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The trouble with comedy today
There’s nothing funny about supporting restrictions on free speech or with comedians virtue signalling.
It’s been a tough couple of days for those who argue that ‘cancel culture doesn’t exist’. Earlier, this week, Comedy Unleashed – a free-speech comedy night organised by Battle of Ideas festival regulars Andrew Doyle and Andy Shaw – were told that a one-off event at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had been cancelled at the last minute by the venue, Leith Arches. The reason? The presence on the bill of the writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan.
For the crime of asserting that biological sex is real and loudly defending the right of women to single-sex spaces, Linehan has been denied his livelihood. He has become persona non grata in the world of comedy. If that isn’t ‘being cancelled’, what is? Fortunately, Comedy Unleashed has found another venue, but the almost complete failure of comedians to support Linehan’s right to free speech – indeed, in some cases, loudly celebrating the event’s cancellation - is depressing.
The stench of hypocrisy is sickening. Comedians will usually defend their right to push the boundaries of offence. Yet it seems that making misogynistic jokes with a knowing wink is cool and edgy, but believing that women can’t have penises is beyond the pale.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has a free-speech problem. Last year, there was controversy when Jerry Sadowitz had his show cancelled. Perhaps the Fringe should take inspiration from the Battle of Ideas festival. Our motto has always been: FREE SPEECH ALLOWED. We were delighted when Graham Linehan joined us last year and he’ll always be welcome.
But it’s not just on the question of free speech where comedy has a problem right now. One of the sessions at this year’s festival will look at why all those so-called radical comedians seem to side with the establishment today. It’s inspired by a brilliant article by Simon Evans for spiked, in which he observes how so many comedians – who might once have seen their role as to poke fun at the powers that be – are proving to be all too clubbable these days.
Evans points out how many of his fellow comics ridiculed Nigel Farage when he was ‘de-banked’ by Coutts, oh so keen to be seen to be against him. In other words, they were siding with the bankers. Quite apart from the oddity of siding with institutions they would once have seen as heartless and greedy, they were missing the point: banks shouldn’t be denying the ability of anyone to function in modern society just because a committee of right-thinking executives don’t like their views.
If comedians take sides, ridiculing those they don’t like while humourlessly preaching the values they want to be seen to endorse, comedy will be all the duller for it.
It should be a great discussion, led by Comedy Unleashed, who are regular partners of the Battle of Ideas festival. We’re also delighted to welcome back Andrew Doyle’s GB News show Free Speech Nation. The show has been a great standard bearer for free expression and epitomises the attitude of the festival in supporting frank and open debate.
To find out more about this year’s Battle of Ideas festival, on the weekend of 28 & 29 October at Church House in Westminster, visit the festival website. There’s still time to grab cut-price, early-bird tickets and paid subscribers to this Substack get exclusive discounts, too.