The power of the C-bomb

Juliet Burke experiences the small-town heckler

In the context of humour, the C-bomb can be divisive. Whether spoken on stage, hurled by a heckler or spontaneously spat from the lips of Paxman, Marr or Naughtie during a live broadcast, this one syllable has the power to both slap and tickle its audience. As the only term for female genitalia that doesn’t sound like a forgotten Geldof sister or gangrenous wound, it is the mightiest of all curses, often put aside for use in only the most carefully-chosen circumstances.

‘Cunt’ is always controversial. Never has this been more apparent than at a comedy night I attended last Friday.

Many clubs struggle to create a perfectly equilibrated ecosystem of crowd, comedians and MC. Not my local, however. It has a large, loyal and enthusiastic audience (of which I am a part), acts that consistently dazzle, and a compère without compare.

However, it no longer has its own venue. Due to a disastrous decision made somewhere between brewery and pub at the end of last year, the club was uprooted from its home at Redhill’s Home Cottage and has since been searching for a new place to settle. We’ve become the Bedouin nomads of East Surrey. The audience, growing steadily, has travelled as a united flock in search of a suitable venue for Comedy Cottage alongside its founder and MC, Sajeela Kershi. We may even have found it, were it not for last Friday and The Cunt.

The previous gig at the Ex-Service and Social Club in Reigate had gone so well. With a large, full function room, cheap bar and the same atmosphere of cheerful anticipation as before, it all looked promising for last Friday. Lights dimmed, music began and Kershi stepped onto the stage, sliding easily into confident, comfortable dialogue with the audience. Laughter rose. Newcomers (approximately half of the crowd this time) were welcomed. The evening was off to a perfect start.

It was then that the first of the Gobs piped up. He was one of two men who stood, swaying slightly, at the side of the room. City clubs often avoid the phenomenon of the small-town heckle. London hecklers, if they wish to turn the spotlight on themselves at all, will normally attempt a witty aside in some desperate bid to amuse the protagonist and fellow audience members. Of course, this is annoying for everyone, but somehow less so than the kind of drunken bestial roar offered by people like the Gobs. Theirs were the classic small-town heckles, the kind that are both loud and completely incoherent, blurted by those who haven’t experienced live comedy before and don’t quite understand how it works.

Until now, Comedy Cottage had managed to avoid this kind of disruption. Despite being a town famous for alcoholism and fighting, Redhill spawns consistently canny audiences. Behind its Jeremy Kyle veneer, there is sophistication, albeit sophistication that often hides itself deep beneath a Ben Sherman shirt spattered with dried blood and lager. There may have been sophistication beneath the shirts of the Gobs, but all that initially emerged from their mouths were loud, wordless interruptions.

It was at that point that another small-town phenomenon occurred: Sajeela Kershi recognised the first Gob as someone she’d been at school with. This was all the comedic ammunition she needed. Calmly, and with the precision and grace of an airborne bullet, she shared her recollections of him as a childhood bully, then of an occasion several years ago when they’d bumped into each other in a restaurant. She told us that he’d admitted to thinking she was pretty at school but how, in those days, it wasn’t ‘cool’ to go out with a ‘Paki’. Now, from high above him on the stage, she declared that ‘it isn’t cool to go out with a racist cunt’.

As the audience turned its blare of enraged laughter on the defeated Gob, he didn’t seem nearly as ashamed as he should have been. Inexplicably, this also failed to silence him or his companion.

BBC Surrey’s breakfast DJ, Nick Wallis, had been learning the art of stand-up for Comic Relief. By the time he reached the stage for his first ever set, the Gobs had been warned (by Kershi) that they would have to donate £10 to charity for each future heckle. Wallis ignored admirably. Within minutes, they had bawled their way to £100. The nonsensical shouts continued into the break between acts, this time smattered with staunch refusals to pay anything to anyone, ever.

It was then that Neil Cole took to the stage. He had overheard the Gobs talking before the show and now decided that, rather than perform his intended routine, he would ask for these men to be removed, commenting on exactly how unfair it was to sabotage a charity gig, and sharing an earlier Gob quote with the crowd: ‘If this had been Manchester,’ one Gob had said to the other, ‘I’d have punched that cunt at the door.’

