The night I performed comedy at a strip club | by Andrew Watts

The night I performed comedy at a strip club

by Andrew Watts

AUTHOR’S TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains references to rape

It usually happens like this: a promoter sends a list of available dates, and you just check to see whether you’re available and whether the fee’s OK; but the email I received last week had some more specific questions.  They were searching for comedians who had worked in the law, and comedians who had worked in finance, and then: ‘Male comedians considered controversial, especially regarded as “misogynistic” or anti-women.  Whether fairly or not!’

I hesitated briefly: then I ticked the box for ‘misogynistic’.  Now, I don’t do anti-women material, I don’t do sexist stuff, and I don’t do ‘rape jokes’ – indeed I launched a Twitter campaign against an open spot who had joked about how amusing it would be if my wife were raped. Twitter campaigns: that’s what modern feminism is about, isn’t it?

But last year I did a gig in a strip club. I was told that I was misogynistic, that I was lending support to the exploitation of women, and that I was off the artistic roll-call forever.

This is what happened.

I got an email from a new promoter, asking about my availability on a certain date.  I checked and I was available, and the fee was OK, so I said yes, thereby creating a contract.  (I ticked the box for comedians who had worked in the law as well.)  He then told me the gig was in a strip club.   

Now my immediate thought was: Ace, I can do all the feminist material I’ve been working on for the last few months. 

It’s not radical-feminist – it’s ‘the Fun Kind’ to paraphrase Andrea Dworkin, but it is predicated on the notion that, you know, women are people. It seemed to me like a win-win situation: I’d throw down my truth bombs and either everyone would applaud and storm out of the club in protest, or they would boo and throw things – and if the latter, well, that’s another five minutes of material right there.  Possibly a whole Edinburgh show if it involved actual physical violence…  Oh please God, let it involve actual physical violence.

I genuinely did not foresee the aggressive Twitter campaign that followed.  After all, I have done plenty of burlesque shows, against which no one has tweeted – but burlesque, of course, is a middle-class entertainment. 

By the way, I don’t buy the argument that burlesque is about empowering women, and both sexes are all on equal billing and footing.  Whenever I’ve done a burlesque show, I’ve been the only man, and the only comic, perpetuating this idea that men share their thoughts and ideas, and women share their tits and their arses.

To be fair, I don’t think the promoters of the strip club gig did themselves any favours by responding to criticism in a flippant manner; but I’m uncomfortable with criticising a comedy promoter for being facetious.

More seriously, the promoters were quite open about not booking any female comedians for this gig, and were, quite rightly, attacked for this policy – in some cases, by female comedians who had, moments before, told them that the gig would be unplayable by a female comedian.

I did wonder if I should cancel the gig because of this policy; and then I asked myself if I would cancel a gig at one of the high-profile clubs that don’t book women (although take care not to mention this policy in public), or refuse to appear on a TV panel show that doesn’t book women.  I don’t think I would.  I don’t think any comedian would.

In which case, it is an act of moral cowardice to single out one small-time promoter and excoriate them.  The campaign against DSM Promotions has been deeply unpleasant, and the moral posturing odious – I received an email over Christmas which was intended not just to ensure that they never ran another gig in a strip club, but to drive them out of business completely.  It reminds one of the anthropological concept of scapegoating, whereby one relatively weak (and not necessarily entirely innocent) individual or out-group is chosen to bear the entire community’s shortcomings, and is cast out into the wilderness; after which social cohesion is restored and everyone feels much better about themselves.

It is quite possible to argue that, because DSM’s policy of not booking women for this gig is overt and based on a belief (albeit an incorrect belief) that these gigs would be impossible for a female comedian to play, it is less pernicious than more insidious and widespread forms of discrimination.  And not only from the clubs that don’t book women, and claim, against all the evidence, that there just aren’t enough women comics out there. 

I know of one club which has a policy of having a woman on every bill – but always, because she’s booked as an afterthought, in the middle spot.  So of course the woman is the weakest act on the bill – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s the weakest act on the bill – and the gender imbalance becomes self-perpetuating.  But there’s no Twitter campaign against this club.

