Jonny Pelham: Optimism Over Despair | Edinburgh Fringe comedy review
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Jonny Pelham: Optimism Over Despair

Edinburgh Fringe comedy review

Stand-ups are always lauding comedy as a way to confront dark issues, with large sections of this festival based on comedians processing their trauma through laughs to show they have conquered it.

Such is the competitiveness and cynicism of the circuit that Jonny Pelham believes – possibly in jest, but you can’t be sure – that some of his colleagues were even jealous that he was abused as a child since it gave him a hook for his 2019 Fringe show. The way he discussed the issue matter-of-factly and with plenty of great jokes won acclaim and attention, proving a breakthrough moment.

But we have become so used to comics talking about trauma in this way that no one questions whether it is the right thing to do. For while all initially appeared rosy for Pelham, the truth is, as he reveals in this equally bold show, it wasn’t really.

The problem wasn’t so much with the Edinburgh performances but what it led to – an appearance on Live At The Apollo where he was urged to speak about the abuse again.

But sharing with two million on TV is different from sharing with 100 in the room. Some users of Twitter, that famously warm and nurturing place, were especially troublesome. Shorn of much context, some wanted Pelham cancelled for joking about child abuse – which shows how moronically binary the debate on what you ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ say in comedy has become if it wants to deny an abuse survivor his voice.

After his set was broadcast, Pelham felt he had lost control of the narrative – and that control is what had the trauma contained. The stress over the programme highlighted the fact he wasn’t quite as over it as he thought. 

Cue more therapy to address his deep-seated PTSD and a real soul-searching about how comedy – that thing loved so much – had now become toxic. As he puts it, his biggest dream, professional stand-up, had become fused with his biggest nightmare.

As addressed in Optimism Over Despair, this is a knotty issue, and Pelham raises fascinating and profound points no stand-up has publicly pondered before. There’s even food for thought on how a society deals with paedophiles that’s sure to be contentious, but which Pelham deals with deftly.

Which is all very well and good, but is it funny? The answer is much of the time, but not always – no surprise given the heavy, uncomfortable subject matter, which he lightens greatly. But he cannot, nor should not, totally overlook the darkness.

As always, Pelham excels at self-deprecation, admitting to being a weird person, but happy that it’s an asset in comedy. He speaks wittily and tenderly about his relationship with a partner far more successful than him, to his great delight. And in a fresh bout of honesty, he confesses to suffering from premature ejaculation. 

He tried to write observational comedy,  he says, but couldn’t, so he’s back to the personal. Though there’s a darkly surreal rant supporting vegetarianism that falls into neither category, but is well worth inclusion.

Even on the old wounds his Apollo appearance opened up, Pelham can tag serious points with a solid joke, while topics like therapy are always good for a laugh. 

But this is also a transitional show, and there’s no escaping that. It is the one he surely had to do following the turmoil the last one triggered, a way to wrest back control of the stand-up he so adores and address the ramifications of his previous honesty. 

Pelham is metaphorically turning himself off and on again, resetting his stand-up narrative so he can come back stronger next time. In that, more power to his elbow.

Edited 15/8/23: To remove the name of Pelham's partner, at their request

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Review date: 14 Aug 2023
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Pleasance Courtyard

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