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Rescuing comedy from liberals and the PC Brigade: The new show where 'anything goes'

Fighting back: the group challenging audiences, from left, Will Franken, Andy Shaw, Karen Hobbs, Andrew Doyle and Joleed Farah 
Fighting back: the group challenging audiences, from left, Will Franken, Andy Shaw, Karen Hobbs, Andrew Doyle and Joleed Farah  Credit: Rii Schroer for The Telegraph
Rupert Hawksley meets the team behind the new liberal-baiting night ‘Comedy Unleashed’, where the only rule is, ‘Be funny’ 

When did comedy become so bland? The art-form used to crackle with a rebellious, punk-like spirit. Bill Hicks, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, French and Saunders, Frankie Boyle – these are all names that could really excite an audience. You may not have liked what they had to say but each of them challenged – and frequently infuriated – us. They might sometimes have been quite offensive, too.

Nowadays, with precious few exceptions, comedians all seem to think (and sound) the same. For all the arena tours and Netflix specials, the comedy circuit has lost its fizz. It is homogenised, predictable and, worst of all, safe. If you don’t believe me, just turn on your TV or radio. Where are the dissenting voices challenging the liberal agenda of panel shows such as Mock the Week or The News Quiz? You’d wager your last euro on the fact that any joke about Brexit will be at the expense of Leave voters.

Meanwhile, the chorus of disapproval that rises every time someone makes an offensive joke has become so loud that you can see why comedians might think twice about risking a provocative gag.

But are things about to change? Later this month, a freethinking, anti-PC comedy night is being launched. The Comedy Unleashed website promises to promote “comedians who make us think, rather than nod along to a joke-laden sermon”. And the motto is simple: “If it’s funny, it’s funny.”

The idea for Comedy Unleashed came about on the eve of the general election last year. Satirical writer Andy Shaw and comedian Andrew Doyle had organised Stand Up for Democracy, a comedy night curated as “a challenge to group think”. It was a huge, if unexpected, success.

Rik Mayall in a stage version of The Young Ones Credit: Getty Images

“People were literally crying their eyes out,” says Shaw. “We had comedians from across the political spectrum. And the audience was a reflection of real British society – people of every age, race, sexuality and political stance were there. It was utterly beautiful.” The pair were immediately bombarded with requests to put something similar on again. “People were telling me that they just wanted another of those nights where they were challenged and forced to think differently,” says Shaw.

The comedians booked for Comedy Unleashed, held at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green on the second Tuesday of every month, should certainly do that. Every conceivable viewpoint will be given a platform. Doyle is pro-Corbyn but anti-EU. Geoff Norcott claims to be the only comedian who admits to voting Tory.

Scott Capurro, a gay comedian and former winner of the Best Newcomer award at the Fringe, has previously targeted Islam, is well used to mass walkouts and once said he “didn’t give a s--- about those who don’t like my work”. At the other end of the scale is Olga Koch, a Russian-born computer-scientist who performs feminist material.

Then there is Will Franken, a confrontational American who voted Trump and who was dragged offstage at Manchester University after doing an impression of a Muslim woman. And Shazia Mirza, a Muslim woman.

“Anything goes,” says Shaw. “This is about free thinking. There is absolutely no censorship. The only judge of you as a comedian is whether or not the audience laughs.” Doyle agrees. “We’re booking people because they’re good. If somebody is anti-PC or wants to discuss taboo subjects, that’s no problem.”

Comedy Unleashed is not, as the line-up shows, a Right-wing comedy night. But it is nevertheless booking Right-wing comedians, which is rare. It is a curious phenomenon that so few comedians are performing Right-wing material. Norcott, for example, is often described as holding an alternative voice, even though his Conservative views are shared by the majority. It stands to reason, then, that there should be a large audience sympathetic to Right-wing comedy. So what’s been going on?

Andrew Doyle, co-organiser of Comedy Unleashed: 'We're booking people because they're good' Credit: Rii Schroer for The Telegraph

“I think comedians are concerned about their careers,” says Doyle, who is Left-wing but recognises the need for variety. “They know that the vast majority of promoters, especially people who work in television, are Left-leaning, so they end up modifying their material.”

It is a scary prospect: comedians not saying what they believe for fear of being blacklisted by a liberal media. “The thing with the new liberals is that they are like lemmings,” says Franken. “They are completely ignorant of the need for a contrary opinion.” Or as The Fall’s Mark E Smith, who died last week, once said, “In a strange way, [the new liberals] are like fascists: walled off in their own little groups, not listening to people if they’re slightly Right-wing. How closeted is that?”

But if satirists aren’t holding people on all sides to account, what, really, is the point of them? “So many people try to claim the mantle of satire, partly because they don’t know what satire is,” says Franken. “A lot of people think satire is just parody, they think Alec Baldwin putting on a wig and pretending to be Trump is satire. That’s not satire. When I discovered Swift’s A Modest Proposal, I thought it was revolutionary. Satire has to have intelligence behind it.”

Shaw believes that another problem comes from the fact that people are now too quick to take offence, often conflating a joke with a comedian’s actual views. Franken gives the example of Richard Pryor’s “stuttering Chinese man in a restaurant impression” as “one of the funniest things ever. You ask yourself: is comedy better off now than before PC? Because that wouldn’t be seen now. You could say the same about Ricky Gervais’s The Office.”

Shazia Mirza is booked to perform at Comedy Unleashed Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

One consequence of this, Shaw thinks, is that people’s exploration of ideas has become extremely limited. “For example, I haven’t heard any jokes about the women at the BBC who are earning hundreds of thousands, while still complaining about not earning another hundred thousand. Look at that from the perspective of the person cleaning their offices on a living wage. It’s apparent to most ordinary people that this is hypocritical. But bizarrely ordinary people are well ahead of most comedians. 

“[The problem is], you only need one person to take offence and it changes the mood. A lot of comedians are saying, ‘we can’t play with ideas, we can’t test things out’. It’s very difficult in this censorious climate.”

But are there subjects that shouldn’t be joked about? “You have to recognise the power dynamic,” says Koch. “You always have to punch up. You can make a rape joke but only if it recognises those two caveats.” For Doyle it is black and white: “A comic has to justify their work to themselves.”

So should the easily offended stay away from Comedy Unleashed? “Those people are very welcome,” Shaw assures me, before adding, “but they should probably have a night off and stick The Now Show on.”

Comedy Unleashed is at the Backyard Comedy Club on Feb 13, then the second Tuesday of every month. Tickets: comedyunleashed.co.uk