The limits of free speech have been severely tested after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné arrested for showing solidarity in a Facebook post with kosher supermarket killer Amedy Coulibaly. So how far can comedians go in expressing their opinions or simply having a laugh?
On 7 January, after the Charlie Hebdo office had been attacked, comedian Andrew Lawrence posted: “All you hand-wringing Libtards whining incessantly about Islamophobia, you’re awful quiet today.” Mindful of the reaction this might provoke, the two-time Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee then added: “‘It’s too soon to make jokes about that Andrew’. I can’t help it if I’m over-efficient”. If tragedy plus time equals comedy, what price tragedy and immediacy?
Lawrence will be appearing at this year’s Glasgow Comedy Festival, which announced its line-up earlier this week. In 2006 the festival controversially neglected to admit Bernard Manning to the programme when he appeared in Glasgow, and Lawrence is currently experiencing similar pariah status, at least in stand-up comedy circles. Having long voiced his disillusionment with the comedy industry in his act, he declared himself the victim of a “witch hunt” after widespread condemnation of a Facebook post he made on 25 October last year, in which he slated the “unmitigated disaster of immigration”, criticised BBC diversity targets and denounced “hack, boring and lazy” comics cracking jokes about Ukip, pretending to hold views to curry favour.
Specifically, the 35-year-old berated “moronic, liberal back-slapping on panel shows like Mock The Week where ageing, balding, fat men, ethnic comedians and women-posing-as-comedians, sit congratulating themselves on how enlightened they are about the fact that Ukip are ridiculous and pathetic”. His comments brought an immediate backlash, not least from fellow comics. He received support from other acts, such as Reginald D Hunter and Trevor Lock, though mostly they were “frustratingly” private.
He says he knew that the post would “polarise” but has no real regrets.
“Everything I wrote is what I believe. I didn’t say anything particularly subversive or controversial, except in comedy circles. These are viewpoints that many, many people hold. A lot of comics took umbrage with it and some, when it began to attract this unwarranted, ridiculous amount of attention, wanted to get a bit of attention for themselves.”
Heated online exchanges with the likes of Dara O’Briain, Frankie Boyle and Shappi Khorsandi followed. Stewart Lee wrote a Guardian article, headlined “The Imaginary Liberal Comedy Cabal will crush the Ukips into dust”, which stated that every comic he had recently met “expressed genuine and sympathetic concern for their colleague Andrew Lawrence’s mental wellbeing”.
Lawrence didn’t appreciate it. “Certain comedians, amongst them Dara O’Briain and Stewart Lee, conducted themselves in a very unpleasant fashion and didn’t make themselves look very good,” he says. “Not that I looked very good either.” The incident was part of the “sanctimony of social media, with its contrived and confected outrage”. It taught him only “the extent to which you can be misrepresented in the press, the extent to which people can twist your words and paint you to be something you’re not”.
Accusing the comedy industry and media of “corruption” and “militant liberalism” he also asserts that “three or four very, very big comedy agencies” are too powerful in determining which comics appear on television, especially on the publicly-funded BBC. Lawrence’s current live show, Reasons To Kill Yourself, alludes to his split with his longterm girlfriend, but also with his agent, Hannah Chambers, who still looks after Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Sarah Millican and Jack Whitehall. Even so, journalists read too much of his personal life into his onstage persona, he warns.
Few would dispute that Mock The Week projects a narrow and consensual political outlook, or that the BBC’s widely publicised quota of having at least one woman on each panel show raises questions of fairness. Regardless, plenty of so-so, white male comedians have been promoted beyond their abilities by television. So why tar the accomplished, experienced female and ethnic comics who’ve paid their dues to be there, with baiting phrases like “women-posing-as-comedians”. Or make thinly-veiled personal attacks on acts like O’Briain?
“It’s something that needed saying,” Lawrence counters. “There are female comedians who’ve been on that show purely because there are diversity targets in place for comedians who struggle to get paid work in clubs. It’s not me singling them out, it’s the BBC. Far too many female comedians are talking about sexism within the industry rather than letting their jokes speak for themselves.”
Subscribing to Chris Rock’s theory that mobile phones and social media threaten comedians experimenting with potentially controversial material, as they fear viral online controversy, he disputes the American’s suggestion that comedy should always punch upwards.
“I totally disagree,” he says. “There are probably kids living in slums in India who are happier than schoolgirls in Surrey. People being chauffeured around in Bentleys less happy than people in wheelchairs. How are you supposed to define weakness? If you’re saying you can’t make jokes about people, you’re taking a bit of their dignity, their humanity away. A far more sensible and healthy perspective for comedians, which was the consensus until very recently, is that you can make fun of anything as long as you’re prepared to be made fun of yourself.”
Raising the subject of rape jokes, he advocates that while he’s never told one, “it’s an extremely contentious and taboo subject, to my mind exactly the sort of thing comedians should be talking about in an intelligent way – not as a cheap, shock punchline on the end of a gag. The idea that you shouldn’t make jokes about it is censorship”.
I agree. But following Lawrence’s Twitter account, which he suggests is a forum for trying his jokes out, scanning it like the PC police he abhors, I’m struck by another tweet, one that suggests that Charlie Hebdo was a chance for convicted rapist Ched Evans to “get a new football contract while no-one’s looking”.
Comics ought to be free to play with ideas about football’s morality and media coverage. Nevertheless, posted on 7 January, was it worthwhile or intelligent enough when set against the potential hurt to someone directly affected by those events? He is adamant. “I would never flinch from doing a joke because I thought it might offend someone.”
A former BBC new act of the year, who’s appeared on Live At The Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Channel 4’s Stand Up For The Week, Lawrence has not been denied exposure. As early as five years ago though, he was considering quitting “because I was so miserable doing it, because I hated the industry so much”. After making three series for Radio 4, he’s recording a sitcom for the channel this autumn. There Is No Escape is “about a man stuck in a life he doesn’t want, a job he doesn’t want, a relationship he doesn’t want, in a house he doesn’t like”, a more “everyman” figure than his usual “extreme, bitter shtick”.
With a decent fanbase from touring, he makes a reasonable living from his solo shows, but is at a curious point in his career. He recorded a set for the Stewart Lee-curated TV show The Alternative Comedy Experience, but was dropped from the broadcast because, he claims, the producers decided he was too “mainstream”.
Mention of the Facebook furore has crept into his current show and will influence the next. “My comedy’s become more political, it’s something I’ve felt I’ve had to do, to defend myself,” he explains. Meanwhile, he’s written “a parody of a self-help book”, also titled Reasons To Kill Yourself.
“I guess you might call it a self-harm book,” he laughs, mirthlessly.
• Andrew Lawrence: Reasons to Kill Yourself is at The Stand, Glasgow on 27 March as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival. For full listings, visit www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com