I am a comedian. I am proud to describe myself as that. To be honest I admit a fairly unsuccessful and unknown one. Success or fame was never what I was aiming for. All that I have done in the past five years, be that working or performing at the Edinburgh Fringe or my college days in charge of the Dublin University Comedy Society, has been for the love of comedy. In the last five years I have seen a broad ranges of styles and talents from all walks of life, all opening my mind to a multitude of unique voices and influences. I am confident in saying that I will never quit comedy, even if I cannot perform or succeed, I have a need to be in the comedy world. You would be hard pressed to find someone who loves comedy as much as I do but sadly there is an amount of discontent among some of my peers that needs to be addressed. I have certainly grown disillusioned with the Irish scene. Outside of a few rare club nights I do not perform as regularly as I would like to at most Irish comedy clubs. I can feel a shared discontent in the industry by people who are outside the norm- for lack of a better term lets call them ‘alternative comedians’. I have very strong belief that parts of the Irish comedy scene are a toxic environment to many people and I think that certain behaviours have to be called out in the strongest terms possible.
It seems like a fact of life that as a rule comedy clubs are dominated by a very specific style of humour, to be kind it’s hackneyed, to be much less kind it’s toxic. Think aggressive, laddish and confrontational comedy. Think jokes about drinking, sex and stereotypes. None of these things are off limits or inherently bad of course, and to subvert them or use them in an interesting way can create amazing results, but dealt with in a lazy or misinformed way they definitely have adverse outcomes. I am not saying that no one should tell well worn jokes or that any topic is untouchable, but I am saying that hack comedy can turn toxic in a way that is very dangerous if someone lacks the judgment or skill to know where the limit is. Rhetoric and action are not too far removed in some cases. I have heard comedians use extremely misogynistic language and a glorification of this language or a belittlement of women leads directly to an environment where women can feel unsafe.
As I see it the problem generally is that comedy is self-perpetuating, if a new performer sees a veteran get away with making an off-colour remark or saying something sexist then they may try it themselves, this leads to the most extreme cases where something actively harmful is said (an early example in my career was an older MC making highly sexual and lewd remarks directly at a female comic who had come to the gig with me). With this backdrop women especially do not always feel safe in the Irish scene and so are less likely to begin performing comedy. As a result women are underrepresented and promoters are able to hide behind the excuse of “women just aren’t applying for gigs”, it has become a systemic problem. If women are put off doing comedy then there are less women to be role models and the perception of the promoters becomes that it is acceptable not to book as many women. Of course there are outliers but the few successful women are often used as a way to shut down discussion of gender disparity, that is, ‘sure look at X, she’s doing well stop complaining’. Obviously on these issues I cede to women’s voice and hope that by using what little sway I have to promote women in comedy. On a positive note, a number of women have began movements or held events to address the issues.
The whole Irish scene is a continuum and the whole environment is linked, the type things I am talking about are not isolated cases. In the past few weeks we do not have to look very hard to find a high profile incident of the type of behaviour I am describing. While in the recent furore, the words may have been more extreme they merely served as an expression of things that are under the surface of Irish comedy.
An unfortunate problem we face is that too many people, especially male comedians are unwilling to call out colleagues for sexism or racism, the idea of sticking up for any joke no matter how devoid of humour has led us to the point where one can be hostile and misogynistic with impunity. There are very dangerous precedents set if we do not address the elephant in the room, and if comedians do not stand up and say that enough is enough then something much worse will happen. The next time it will not necessarily be just words.