Will the real comic please stand-up?

We Irish are usually typecast as a rowdy, drunken bunch with good anecdotes and generally fun to be around. Not the worst stereotype out there, not by a long shot! Would you rather be identified as loud-mouthed, fat and stupid or unhygienic with terrible teeth?

But we tend to be a good-humoured group and are praised for our ability to take a joke on the chin. With recent outbursts in the media and considerable public backlash, notably by infamous comic Ricky Gervais, is there a line that should not be crossed when it comes to stand-up comedy?

Irish comedian Al Porter talks to The City to give his opinion on the nature of the art.

“As a comedian, it’s our jobs to address the things going on in peoples’ minds that maybe they don’t want to say. If you even go back to Shakespearean or Medieval times, you have the court jester. He was the only one permitted to slag the king. He was the only one allowed to rock the boat and talk about the establishment.”

Al recalls a night in the Laughter Lounge where the issue of people taking offence on behalf of others arose at a comedy gig. Do people have a right to take offence on behalf of others, even if the butt of the joke may not necessarily concern them?

Al Porter performing at the RTE New Comedy Awards
Al Porter performing at the RTE New Comedy Awards

MC on the night Steve Cummins usually pokes fun at the audience, luring them into a sense of comfort at the beginning of the shows. On this particular night he had 40 people in wheelchairs in the audience.

“He usually tells people the emergency rules and that night said: ‘in case of a fire you’re f*cked’, looking over at the 40 people in the wheelchairs,” said Al.

However, they all found it hilarious but eight people rang in to Joe Duffy the next day to complain about how rude Steve had been. Following this, members of the group in the wheelchairs rang in jumping to the comic’s defence, explaining that they recognised it was a joke and found it quite funny.

“In Ireland, and anywhere in the Western world, I think freedom of speech comes with the right to be offended but also the right to offend. If you have the right to be offended then I have the right to offend you. I mean I have the right to say things in the name of entertainment.”

Although there are very sensitive issues in regard to race, religion, culture and sexuality, many comics have successfully incorporated these topics into their routine – Chris Rock on race, Louis C.K. on homosexuality etc. Are there issues comedians should avoid joking about and how does one know where to draw the line?

“The problem is that you can’t mark something out as taboo – as something not to be talked about, because that is the reason that comedy exists. It’s there for these things to be talked about.”

“A sensitive issue for an audience is one where you are going to upset people inadvertently, and that’s not doing your job. And that’s things like people who can’t defend themselves, people who have issues that they can’t change about themselves. You can’t change the fact that you are disabled; you can’t change the fact that you have a mental disability; you can’t change the fact that you’re blind.”

“I do religious material and one of the elephants in the room in Ireland is child sex abuse. Now that’s very hard to make fun of. How do you make fun of child sex abuse? It’s a very difficult thing to do comedy on.” said Al.

Al is a regular feature on the Irish comedy circuit, performing here at the Laughter Lounge
Al is a regular feature on the Irish comedy circuit, performing here at the Laughter Lounge

Although child sex abuse is the overriding sensitive topic in Irish culture, we have seen the likes of Tommy Tiernan achieve success in his comedy on the subject, taking a light-hearted approach on the matter.

“My way of doing it is to take a light-handed approach. For example, ‘I was an altar server until I was seventeen but I was only in it for the action’. And people tend to laugh at that. And then I say, ‘if you think the Jews were cruel to Jesus you should have seen how Father Billy nailed me’ and it gets a good reaction,” said Al.

“If we’re going to say that everything is okay for you to talk about, then the only lines we can draw are moral, ethical or boundaries of taste and decency. The problem there is that everybody differs. If you really want to be a top comedian, you should have enough audience entity to know your audience’s moral compass.”

“For example I don’t do those religious jokes down the heart of the country. If I’m in a bar in Sligo or a small village in Tipperary, and that’s because I understand that these audiences don’t particularly want to hear this. I’m here to entertain. I’ll do those jokes up in Dublin where people are more accepting.”

It is obvious that audience entity and knowing your particular audience’s moral compass at any given show is vital for a comedian’s outlook. Pushing the boundaries in comedy comes with great success if done correctly, but it is such a difficult skill to master and one has to accept that they are not going to please everyone. Someone will usually always be offended where sensitive topics are joked about.

“I watched a video of David Walliams recently which made me uncomfortable. He brought a man from the audience up on stage, The man didn’t know what he was volunteering for and he pushed him to the ground, pulled down his trousers and dry-humped him on stage. I think that’s gone too far.”

“The line can be drawn there because it’s not immoral to talk about dry-humping somebody with their trousers down, but he has breached an ethical code, where his audience was not given a yes or no choice here. If that was a verbal joke, the man hears it, but he can hear it, get offended, leave and never buy a ticket to see David Walliams again. The fact that this guy didn’t have the choice to leave and that his own personal space was invaded was wrong.”

“I do stuff that I flirt with men in the audience and they might be rubbed on the shoulder or the leg, but believe me, I am looking at his face and for his reaction. I know when to move away and who to leave alone.”

“That is when it becomes immoral – when somebody else’s freedom is being breached. Nobody is breaching your freedom by censoring you. You’re allowed say what you want and nobody is breaching the audience’s freedom by making them stay there and suffer because they can leave whenever they want.”

“If people are going to allow you the freedom to do what you want, you should allow them the freedom to consent as to whether they want it done or not.”

Al Porter has hosted a set of successful comedy shows in Dublin’s Woolshed Baa & Grill, the last of which takes place on December 16th in a Christmas comedy special.

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