At the door was Soo Abram, a woman known for kindness, patience and an attitude far from cunty. She had, it turned out, queried the Gobs’ attempt to barge into the room before the show without tickets. When it was revealed that someone else had paid for the Gobs to attend, Soo reluctantly let them through. This Someone Else stood silently beside the Gobs, watching now as Cole led the calls to have them thrown out. This Someone Else was The Cunt.

In a flurry of noise, followed by riotous applause, the Gobs were ejected. The Cunt went with them. The brilliance of Cole’s set after that was heightened by the sense of collective relief. That relief, however, was short-lived.

In the interval that followed, The Cunt returned. He approached Sajeela Kershi and spoke for the first time, loudly, too close to her face and with spittle-flecked contempt, demanding to know why his companions had been banished for using ‘the C-word’ when those on stage had also used it.

She explained that disruption and aggression were the problem, not language. He ignored the facts and continued. His fury at comics’ use of ‘the C-word’ seemed to grow and mutate as he worked himself up into a middle-class frenzy, flinging terms like ‘despicable’ and ‘disgraceful’ in an almost operatic tone so that his dissidence would be heard by anyone still in the room.

When the show continued, so did The Cunt. In the background of each act was his lone voice from the back of the room, rambling about ‘the C-word’ to himself in the assumption that everyone (or even anyone) agreed with him. Audible snippets included proclamations of his own authority at the venue and the repeated threat of a six month ban for any comedians using the dreaded word.

The challenge had been set. If we were all to be barred, we’d do it properly. The acts who followed made a point of finding creative ways to slip at least one sneaky ‘cunt’ into their dialogue. Each one was greeted with an almost delirious level of laughter and applause from the majority, which grew parallel to The Cunt’s anger. At regular intervals, he would send his friends to criticise Kershi, telling her she should order the comics to tone down their language. Rightly, she refused. (‘I’m not going to tell anyone who’s worked with everyone in the industry for the last 30 years how to do their job.’)

There was an atmosphere of unified rebellion in the room. Natt Tapley referenced The Cunt’s muttering brilliantly during his ‘Sir Ian Bowler’ skit and by the time Ronnie Golden headlined the show, a deliberate slip of the tongue on the word ‘county’ - followed by ‘Surrey seems to be the hardest word’ - sent us all into fevered, cackling, cheering hysteria. The air crackled. We were collectively doomed, but were all going out together in a comedic blaze of glory.

To be fair, The Cunt had somewhat exaggerated his authority at the venue. We discovered later that he wasn’t in charge. He was just a rich local who regularly drank there. The people who run the Ex-Service and Social Club are actually a really lovely group of people and, aside from Cunt and the Gobs, perfectly attuned with what a comedy night should be. Members of the committee approached Soo Abram afterwards to say what a wonderful evening it had been and that they would love us to return. The small-town attitude is more a state of mind than location and we’ve been truly lucky to amass such a brilliant bunch to watch, participate in and support Comedy Cottage.

However, it’s individuals like The Cunt who make live comedy a precarious art, wherever it happens to be held. It may be that, as a spectator, I had grown used to the sort of comfortable liberalism shared by most stand-up acts and their audiences, and had forgotten that there are very different attitudes to comedy out there, attitudes that stagnated at some point in the mid 1970s.

Thankfully, this sort of disruption at gigs is rare, even in the Daily Mail stronghold of East Surrey. However, it still unnerved me that anyone could laugh at casual misogyny and racism, yet erupt over the use of a single-syllable word. His sense of moral prioritising seemed the antithesis of anything I had experienced on the stand-up scene in a very, very long time.

Even in the age of post-alternative-comedy, it seems that offence is still just as subjective as humour itself. To certain cunts, at any rate.

  • Comedy Cottage is staging a Comic Relief benefit at the Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, from 8pm tonight.

Published: 18 Mar 2011

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.