Fringe performers are facing the biggest shake-up in the comedy landscape for decades in the wake of the growth of the #MeToo movement, the organiser of the festival’s most prestigious prize has said.
Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, said the shake-up in public attitudes was set to be the most significant since the growth of “alternative comedy” in the early 1980s.
It is audiences that will say: ‘I don’t think that is acceptable.’ If the audience is on a different page you will not have a happy time on stage.NICA BURNS
Speaking at the launch of the awards, Ms Burns predicted that the current era would become a “transformative moment” like the period when groundbreaking comics like Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders ousted stand-ups whose sexist, racist and homophobic material fell out of favour.
She warned some acts may be forced to rewrite shows or drop certain material because of recent shifting attitudes to sexual harassment and abuse.
Ms Burns also said that the impact of #MeToo raised difficult questions about how to get the balance right between “self expression, freedom of speech, conscience and consciousness of others” and whether strong opinions could be expressed without being seen as “inadvertently offensive”.
Recalling how stand-up was “reinvented” in the 1980s, she said: “A group of young comics made a conscious decision that it was unacceptable to tell jokes that were racist, homophobic and sexist – which was standard TV and club fare at the time. They believed they could be funny without making these sections of society the butt of their jokes.
“This became a movement and within a few years they had run the old comics off the screens and out of the clubs. What they thought wasn’t acceptable to laugh about helped changed society’s attitudes and became the norm. They set the agenda.”
Ms Burns cited two recent winners of the best show award – Richard Gadd and Hannah Gadsby – as examples of “groundbreaking” performers who openly discussed their experiences of sexual assault.
She said: “Comedians are often ahead of the curve. Some have already been pushing the envelope and dealing with really tricky subjects. They have made big decisions to stand up and talk about the effect their experience have had on them. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t talked about in the public arena very much.”
Ms Burns said performers would have to weigh up the impact of material “when meaning and audience sensibilities are changing and evolving so quickly”.
She added: “They will have to be very careful. The momentum over #MeToo has moved really fast. I’d be very surprised if comedians were not conscious of that when they were writing their show.
“It is audiences that are going to be saying: ‘Excuse me, I don’t think that is acceptable.’ #MeToo has given permission for people to stand up and say: ‘Things have got to change.’ It is engendering big social change. I don’t think it’s about audiences confronting comedians or anyone yelling or screaming at them. They just won’t laugh.
“If something doesn’t go down well I think comedians will have to rewrite their shows. I don’t think jokes about rape will go down at all well. If the audience is on a different page you will not be having a happy time on stage.”