightened to. I don’t want to rock the boat and that’s the truth.”

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“The gendered experience of sexist humour”- New research shows how audiences react to comic Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer: creating a cult

Lewis Schaffer – a sign of the Thames

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer puts himself about a bit… Well, he puts himself about a LOT in London. The Independent newspaper recently called him a “London institution”.

Week in/week out, he has been performing five days every week for quite a while now.

Every Monday for the last five years, he has hosted his half hour Resonance FM show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday for almost five years, he has been performing his hour-long (or longer) Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous show (currently at the Rancho Grill in Mayfair).

Every Thursday, he turns up to perform a spot at the Monkey Business comedy club in Kentish Town.

And, every Sunday for almost two years, he has performed his hour-long Lewis Schaffer: American in London show at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Now he seems to be cornering the market in being analysed by university students.

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan got First in Schaffer Studies

In February, my blog carried extracts from academic Liam Lonergan’s interview with Lewis Schaffer for his (Liam’s) BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth

In April, Liam got a 1st for his thesis. I posted part of it.

Then, last Friday, Rose Ives got a 1st in her Sociology BA course at Goldsmiths College. She has been following Lewis around and observing audiences at his gigs for perhaps two years. Below, with her permission, is an extract from her academic piece which examines how audiences react to Lewis Schaffer’s performances.


Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

Rose reacts to Lewis Schaffer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

From the three pieces of ethnographic data I collected in the field, comparing and contrasting and thematically analysing the three methods of data collection, four key themes emerged.

AWARENESS

When watching the reactions to the six jokes selected, the women in the audience looked around at whoever they were with (this occurred in couples and non-couples) before they performed any of the gestures I had codes for on the Joke Sheet. This did not happen with the male members of the audience who mostly maintained eye contact throughout and laughed openly without looking around.

If the men did look around at other audience members it was whilst laughing or to signal an inside joke. The women looked around at other audience members with caution as though they were seeking approval. When asked about this in the ethnographic interviews, many were surprised that they had done such a thing. They did not deny that they had done it (not in the way they denied the gestures described in Denial of negative reactions) but they offered no explanation for their own actions, although some offered an almost psychological explanation for it, dissociating themselves from the action in the process.

One woman in her late twenties answered me when I asked her about why she looked around before not laughing at a joke about having sex with a transsexual: “I thought it was fucking hilarious but I’m not about to go making a fool of myself and have everyone think I’m some woman who loves dirty cock jokes.”

SEPARATING JOKE FROM COMEDIAN

Lewis Schaffer performing in London last night

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason without his shirt on

The data from which this theme emerged were the ethnographic interviews I conducted after the show and during the intervals.

The men I spoke to, and this was across all ages and regardless of whether I interviewed them in a couple or as single, spoke about the joke and comedian as a “He” – the joke was “his joke”, their opinion on the show was “he is funny”, “he is crazy” – whilst the women at the show, again this was across all ages but particularly prevalent amongst women under 30 years old, spoke about the jokes, the material and the comedy as a whole as an “it.”

One woman who was in her early twenties and with a group of female friends of a similar age said: “It was certainly interesting. I’ve not seen much stand-up like this, it was funny. He’s sweet. (Referring to the comedian)” and this is a good representation of the shorter conversations I had as some people were eager to leave the venue after the show ended.

The men in the audience talked about the comedian as though he were a friend and therefore spoke about the jokes with forgiveness, as though it were friendly banter in the form of “Informal comedy”(Mulkay, 1988) whereas the women in interviews, many of which were couples with the men, were reluctant to engage personally with the comedian as if to do so would be condoning the sexist jokes.

Most women avoided critical engagement with the jokes when directly asked and used measured terms such as “perhaps you’re right” and “maybe it was because…” whilst the men interpreted my questions as an invitation to critique or praise the comedian in absolute terms – “He’s a pro (professional)”, “He’s a good guy” – which highlights a great contrast in the gendered experience of sexist humour.

DENIAL OF NEGATIVE REACTIONS

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason with his jacket on

If the Approval section was the first step in the process of reacting negatively to a joke, the second stage was the gestures that I had coded on the Joke Sheet.

When reacting to jokes concerning the comedian personally – self-deprecating jokes about the comedian’s age or appearance – the women in the audience covered their mouths whilst laughing (this is one of the symbols on the Joke Sheet) as though they didn’t want to be seen laughing at the comedian. This gesture doubled as embarrassment, especially when coupled with looking away from the stage (also a symbol on the Joke Sheet).

The most interesting aspect of the reaction patterns that came from the Joke Sheets were the explanations that followed in the ethnographic interviews.

When I repeated the jokes I saw them react negatively towards, they denied that they had reacted in such a way, brushing off any words such as “sexist”, “offensive” or “taboo” with laughter and changed the words to “dirty” or “naughty” to articulate their thoughts. This showed how they were both embarrassed and ashamed of the sexist material as well as being embarrassed and ashamed of their reaction to it. This also approves the results of the humour and context work by Gray and Ford (2012).

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Comedian Lewis Schaffer, not performing, with his shoes off

Although the focus throughout this research has been the consumption not the production of the comedy, it would do the data an injustice not to discuss the patterns of techniques the comedian uses and their effect on how the women in the audience perform their gender roles.

As a known friend of the comedian, the main obstacle of the interview process was attempting to get the participants to stop asking me questions about Lewis Schaffer. Both men and women (although the majority were women) asked me if many of the jokes he had made about himself were true – if he really was living in a council flat, if he really was a divorcee etc.

