Karen Dunbar

Karen Dunbar

Originally from Ayr, Karen Dunbar was a DJ and karaoke host for ten years on the Glasgow and Edinburgh gay scene before moving into comedy.

Her break came when she attended open auditions for BBC Scotland's comedy unit in 1997, and was immediately signd up Radio Scotland’s comedy programme Chewin' The Fat.

The show, which also starred Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphil transferred to TV in 1999, and ran for three sereies. It led to Dunbar's self-titled BBC One Scotland show, which has run for four series and been nominated for two Rose D'Or international TV awards.

In, 2007 Dunbar made her first appearance in pantomime, playing Nanny Begood in Sleeping Beauty at the King's Theatre in Glasgow.

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Review of the BBC Scotland documentary about offence and comedy

With the possible exception of 18th Century statue-making, comedy is the artform that seems most affected by the raging culture wars.

It is the very idea of having precious beliefs laughed at that places stand-up in the crosshairs of those who want ever personal characteristic cherished and respected. And it is the idea of rebellious free speech that fires up those who demand the right want to say whatever the hell they want, and stuff your snowflakey feelings. Just about every national headline about comedy revolves around this conflict, further inflating it.

What, then, can Karen Dunbar do to resolve this schism? It’s probably no spoiler to reveal the answer: nothing much. ‘Fuck’s sake, what’s to be done?’ she sighs near the end of this hour-long analysis into the issues which aired on BBC Scotland last week.

While covering familiar ground, she offers a fair-minded guide to the problems while interrogating her own instincts. She is, after all, a Karen. A middle-aged white woman of some level of entitlement. And her generation of comedians, coming to the fore just over 20 years ago, just ahead of Little Britain, revelled in pushing the boundaries of taste. ‘My generation of comedians are having to apologise for causing offence,’ she laments from the start.

Yet she also came up through the LGBT scene, hosting karaoke nights on Scotland’s gay circuits. And a lesbian she knows what it’s like to be marginalised, and isn’t out to mock the weak.

In #CancelKarenDunbar, she joins a  BBC sensitivity adviser to revisit some of her old material, primarily from the Chewin The Fat sketch show and often cringes. That society’s moved on – and that ‘you couldn’t make that today’ – seems unequivocally a good thing. Former BBC comedy chief Shane Allen wouldn’t want old comedies banned, though, acknowledging the ‘social significance’ of their time. A content warning will do.

Yet Dunbar also has an understandable ‘resentment at being schooled’ by a woke brigade. Who gets into comedy to be told what to say? She thought the religious protesters who wanted to ban her comedy hero Billy Connolly’s breakthrough crucifixion routine were ridiculous, and there’s clear resistance to such bids for censorship now.

She visits comics working both angles: the safe-space Diversity Quota comedy night in Glasgow Uni and the unabashedly ‘anti-woke’ Comedy Unleashed night in London. Most tellingly she ran out some of her old work to an audience of performers drawn from Glasgow’s Sanctuary Queer Arts – a collective that’s either super-inclusive, or super ‘woke’ depending on your point of view. And she seems genuinely perturbed by the heartfelt personal upset expressed some of the audience feel at sketches which, after all, were only ever designed to make people laugh.

Tellingly, the documentary puts 50-year-old Dunbar in front of a much younger audience, trying out a new routine (with the aid of writer Steven Dick) with all she’s been exploring about ‘punching up’ who owns the right to joke about certain topics. And you know what she makes them laugh – mostly – without losing her grit to some imagined liberal soppiness.

It’s almost as if you can actually do comedy in today’s climate without falling foul of liberal witchfinders – and without going into extremes of crass offensiveness. That course might be more difficult that before, but the message is that it’s possible. And comedy’s probably better for it.

• #CancelKarenDunbar is on BBC iPlayer now

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Published: 28 Feb 2022


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