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A Call To Mics

I first heard the word “woke” two years after I graduated film school. I was a Second City student in Los Angeles. It was 2017. Trump was in and the jokes were lame and all the same. I only did a few open mic stand up gigs in LA. Two at a bagel shop in the Valley on a Thursday night. And then I did the Laugh Factory on Sunset. I lined up for hours on my 29th birthday to get my name down to perform to the people I was lining up with.

Back in Australia, in the glorious month of February 2020, my mate handed me the mic again. Together, we ran twenty minute shows for ten bucks in a caravan at the Adelaide Fringe. At first I just sold tickets, until I started doing my own twenty-minute show on weekends. We took it in turns to sell tickets or perform, which was a choice between trying to make people laugh or trying to make people laugh.

I was shaken by the bad gigs, the silence. I got so depressed by them my mate said if it affected me that much, maybe I shouldn’t be doing stand up. But I knew I could be just as thrown by a bad day as a bad gig. Life affected me that much. And I still had to do life. Avoiding stand up had not improved it, so I got braver and better at comedy. We ending up killing the Fringe. I started to kill some of my gigs, too. I brought the house down one night. Literally, when all the fat people sat up the back.

I was planning to go back to Edinburgh when Corona cracked the shits. On the last Friday of the Adelaide Fringe 2020, the crowds were eerily thin. Melbourne was suddenly going into a lockdown, the Comedy Festival cancelled. The artist bar filled up.

It was scarier than cancel culture, because it seemed they were cancelling culture.

The Adelaide Fringe occurred before the lockdowns of March 2020, and it went ahead in 2021, and now again in 2022. We’re lucky. Some cities around the world will lose their Arts/Fringe/Comedy festivals for years in a row. They’re important for society. Enough people want to hear dark, unwoke jokes (as well as stupid dad jokes) for me to get by as a live comic. Just. Might not get me on the telly, but standing up and saying funny things is a good job, worth doing and worth defending.

I did a disabled bit at last year's Fringe and a loud woman in the audience said “really?” as she looked pointedly at a quadriplegic man, a few seats down from her. She was just letting us all know she was a Good Person and I was a Bad Person. Yeah, I’d seen him in the crowd and I’d decided to go ahead with the joke. Because it’s funny. And because he’s a person, too. Maybe even one with a sense of humour.

I wish I’d responded, “he’d laugh if he could!” but I was thrown by the heckle.

Wokeism and being stuck in Australia almost broke my fighting spirit recently. I was nearly ready to quit comedy again - and I'm not saying that to start an international comedy career - I'm saying that because stand up scared me enough to make me stop for years. Now I’m back and there are woke people in the audience!?! I don’t love it enough to get woke. I have to tell a joke the way that makes it funny. Enough for me to justify demanding people’s time and attention for it. Irreverence cracks me up and I'm not alone. Contrary to the loud, virtuous lady, another punter stopped me after that same gig and told me she had loved my set. She said she had wanted to laugh but she was scared of “the millennials” next to her.

Cut to one year later and that joke has officially been cancelled, but, thankfully, I am not. I was not attached to the bit enough to insist on doing it if it was offending people. But immediately after the meeting to discuss cancelling that joke, I had a beer with a paraplegic man who thought it was funny.

I see a lot of battle weary comics out there. Not just from lockdowns and loss of work, but from punters self-censoring their own laughter. From complaints submitted by people who probably shouldn't be going to comedy shows. So I can't quit comedy. I need to do my bit. I don’t want my kid to grow up in a world where we have lost our sense of irony. Humour is important. Without comedy – free comedy where no subject, word or point of view is out of bounds – our collective IQ is going to suffer and we will become even more intolerant than we are now.

This war might only be won one show at a time.


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