How straight white male line-ups are comedy death | Brendon Burns says clubs need to diversify

How straight white male line-ups are comedy death

Brendon Burns says clubs need to diversify

Yesterday, Chortle reported how Bethany Black was turned down for a gig because the promoter felt there were too many women on the bill.

I feel that club owners presuming that crowds will freak out if a show has ‘too many’ women on are indicative of a further-reaching issue. I might be a bit out of touch and not on the circuit any more, but one of the reasons I don't do it is that there's always way too many straight white men on the bill. 

Not that I have anything against straight white men. I happen to be one, but consequently it's a perspective I'm more than familiar with. 

One of the reasons I love our job is there are so many perspectives out there. Maybe that's why the circuit is dying, because it isn't diversified enough. I've said this 'til I'm blue in the face: during my career the circuit has gotten whiter and straighter and whiter and straighter. 

Even some of the rooms that were the most multi-cultural are now almost all white and pretty much the same demographic. Because we have pandered to what white, middle-class audiences deem polite, while never really taking them out of their comfort zone. 

And with the advent of reality TV, the general public have wanted to see themselves reflected more and more. So when the mouth-breathers filled the clubs hoping to see what they've seen on TV, by keeping them happy, we scared off stand-up comedy's actual fans. That TV audience was always going to be transient anyway, and is now long gone, moving on to the next fad.

There are clubs that will adhere to these ideas of ‘too many women on the bill’ or ‘only one different ethnicity at a time’ as if somehow the crowd will freak out if they see an Indian and a Nigerian in one night. But doesn't that leave the market place wide open for actively diversified bills? We used to be world beaters at this but now we are light years behind New York. This used to be the feeder system for the international circuit but now it's kind of an international embarrassment. 

And I'm not sorry to say this, but political correctness has played a massive part. PC in the UK is almost wholly determined by white culture and what the delusional, empirically-minded deem to be ‘punching up and punching down’. I've heard the argument that comedy should always ‘punch up’ from the most closet-bigoted of stand-ups to which my reply is always: ‘Really? Then please give me the long list of people you think are beneath you’.  To confirm or deny my suspicions on my Dumb White Guy podcast I've asked almost every black and Asian act I've interviewed. And the general rule of thumb is the more that a comic is one of the the ‘punching-up’ police, the more subtly and condescendingly racist they are backstage.

I don't know about anyone else, but I need to hear as many different perspectives as I can just to stay relevant. I'm an old fuck now, so let's take the trans-movement as an example. 

Transgender people are fairly new in the limelight. Now as a comic, I tend to communicate via funny. That is my language, and it's what I have in common with every other comic on the planet. I might be a bit older and not know all the PC words to use yet surrounding transitioning people, but you know what I can relate to? What we can all relate to? Spending your entire life trying to work out who the fuck you are. What you're hiding, what you're afraid of. Who am I afraid of being? 

As most of my art form is spent figuring out who I really am and trying to be authentic I totally get transitioning immediately. It makes a lot of sense. However what certain people do with their new genitals is still a mystery to me and I'm going to feel OK saying that. 

Take Bethany for example, she's transitioned and is now a lesbian. I don't fully understand that, nor should I automatically because that's not who I'm trying to be in this life. (I've had questions surrounding gender and sexuality after several disastrous relationships myself but that's by-the-by) But through her comedy, she can help me understand that and having known her as a boy and a girl. I totally get that she was always a girl and now knowing her as a girl, I fully accept, she's dykey as fuck.

See what I did there? I made a blatantly homophobic joke. (Not a great one admittedly, but that's because the timing and delivery in your head is shit) But do you know how I did that? By seeing just a shred, a mere smidgeon of someone else's perspective. Can I tell that joke to an all-white, straight room? I could but I probably wouldn't dream of it. Mostly because if it killed I couldn't guarantee why. But could I tell that joke after Bethany's been on and there are other trans-people in the room? You bet your sweet gay post-op trans dick-vag I can.

The first time I went to NYC to watch stand-up I heard acts doing jokes about, white culture, Asian culture, black culture, gays, Jews, women and having come up in the London scene my first thought was: ‘Well this is so racist/homophobic/sexist’.

But then I looked around the room and thought: ’Wait - everybody's in.’ I looked around the room and saw, gays, blacks, Asians, Jews laughing. Then I continued to watch the show and I saw a plethora of gay, black, Jew, Asian men and women comedians. I saw more than one woman in a row, several black acts and for the first time I realised we've had it arse backwards for years, decades even. 

Every year I preview at Sajeela Kershi's Comedy Cottage gig in Redhill, Surrey, and it would seem she makes a point of putting on the most diverse bills she can. In fact, if she has a straight white male headliner like me who's admittedly a bit shouty (and some might say testosterone-fuelled) then she counters with almost all women and usually a camp gay or at least a camp straight male just to give me a fighting chance. 

Let's be honest, in 2016 only a proper fucking moron freaks out seeing two female comics in a row. And if those morons complain. Why are we pandering to them? As straight white men if we're repeatedly playing to crowds who can't cope with two women in a row, then these people are fucking idiots and they are lowering our overall game. 

As straight white men, we shouldn't just be tutting at these clubs who only want to book us. We should view this as a virus that will eventually kill us all off. I don't say this out of PC righteous indignation either (clearly). In fact, I say this to counter it. This is how we become cookie-cutter comics, only ever seeing and hearing our own similar perspective. Regurgitating the audience's every thought and feeling. Then if we ever dare discuss another culture or sub-culture on stage they freak out without really hearing what we had to say or even bothering to decide if we were joking or not - crying: ‘That’s racist! That's sexist! That's homophobic!’ as if racism, sexism and homophobia were somehow, like so many other things, a straight, white call.

If someone declares a diversified gig or circuit somewhere, where gays, blacks, Asians, Jews, trans and everyone feels not just welcomed but actually comedically relevant then wouldn't that place be full? I hear London’s Top Secret Comedy Club is pretty multi-cultural but the fact that that's even significant is so telling. 

If this sounds like a rather wordy excuse for me to try and get away with telling gay, black, Asian jokes, it probably is. That's what all jokes are – trying to get away with something. From audacious wordplay to just simply saying something you don't really mean. From an all-gay crowd to an all-black one. I'm going to try to get away with saying something they wouldn't normally hear in polite society. (I'm not sure why ‘from gay to black’ is the scale I've made - there's definitely something racist and homophobic going on there. I smell a possible routine here, but where in the UK can I try to work it out?)

But all-white rooms? With all white men on the bills? What's the point? There's nothing to get away with. There's no celebration of diversity, just a pallid, withering pretence that it doesn't even exist. No wonder everyone ends up doing fucking puns. 

I'm not even particularly sure of myself here. In fact, I'm actively not sure. Because one thing I am sure of is that the death of our art form comes from way too many straight white folks, way too sure of themselves. Because almost all they get to ever hear is themselves.

Brendon Burns’ Dumb White Guy podcast is available here.

Published: 11 Sep 2016

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