Nevertheless, I decided it would be wrong for me to gain a financial advantage from doing this gig, when many of my good friends on the comedy circuit were prevented from doing it by their sex.  So I donated my fee to the Eaves charity.  Less my expenses, obviously: I’m not an idiot.

But that wasn’t the only complaint that Twitter had about this gig.  There also seemed to be an idea that by doing this gig, I would be ‘supporting’ the objectification of women. 

And what really annoyed me was that no one asked me what I intended to say. It was assumed that any comics on this bill would ‘invariably’ joke about the strippers – and a lot of the complaints were made by the sort of left-wing comics who do left-wing material to left-wing audiences and have somehow convinced themselves they’re not doing something completely pointless.

My own view is that you should demonstrate your integrity in what you say rather than in where and to whom you say it.  My wife is a journalist, and this is a truism in her profession: there is no shame for writing for a paper whose politics you disagree with, provided that you do not change your views to suit your surroundings.  Although you can, and should, adapt the way you express those views. And I don’t see why it should be any different for comedians.

This seems to be accepted by musicians as well: Pete Seeger, the late singer and civil rights activist, wrote and sang anti-war songs, but he also travelled to Vietnam with his banjo to rally the troops’ morale. 

So what did I actually say?  I decided I couldn’t do my usual set, as it relies, at points, on irony; and I didn’t want to say anything that could possibly be misinterpreted. (It has been in the past.) 

I thought very hard about it, and got together with the excellent Nick Pettigrew – who is not only a fine comic mind, but also achingly right-on – to work out a set list.  Most of my jokes were dropped; new ones were added; and others were extended.   

The through-line of the set was based on a story about an ex-girlfriend of mine from Croatia, who was a soldier during the wars of independence in the former Yugoslavia. Usually I trot out some stuff about cultural differences and the Crazy Things That Croatians Say.  At the strip club gig, however, I told the 20 or 30 men in the audience the following story: 

When she was serving in the army, she had a boyfriend who was an infantryman serving in the front line.  One night, when his leave came to an end, he suggested that she come with him to the front line.  What larks! she thought, and agreed.  When they got to the front line, he took her into the dug-out, where his platoon, a group of 20 to 30 men, were waiting for them.  He then made it clear that she was expected to fuck all of them.  ‘What’s your problem?’ he asked: ‘You’re in the army, so you must be either a slut or a lesbian.  You’re not a lesbian, so…’  She refused.  ‘Look,’ he said, ‘You don’t really have any choice.  There’s nowhere to go.  Except to the Serb lines, over there – and you know what the Chetniks do to Croatian women... ‘

I told the audience how horrified I was when she told me this story.  I tried, and failed, to imagine what it must have been like for a capable, strong, intelligent woman to be reduced to the status of meat in the eyes of those men.  And what about those soldiers? What was going through their minds, looking at her? They all presumably had mothers, sisters, wives back home, daughters for some. What was it like to be one of a group of 20 to 30 men, looking on another human being and only seeing a collection of body parts? 

Well, I said, we’ll all find out in an hour’s time, when the strippers come on.

There was one man in the audience who laughed.  (I found out later that he was a journalist, and there in a professional capacity.)  As for the rest, silence – you remember the scene in The Producers, when the curtain goes down on Springtime for Hitler?  It was like that; except that there was no thunderous applause ten seconds later.  I did wait.

But the promoters congratulated me on my set, which raised them in my estimation.  A couple of punters told me that they’d loved it – but my goodness, it’s so much more fun to do a gig when you genuinely don’t care about the audience’s reaction.  (Why does no one tell you this?)  A couple of the dancers had arrived early, and I asked them what they thought, but they told me they hadn’t really been listening.

As for my ex-girlfriend – well, don’t worry.  Her boyfriend was too stupid to disarm her before threatening her with rape, and she pointed an AK-47 at his chest until an officer arrived and sorted things out.  She dumped him; his platoon ‘volunteered’ for special ops behind the Serb lines; and she ended the war a colonel.

Published: 10 Feb 2014

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