If you find yourself laughing at stand-up comedy, it probably isn’t sufficiently progressive. This is why I’ve been so disturbed lately to hear about Comedy Unleashed, a popular monthly event in London that claims to oppose censorship and promote ‘free-thinking’ comedians. As anyone who cares about social justice knows, concepts such as ‘free thought’ and ‘free speech’ are typical racist dog whistles of the far right.
To confirm what I had already decided, I went undercover to infiltrate this den of crypto-fascism with my good friend Yohann Koshy, whose devastating account of the goings-on at the club has since been published by the online magazine VICE.
As I’m sure you’re aware, VICE is at the very forefront of searing investigative journalism. We can still feel the seismic reverberations generated by articles such as ‘Beards Aren’t Cool Anymore’, ‘What’s The Best Kind Of Gun To Conceal Inside Your Ladyparts?’, and the immortal ‘I Ate Myself Out Using My iPhone And It Was Pretty Good’.
Yohann and I sat in the audience, two lone beacons of virtue amid a sea of depravity. Would we be discovered? Would we be lynched? If so, our brave sacrifice might at least encourage those who follow in our wake to resist the insidious creep of problematic jokes.
As a professional journalist, Yohann had already written his response to the show before actually seeing it, and was hoping to augment the piece with a few choice quotations from the night. So you can imagine our horror when act after act appeared on stage and flagrantly attempted to undermine Yohann’s important narrative. There was a mixed-race compere, a female Scottish socialist, a famous anti-Tory comic and activist, and a disabled man who made jokes at the expense of Donald Trump which were received with cheers from the crowd. We knew exactly what was going on here. Someone had tipped them off. Our cover had been blown.
As everybody knows, Comedy Unleashed provides a platform for extreme right-wing performers whose heroes include Bernard Manning, Roy Chubby Brown and Benito Mussolini. Yohann had written a particularly clever barb about how only one left-wing act had been booked in order to tick the ‘political diversity’ box, but unfortunately on this night all but one of the acts were left-leaning. ‘Never mind,’ I whispered to Yohann, who was starting to worry that his article might be open to accusations of dishonesty. ‘You can just pretend. No one will know, except for the people in the audience and anyone with access to Google.’
In the interval, Yohann and I mingled with the enemy, engaging some of the audience members in small talk such as ‘The weather has been quite mild for this time of year’, and ‘Bloody Jews, eh? Worse than the blacks, am I right?’ Infuriatingly, this carefully-crafted banter didn’t have its intended effect. Most people simply walked away, or gave us confused looks. Nazis are notoriously adept at concealing their Nazism, so the fact that they were behaving nothing like Nazis proves that they were Nazis.
It was also bizarre to see so many left-wing audience members in what was supposed to be an exclusively right-wing night. The promoters must have bussed them in from Islington. Thankfully, there were a few prominent conservatives present, including Paul Joseph Watson, James Delingpole and Toby Young, so the rest of the audience were clearly fascist-adjacent by default. Yohann was particularly unsettled by the presence of a number of working-class people, but he courageously soldiered on.
The show resumed, and at last we could see the headliner that we were waiting for: Andrew Lawrence, the infamous alt-right peddler of hate jokes. Yohann sat with his pen poised over his Moleskin notebook, tumescent with anticipation. It would only take a few of Lawrence’s despicable punchlines to seal the fate of this vile comedy club. Yohann’s article would be hailed as a second Watergate. There would be a national scandal, arrests would be made, VICE readers would offer Yohann their first-born offspring in gratitude for his vital work.
Then the moment came. ‘Any racists in?’ Lawrence bellowed from the stage. ‘Yes!’ sounded a female voice from the back of the room. Yohann smiled. This was our smoking gun. It mattered not one whit that the women behaved as though she were making a joke, and that the audience treated it as such. Jokes, as we all know, are a form of violence, particularly if they are aimed at the woke and the enlightened. Some have even argued that Yohann’s subsequent article demonstrated precisely the kind of disposition that this heckler was ‘joking’ about in the first place, but I have no idea what they mean and frankly have better things to do than indulge in ‘discussion’ or ‘nuance’.
All in all, it was a grotesque and sinister evening. That the audience seemed to enjoy it made matters even worse. In his write-up Yohann cleverly dismissed their response as ‘mild laughter’, so it was perhaps inevitable that the club would later upload video clips of the night to undermine his lived experience. This slavish devotion to ‘reality’ and ‘facts’ is one of the hallmarks of the far right mindset.
As we left the club, trembling from our ordeal but relieved to have made it out alive, Yohann began to weep in dismay, hot tears streaming onto his corduroy shacket. He had ventured in to Comedy Unleashed confident he’d be able to hoist the evil fascists on their own petard. But they had been disingenuous; nobody had been decent enough to openly express their white supremacy, or even to utter the phrase ‘you can’t say anything anymore’.
‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘We know what they were thinking. All you need to do is quote a few lines out of context, emphasize the right-wing audience members, pretend there was only one lefty comic, ignore the gender balance in the audience, feign outrage at the heckler’s joke, add a cartoon of an angry hateful white male comedian, slip in a few irrelevant references to far right terrorism and the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean and the debunked allegations of racism against Roger Scruton and – voilà! – you’ve got yourself a great exposé.’
Sensibly, he followed my advice. Here is an extract from his brilliant article, although you really have to read the whole thing to understand the full horror of this so-called ‘comedy’ night:
‘Comedy Unleashed revolves around this question of “free speech”. It is one of the most contested topics in the culture wars that the North American and European right-wing have been fighting since the 1990s, whose flash-points include the Salman Rushdie affair, the Charlie Hebdo killings, that Seth Rogen film and many minor events like newspaper columnists being uninvited to speak at universities and the philosopher Roger Scruton losing an unpaid government advisory role because of racist comments made in a New Statesman interview.
The background to this culture war is twofold. Having intellectuals convinced that they need to defend liberal values from Muslims and leftists has provided a useful ideological cover for the West’s several wars of aggression in and against Muslim-majority countries since the 1990s. These are wars that have geopolitical motivations but are sold as a clash of incommensurate, “civilizational” values. Secondly, the free-speech debate has intensified in the last 10 years, as sociologist Will Davies observes, to compensate for the failure of economic strategy since the 2008 financial crisis. As life expectancy falls under austerity and wages stagnate for the many, “free speech does what the idea of free markets can no longer plausibly do” for the British right.’
It may not reach the heights of VICE classics like ‘Gluten-Free People Are Getting Laid Way More Than The Rest Of Us’, but you can’t have everything.