Johnny Vegas manhandled me

...but I didn't really mind

By Chortle editor Steve Bennett

I was manhandled by Johnny Vegas. His half-naked, 18-stone frame pinned me to the ground as he clasped me in a clumsy but firm embrace. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed as he blubbed emotionally to me, while a room full of people did nothing but stare and laugh.

This was almost eight years ago. In all that time, he’s been free to molest unsuspecting audience members in the most inappropriate way, until a Guardian journalist last week exposed him for the sex pest that he is.

Or could it just be that the woman involved didn’t feel violated? That she wasn’t that averse to being a part of another unpredictable Vegas gig? Chaotic, certainly, and often just plain strange – just like when he stripped to the waist and grappled me to the ground. I might not be a young, pliant girl – but were his motives at the Bloomsbury Theatre any different to what happened at that that bizarre game show at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe. It’s certainly a long way from that to the very public sexual assault that he’s been accused of.

None of the comedy reviewers at the Bloomsbury gig – myself included – picked up on the molestation that Mary O’Hara alleged. He kissed her rather vigorously for sure, but did he go further? She was a lot closer to the stage than most, so perhaps in a good position.

Perspective, after all, is everything. In cold black-and-white much of what is said on a comedy stage seems brutal. We all know comedians do sometimes say things they oughtn’t… but that’s their job. Live audiences tacitly accept those are the rules in a way that reading about it later, out of context, cannot do. And, of course, it’s not just what you say, but the way you say it. ‘Don’t fucking move,’ can range from the playful to the downright menacing. For me Vegas was just expressing an impotent frustration in an exaggerated way. I, for one, didn’t imagine for a minute he meant it.

Maybe I’ve developed an immunity to being outraged by anything a stand-up can say from years watching comedy. Offence is always going to be in the eye of the beholder – even though many now commenting on the Vegas situation never witnessed it.

Until the young woman herself comes forward, we will never know whether Vegas did go too far, or whether she took it in the spirit it was intended. Defending Vegas if she genuinely thought she was violated would be inconceivable; but then accusing him of a serious sexual crime when his alleged victim doesn’t feel abused is just as bad.

And despite the best efforts and resources of Fleet Street, there has been no Sunday tabloid expose of ‘Johnny Vegas Abused Me…. Victim Speaks Out’. Maybe next week…

Some have said she might have been coerced into submission by the peer pressure of the rest of the audience, or a desire not to be seen as a humourless spoilsport. Or that she hasn’t come forward out of a victim’s misplaced sham. But that’s to assume Vegas’s guilt just as surely as to suppose his innocence from her silence.

O’Hara said Vegas’s performance was ‘without artistic merit’ – which rather begs the question that if he was as threatening as she claims, would there be an artistic justification for it. Vegas WAS trying to make a point, however clumsily. And creating a spectacle was probably his main aim. He’d set up his loneliness, and the idea that he should be able to use his fame, and the power of a stand-up in the spotlight, to get laid.

We’ve all heard stories of other celebrities, thinking themselves untouchable, accused of acting in the most vile, predatory way. Was Vegas doing on stage what other might do to some star-struck teenagers waiting at the stage door? Or was he attempting to mock himself as being incapable of such sexually aggressive behaviour.

The fact it was Johnny Vegas rather than another comic is important. This wasn’t a swaggering lothario using his charm to seduce a woman, but an overweight, desperate loser trying to do the same, and failing miserably. Again, that’s not enough to excuse him if the woman did feel assaulted, but it may explain his motivation.

Before getting the girl on stage, he’d mock-flirted with her with lots of backhanded compliments perhaps gauging her willingness to be the butt of his self-pitying jokes. After all, when he’d tried to recruit another girl to be one of his ‘pallbearers’, he instantly backed off when she showed reluctance to take part.

The unavoidably conclusion is that, except from the woman herself, everyone there – let alone everyone who wasn’t - just doesn’t know whether Vegas strayed into the criminal. At the moment he has been condemned as pervert, groping women as 500 or so people urge him on, on little more than the evidence of a few people feeling uncomfortable at what they saw.

Did his ‘victim’ feel uncomfortable, too? Undoubtedly. I certainly did. Did she feel abused? Only she can tell. It’s the million dollar question that Vegas’s reputation rests upon. Or maybe the damage has already been done.

Click here for our original review of the night, before the controversy broke.

Published: 4 May 2008

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