Lay off standups – they reach all parts of the UK | Barbara Ellen

Barbara Ellen
Marcus Brigstocke has had audience members walk out during his tour. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Comedian Marcus Brigstocke has spoken about how audiences outside London have objected to his anti-Brexit material, with some of them walking out of shows. Talking to the BBC, and also writing about it on social media, he says that a lot of people he thought of as “his audience” wouldn’t be back and described the topic of Brexit as “comedic poison”.

These observations, and more, were enough to get Brigstocke denounced in some quarters as a sneering elitist. He’d ventured out of his liberal, metropolitan echo chamber, perchance holding a scented hanky to his nose to guard against the disgusting stench of people so ordinary that they hadn’t even been invited to appear on television panel shows, only to discover that not everybody agreed with his world view.

He was depicted as just another haughty Remain voter calling Leave voters thick and racist, rubbishing their concerns and then being startled by their anger. Basically, it’s the same Remoaner caricature that’s been doing the rounds since the referendum. While it’s not without its amusements, neither is it entirely true, is it?

Let’s start with this idea of comics shrieking with disgust and confusion at being forced to go north of Watford, to encounter strange, angry beings called “ordinary people”. It’s my understanding that most comics travel all over Britain as part of their job. So, while their working lives may degenerate into a blur of hotels, motorways and Ginsters pasties, they’re still more likely to see a lot more of the UK than most of us. Not only does comedy have an inbuilt dissent mechanism (hecklers), the comic’s job is to observe and subvert, which requires remaining intellectually flexible.

As for taking anti-Brexit material around the country – what else are comics supposed to do? I imagine that Brexit, seemingly a gift to satire, is also increasingly a creative chokeweed, so all-pervasive that nothing else can grow. But still it must be dealt with. Should liberal comics become moral chameleons – anti-Brexit in London and pro-Brexit in more Leave-friendly places? Or take the cowardly option of not mentioning the B-word at all, in case their audiences react badly?

I’d be more alarmed if comedians became strategic about Brexit, altering their act to suit the political temperature of the places visited. Like all other art forms, if we can call it art, comedy either expresses itself honestly, however difficult and rough things get, or it’s worthless – and this would be as true for a (presumably rarer) Leave comedian encountering a Remain audience as vice versa.

Put into this context, perhaps, instead of being criticised and ridiculed, comedians should be commended for taking hard material on the road. In a wider sense, this could also be applied to people still Remoaning (guilty as charged!) who are routinely stereotyped as metropolitan cry babies, when all that has happened is that … they haven’t changed their minds.

These are the same Remoaners who are regularly accused of calling Leave voters “thick and racist”, when many, like myself, would never do this, have Leave voters in their own families and wholly reserve their ire for the posturing inept politicians who would like to get away with denying Remain and Leave voters alike a say on the final deal.

Increasingly, it seems as though only one point of view is allowed about Brexit, which is ironic, considering the Leave camp’s complaint that they weren’t listened to. There would appear to be more than one Brexit-themed echo chamber in operation. Hypothetically reversing the situation, how would it have played had a Leave comedian performed pro-Brexit material in London and people had walked out? Would that pro-Brexit comedian be widely mocked and denounced for misjudging and insulting his London audiences? If not, why not?

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