“The ironist insincerely states something he does not mean, but through the manner of his statement, rather through its formulation or it’s delivery, or both, he is able to encode and counter proposition its real meaning, which may be interpreted by the attentive listener.” (Nash 1985:52) or, as the comedian Lewis Schaffer explained it, “All jokes are opinion with deniability. If people actually thought I had sex with a horse they wouldn’t be too happy about it. As it happens, I’m not allowed within 50ft of a stable or Camilla Parker-Bowles.”

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Last night a 6-year-old who looked like comic Michael McIntyre told me jokes

Eric looked a bit like Michael McIntyre

Little Eric looked a little bit like Michael McIntyre last night. Unlike Michael, he has temporary trouble with wobbly teeth.

My eternally-un-named friend has a six-year-old nephew.

I shall call him Eric (not his real name) because, in the movie Get Carter, Michael Caine tells Ian Hendry’s character Eric that he still retains his sense of humour.

“Do you like jokes?” I asked Eric last night.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Do you want to tell us a joke?” I asked.

“Why did the gorilla go to the shops?” asked Eric.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Why did the gorilla go to the shops?”

“To get a new pair of drums,” replied Eric.

There was a pause while my eternally-un-named friend and I looked at each other.

“Is that to do with the TV advert?” I asked.

“No,” said Eric.

“Is that the end of the joke?” asked my eternally=un-named friend.

“Yes! Gettit? shouted Eric. “Drums! He had to buy another one – like this!”

He started to beat his chest with his fists and to laugh loudly.

My eternally-un-named friend and I looked at each other.

“Look!” shouted Eric. “Your arms!” He started beating his chest with his fists again. “He had to buy another one!”

“Nice visuals,” said my eternally-un-named friend.

“What,” I asked optimistically “is your second favourite joke?”

“Why did…” asked Eric.

“I’ve heard this one,” I told him.

He ignored me.

“Why did Jack Sparrow buy a new sword?” he asked.

“Because the gorilla had stolen his sword?” I tried.

“No,” said Eric. “Because he didn’t have a gun.”

“We could try the best of five,” I suggested to my eternally-un-named friend.

“Another one,” she told Eric.

“Oh!” he said enthusiastically. “Why did the banana cross the road?”

“I don’t know,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “Why did the banana cross the road?”

“To do the splits!” shouted Eric, bursting into laughter.

“He could have done the splits on this side of the road,” suggested my eternally-un-named friend.

“He didn’t feel like it,” said Eric and laughed loudly again. “Do you get it? The splits!”

“OK,” said my eternally-un-named friend.

“The best of seven?” I asked her.

“Come on. Another one. Another one,” she said to Eric. “Have you got a longer one?”

“What do you call a deer with no eyes?” he asked.

“No eye-deer,” replied my eternally-un-named friend. “I’ve heard that one. Go on – another one.”

“If a rabbit popped and it was invisible,” tried Eric, “what smell would you smell?”

There was a long pause while we thought about this. Eventually, Eric could wait no longer.

“A square!” he laughed loudly.

“A square?” I asked.

“Yeah!” he laughed. “It’s something funny that don’t make sense, right? A popping square!”

“Is he on drugs?” my eternally-un-named friend asked me. “Maybe it’s the chocolate.” She turned to Eric: “Have you got one about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman going into a pub? Do you know anything about someone going into a pub?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“What happened?” she asked.

There was a long, long pause.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “three little pigs went to a pub. One wanted for their starters a meatball sub…”

“A what?” I asked.

“A meatball sub,” said Eric.

“I think it’s a big sandwich,” my eternally-un-named friend told me.

“Someone,” continued Eric. “asked for water. And someone asked for meatballs… and then what did they want for their main dinner? Someone wanted water and one wanted pasta and one wanted chips. And they wanted something for their pudding. One wanted water, one wanted cake and one wanted an ice cream. Now, at the end, they both talked about why the pig was having too much water. So they made a joke about a pig going like this: Wee wee wee all the way home.

There was a brief pause and then Eric burst into a sharp, piercing laugh.

“You’re right,” I said to my eternally-un-named friend. “It’s drugs in the chocolate.”

“Oh!” she said encouragingly to Eric: “He went wee-wee-wee because he’d drunk too much water!”

Eric burst into another sharp, piercing laugh.

“It WAS a joke,” my eternally-un-named friend reassured me.

“Oh no, no!” shouted Eric. “I’ve got it! Why did a car cross the road?”

“Why?” I asked.

“It turned into a Transformer!” Eric laughed.

My eternally-un-named friend and I looked at each other.

Michael McIntyre beaten for Perrier Best Newcomer Award

Comic Michael McIntyre 5 years ago

“Oh,” she said eventually. “I think maybe he should have said Why did the car turn into a road.

“Ah, yes,” I agreed. “Because it was a Transformer. He said all the right words… but not necessarily in the right order.”

“What do you call…” Eric started.

“The strange thing,” I said, “is he looks very like Michael McIntyre. Perhaps all six-year-olds do.”

“What do you call a sheep with no arms and no legs?” asked Eric.

“I don’t know.”

“A cloud,” said Eric.

He will go far.

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Old Jewish Jokes and why comedian Ivor Dembina gets hate mail from Jews

I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Next week, Wednesday to Saturday, comedian Ivor Dembina is performing his show called Old Jewish Jokes at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.

“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”

In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.

“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.

“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.

“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”

“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of UK comedy

Ivor Dembina: “a typical alternative comedian”?

“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.

“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.

“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”

Ivo Dembina at Hampstead Comedy Club last night

Ivor Dembina at his Hampstead Comedy Club last week

“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”

“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”

“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”

“In my opinion,” said Ivor.

“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”

“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”

“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.

Ivor’s Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

Ivor’s 1996 Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diasporait’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”

“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”

“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”

“Even now?” I asked.

“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall at St James’s in Piccadilly

“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”

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