Kate Copstick: "This is a frightened Fringe. And that is unacceptable."

The Scotsman comedy critic on the Jerry Sadowitz controversy and why the Fringe shouldn’t be aligning itself with corporate values.

Welcome to the Midwich Fringe. We should have seen the signs when we read the Fringe Society Ltd's announcement that the festival’s “open to all” ethos was being “reimagined for a 21st-century context”. We should have known then that we were probably not safe, which would have been a good move because, this August, feeling “unsafe” is like a superpower that can effect the immediate cancellation of shows at the drop of a tweet.

In all my years of covering the Fringe, there has never been a more joy-stranglingly censorious August. Councillor Moira Knox in her heyday seems like a libertine now, in comparison to today's recreationally offended. When the blood chilling phrase “unacceptable and does not align with our values” is bandied about, and by a venue like the Pleasance, then it is time to fear for the freedom of our funny. The point of a Fringe is that it does not align with anything. But now the corporate hairdressers have taken over the salon. And they have a style book.

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There is an infamous case in Criminal Law - Owens v Liverpool Corp [1939] - which establishes the eggshell skull rule. IE: that “it is no answer to a claim for a fractured skull that the owner had an unusually fragile one”. And, therefore, arguably, no answer to a claim of being comedically unacceptable to the point of cancellation that the listener's unusually fragile worldview precludes the acceptance of nuance, humour as a way of sparking debate or even any opinion contrary to their own. Much less Jerry Sadowitz's penis.

Viva Your Vulva: The Hole Story is one of Kate Copstick's Fringe recommendations.Viva Your Vulva: The Hole Story is one of Kate Copstick's Fringe recommendations.
Viva Your Vulva: The Hole Story is one of Kate Copstick's Fringe recommendations.

I do not want to have my comedy constrained to the most offendable common denominator. I find that offensive. But that doesn't seem to count. At least for the eggshell skull brigade, soft play areas can be created should they want to relax safely, without fear of cracking their fragile heads. Perhaps the Fringe Society might like to have a comedy equivalent in the brochure next year. And the more robust of us can get back to enjoying ourselves.

In terms of 'offensive' comedy, it is extremely difficult to find yourself appalled purely by accident. But, in a society where increasingly everyone has rights but no one has responsibilities – even the responsibility to look at the title of a show and think “hmmm, maybe this is not for me” - comedy is in a parlous position. For ten years Bob Walsh has offered up Wrong Comedy, described in the Free Fringe guide as “Rude, Blue, Lairy, Sweary and Offensive”. And Fringe audiences have loved it. This year the show got its first complaints. Apparently, it is... offensive.

Becky Fury is, herself, something of a feminist comedy powerhouse and this year offers a show called C***. Not purely stand-up, it looks at the word, its history and its abuse. A few days ago, she tells me, “some guy came up to me and said 'you seem like a nice woman but I counted and you said the word c*** 140 times in the show.' There should be a warning.”

I would put that very much in the same category as anyone choosing, booking, paying for and turning up on time for a Jerry Sadowitz show called Not For Anyone, which is plastered with more content warnings than a nuclear power plant, and claiming to be traumatised by its language.

Mary Bourke: The Brutal Truth is one of Kate Copstick's Fringe recommendations.Mary Bourke: The Brutal Truth is one of Kate Copstick's Fringe recommendations.
Mary Bourke: The Brutal Truth is one of Kate Copstick's Fringe recommendations.

I have two friends – with decades of comedy involvement - who were actually there, saw no walkouts, heard no gasps of terminal outrage, and described the context of the language in the section of material that allegedly upset unidentified people. Because of his performance style and reputation, less intelligent, less perceptive audiences frequently make the mistake of assuming he is just an angry man standing there saying appalling things. Wrong. Understandable. But wrong.

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Rumour (which is, worryingly, all it takes now) has it that it was young staff at the venue who were unhappy. Whether true or not, I can think of little that is more offensive than finding out that the parameters of my choice at the Fringe are now going to be dictated by the temporary front of house staff at the EICC.

Or indeed the Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, where award-winning, Fellow of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists and pelvic-floor expert Elaine Miller's brilliant, educational, hilarious and hugely important show Viva Your Vulva has been getting the serious side-eye from the venue's temporary Fringe staff, and Elaine herself has been spat at in the street. I went to see it (call me old-fashioned, but I like to see a show before denouncing it as transphobic) with the Guilder of the Balloon herself, Karen Koren. We loved every minute, as did everyone else in the audience, who seemed to understand that, contrary to popular opinion, explaining a fact is not the same as making a value judgement. Much less, being phobic.

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Still, with shows about the breast-feeders and cervix-owners among us (the people previously known as women), Mary Bourke's show includes her fantastic rant about getting called in for a smear test. “I had a reporter in from the New York Times asking if I was afraid of destroying my career with my final routine," she says. Mary, as you might imagine, is not. Nor should she be.

This is a frightened Fringe. And that is unacceptable. A Fringe is not the place to “align” with corporate values or strive for conformity, much less “acceptability”.

“The role of the Society is going to change … we’re going to become a more active participant now,” said Fringe Society Ltd CEO Shona McCarthy. Make of that what you will. And part of their increased activity will be to “help” performers to decide when their show is “Fringe ready”.

In the words of celebrated Scottish actor John Laurie, from his 2002 Fringe show (probably unacceptable now because it touched on the non-aligning attitude to homosexuals in the sitcom Dad's Army) “We're doomed. We're all doomed." Kate Copstick

Mary Bourke: The Brutal Truth, The Stand Comedy Club 2, until 28 August.

Becky Fury: C**t!, PBH’s Free Fringe @ Globe Bar, until 28 August.

Viva Your Vulva: The Hole Story, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, until 28 August.

Wrong Comedy with Bob ‘Walshy’ Wash and Pals, Globe Bar and the Royal Mile Tavern Annexe (Main Room), until 28 August.

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