It's not who you are, but who you know

Paul Rickets wonders whether comedy really is a meritocracy

I am going to start off this article by saying this is NOT a competition. But I read the ‘Green Party dumps female comic to 'increase diversity”’news item in Chortle with interest.

Putting aside my first reaction – is there a black comic on the bill? – by replacing a young female comic with a 63-old-transexual woman I could only think of Richard Littlejohn ranting: ‘It’s Political Correctness gone mad... you couldn’t make it up!’ Obviously one person’s ‘diversity’ is another person’s discrimination.

Several years ago I was called up by the promoter of a comedy competition and told that I would be in the final as long as they couldn’t find a good female comic in the last heat. They explained that they already had some good ‘ethnic’ acts, one of which was female, but they were short of a decent white female act which would add to the ‘variety’ of the night.

Even when I suggested that I could sever my own penis and poke my eye out with it, the reply was they already had enough ‘specialty acts’. Another black act told me he entered a TV company’s comedy ‘diversity’ competition. When he arrived he saw another black act as well as a blind act, deaf act, an act in wheelchair and an act with Down’s Syndrome. As he said: ‘I never knew being black was a disability.’

Unfortunately with my competition they found some good female acts and I didn’t make the final, but I wasn’t too annoyed by this. I actually appreciated the phone call explaining the situation in non-bullshit terms. I am realist and in this case it was like Cruft’s – to be ‘Best in Show’, you had to be ‘Best in Category’.

I can respect a promoter who recently didn’t book me for a political night partly on personal reasons. I even respected a promoter who told me that they wouldn’t book me because they suspected their audience was racist. Why would I want to perform to them and for someone who ran a night like that? In short, I don’t have to like it, but I respect promoters who tell me the unvarnished truth especially when it involves the complicated area of political correctness and diversity.

However, what I find really objectionable is being discriminated against because of not being part of the right comedy ‘clique’, which can ignore sex, race and occasionally class.

I know this is a futile frustration because comedy (like other strands of arts and entertainment, apart from music or sport – hence their enviable accessibility to all classes, race and gender) is generally a ‘who you know’ as well as ‘what you know’ business. So I can be ignored for an anti-racism comedy gig in my home London borough of 17 years for someone who is discernibly paler and fresh from Oxbridge. Or a ‘political’ comedy night where I turned up to see one act repeatedly talk passionately about a terrible injustice - that they aren’t yet on ‘Mock The Week’.

With both these gigs I emailed for a spot and got no response because, even if it appears I tick all the right boxes, I’m not part of their social ‘group’. And why should I get a reply? The more cynical amongst you could rightly point out that they might think I’m crap or suggest I perform on the ‘urban’ circuit.

But I understand her frustration when Lindsay Sharman says: ‘I am clinging to the belief that a comic's ability will be the deciding factor on whether they succeed in this business.’

But why should comedy be different from our society as a whole, where the three leaders of the major political parties are white men from Oxbridge? Why should comedy be a shining example of meritocracy? If this IS a competition then you have to realise it isn’t as yet a level playing field. To change this it might take unity of purpose from all comics - be they female, male, transsexual, black, white etc, etc.

Published: 22 Feb 2012

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