'Don't blame the audience'

Jack Clayton has the right to remain silent

Imagine that you’ve just been introduced to a complete stranger. We’ve all been there, right?

Now imagine that you’re being paid to create an instant rapport with that stranger. What would you talk about? My guess is that you wouldn’t try to spin some laughs from an act of terrorism.

And yet that was exactly how the compere at a recent comedy night tried to get the audience on side – by opening with material on the Boston Marathon.

 Now, I’ve never compered before so I’m not going to turn this into a ‘do’s and don’ts’ article.  But, if you want an audience to relax and feel like they’re buckled up for the funniest night of their week, month and/or year, perhaps it is not advisable to open by discussing something that took the lives of two adults and one child.

In his attempt to build a rapport with the audience, by connecting the London Marathon to fears of a repeat atrocity, he created a wall that even Mance Rayder and his Wildings would have difficulty scaling.  For those not hooked on Game of Thrones, think Hadrian’s Wall, and replace ‘Mance Rayder’s Wildlings’ with ‘angry Celts’.

Numbed by attempts to turn the Boston Marathon into a gag reel, and some misguided interaction with a teacher of autistic children, the audience was naturally feeling apprehensive when the first act stepped on to the stage. Within two minutes an audience member, known simply as ‘James’, had been threatened with non-consenting anal penetration.  Unsurprisingly, the metaphorical wall that separates audience from performer rose a little higher.

The thing that I found disturbing was not that the first two acts were making a mess of things. Like many in the audience I ejected some sympathy laughs just to keep the atmosphere tolerable. What really got my goat was that the first act seemed to be blaming the audience for his weak material and the stale atmosphere created by the MC. 

This isn’t a chicken-and-egg scenario.  The audience will normally laugh when something’s funny and, as I discovered during my one and only appearance on stage so far, when they’re not really sure what they’re witnessing. 

City boys and stag-do barbarians aside, audiences are normally an accommodating bunch. They want to laugh; they want to have a good time. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad for failing to engage with material about autistic children, anal rape and the killing of innocents. 

To give credit where it’s due, the compere turned things around in the second half and, against all initial predictions, the night turned out to be a success. Although, perhaps understandably, the audience member who had been singled out for jokes about anal desecration made a hasty exit in the interval.

Members of an audience should never be made to feel like their incarcerated in a nightmarish jailhouse of comedy. They shouldn’t feel compelled to laugh at things they don’t find funny.

What sort of planet are we living on when someone is criticized for failing to find humour in discussions of rape, murder and disability? By all means, talk about these things if that’s what you want to talk about. But – and I direct this at all stand-ups – please don’t throw your toys out the pram when you don’t get a chuckle.

We’ll laugh at what we find funny, and it’s the comic’s job to find what that is. Call it arrogance, call it insecurity, but some comedians really need to learn that a silent audience is not a personal attack. Looking back at the evening now, I’m reminded of a chef criticising a customer for failing to appreciate his risotto.

We’re fortunate to live in a country where freedom of speech means people can talk about whatever they want. Comedians can take to the stage and deliver material without fear of government reprisal. And for this, I am grateful. What I think we need to remember in all this though is that an audience member has freedoms too.

When things go wrong, it’s human nature to find someone to blame. In cases such as this, the audience is free from guilt.

Published: 7 May 2013

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