Keith Farnan: Cruel and Unusual
Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2008
Irish Comedian Versus American Death Penalty. No Contest! Having interned in America on Death Row Appeals, former lawyer Keith Farnan's experienecs frame this funny and fierce attack on the idiocy of the Death Penalty in America and all that it entails.
What a wasted opportunity! The American death penalty is a vital topic, and Cork comic Farnan is uniquely placed to talk about it, having worked as an intern with a New York group that campaigns to reopen Death Row cases.
But he’s failed to grasp the bull by the horns, shying away from getting truly stuck into the difficult subject, perhaps for fear of alienating a comedy audience. But when everyone’s come to see a show about capital punishment, there’s no need for him to pussyfoot around the issue as much as he does, nor to dilute his point with irrelevant, softer, and weaker stand-up.
His preamble is typical, with the usual shtick about every American deludedly claiming to be Irish, and a waffly story about carrying the electric chair used in the poster through the streets of New York, with no discernable point or punchline. The first six or seven minutes of the show could be replaced by: ‘Hello, this is a show about the death penalty’ with absolutely nothing lost.
Never has a show been in more need of a director to slash and burn, to keep Farnan’s focus and to encourage him to acquire the confidence to show his passions for what is clearly an emotive subject close to his heart.
For when he does cut to the chase, Farnan is a spellbinding commentator, able to make his points with persuasive conviction, and have the audience hooked on every word of his stories. But just when you’re becoming gripped by his argument, he flips back to the superficial again.
For instance, he talks about the number of convictions secured on the bad science of early forensics, with juries presumably bamboozled by the boffins, but all it leads to is a standard ‘well, we’ve had CSI: Miami, what if there was CSI: Ireland’ routine about clumsy bog-hopping investigators. Likewise, when he points to the irrefutable evidence that violent crime in Canada has dropped since the death penalty there was abolished, it leads to a whimsical digression about seals.
It’s not easy to find humour in such a bleak subject, granted, but some of the Death Row inmates Farnan has met have found it. And he, too, occasionally gets the balance just right, with an intelligent joke or brilliant turn of phrase that highlights the insanity of the system, without making light of it. Even quick gags about how bleak the show is getting – offering a ‘visual sorbet’ to cleanse our palates from the misery of it all – work well.
It indicates that there’s a top-notch show in here just begging to be released, no pun intended, if only Farnan stopped holding back.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett