Why comedians throw a tantrum when babies come to their shows

US comic Arj Barker, who recently asked a mother and her baby to leave a show
Crying shame: US comic Arj Barker, who recently asked a mother and her baby to leave a show - Getty

The American stand-up comedian Arj Barker knew he’d suffer for asking a woman with a baby to leave his show at the Melbourne international comedy festival on Saturday. After she left – with a dozen walkouts joining her in protest – he told the crowd this was his last performance at the festival – “and probably my last in Melbourne.”

He can’t have expected the fuss that followed which started with local radio, spread across the world and lead to him assuring CNN on Tuesday that he had “nothing against mums”. Which is a relief.

The event itself is the subject of disputed testimony. The mother, Trish Faranda, and baby Clara were sitting toward the front of the Athenaeum theatre watching his appropriately named Mind Field show when Barker noticed the child, thanks to it making some sort of noise. Faranda says Clara was gurgling, Steven Adlard, a Melbourne-based doctor and audience member, says the noises were more disruptive than that. (A subsequent TV interview with Faranda and Clara would seem to back up that version of events.)

Either way, Barker made a joke about being able to speak fluent baby and said Clara had asked to be taken outside. Faranda remained, Barker continued then finally asked her to leave. Social media and real media went crazy.

But is it ever a good idea to bring a baby to a comedy gig? The question was asked on motherhood holy text Mumsnet by Incrediblesulk at the end of 2022. “I don’t think they’d make any noise or fuss, and the tickets are free so wouldn’t be missing out if I did have to leave…” sulk explained. The board took a very dim view, with a total of zero mums saying that sounded like a good idea.

Sunflowerandivy crystalised the response when they wrote; “if I were out at night on maybe even my one night off from kids / babies I’d be well annoyed about a baby, especially if fussing / crying as I spend my life at soft play / kids parties / kids activities / school run / baby groups and would want a night without a baby.”

Given this support from the mothers of the land, you’d expect stand-ups to offer their backing to Barker. Ringing round a few, however, I found a strange omerta – few were willing to talk. “Honestly mate, this is kryptonite,” said one, entirely anonymously. “You’d have a better chance getting someone to talk about Brexit.”

Sian Davies, who’s prepping her new show Band of Gold for the Edinburgh Fringe, says she’s had “quite a few babes in arms at Fringe shows and never had any problems. I had two breastfeeding mums in the same show once. They usually make themselves known to front of house and make a loose agreement to leave it gets disruptive. It’s the older kids I’ve had concerns about. I had a 13-year-old on the front row last year. I was doing a highbrow bit about how the part you play in the nativity influences the person you grow up to be. When the kid put their hand up for being an angel, I didn’t have the heart to tell say I had them pinned as growing into either a twink or a slut…”

And comedy magician Ben Hart, touring Hex, once asked his audience “who is the youngest person in the room?” And heard an adult voice reply “six months.”

“I interrogated them, unable to see into the darkness of the theatre, and found out it was a parent with a 6-month-old baby asleep on their lap answering on their behalf,” he recalls. “I did wonder why anybody would take a baby to a magic show – it’s not hard to fool a baby.”

One of the anonymous stand-ups explained her reluctance to take Barker’s side in public because “for a start there’s some talk that the mum was breast feeding. I mean, you can’t get into that. And stand-up these days isn’t the boozy 1990s culture. Half the comics on the circuit are mums or dads.”

With more parents on the comedy circuits and new mums wanting that sort of night out, the UK has seen a flourishing of mum and baby comedy gigs including BYOBaby, which runs ‘nights’ across the UK – most mother and baby clubs are in the middle of the day – Screaming with Laughter and Bristol based Aftermirth founded by stand-up Angie Belcher.

“I had a baby six year ago, my partner is a working musician, we worked out who earned the most and I stopped going on the road,” she explains over the phone. “It’s a normal, sweary, adult comedy club. We don’t ask comics to tone their act down but we do have an age limit on the babies – under a year old or when they can walk or talk because that’s when the babies get a bit heckly.”

She has little sympathy for Barker or Forde. “I’ve compered Glastonbury which is far worse than having one baby in the crowd,” she explains. “If you’re working at a certain level you have to be able to cope with it.”

Some comics do more than work with it. Stand-up Andrew Maxwell has been known to get babies up on stage if they’re making noise in his gigs and in January this year, the laddish US comedian Matt Rife, 28, – whose material is heavy on casual sex and wild living – was stunned to see a tiny baby in his audience.

Comedian Matt Rife
Comedian Matt Rife - Getty

When the mother told him the child, Luke, was five months old and asked if he wanted to hold it he recoiled “do you think I’d trust myself to hold a baby dude?” he looked shocked. Finally he took Luke on stage, tried to teach him swear words, started to auction him and when the mother said she’d bought Luke along because she didn’t trust her partner to look after him at home he gaped. “But you let a stranger hold him? That’s crazy to me.”

One comic – also nameless – pointed out that Rife was known for his crowd work, with large parts of his show improvised around audience responses. “It’s harder if you’ve got a carefully written show that’s being interrupted so your timing is knocked off,” he said. “But you can’t quote me. Everyone will get the a___ with me if I seem to be slagging off new mums. I mean, look at Matt Forde.”

On August 15 2022, Matt Forde – the satirical stand-up, impressionist and podcast host – was performing his Fringe show Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right in Edinburgh’s Pleasance Beyond, asked a father and his baby to leave the show after the baby’s crying “went on for ages,” he told BBC Scotland. The following day he tweeted about the event.

“Sadly, it derailed large parts of it because they wouldn’t do the decent thing and just leave when it started crying,” the comedian posted. “I get that it must be tough as a new parent but please, don’t bring babies to adult shows. It’s always a problem. I realise this sounds a bit whiny but it’s just to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s like someone’s phone continually ringing and them not turning it off.”

Twitter, inevitably, blew up and most of the 2,000 replies were from angry parents. “As long as you realise this is incredibly sexist as young, breastfed babies can’t be left at home,” one user responded, perhaps missing that the parent was a father. “I hope your T&Cs made it clear that no babies were allowed at your show & if so surely it is a problem for your door staff or are u happy to take people’s money then shame them?”

Usually, comedy manager and promoter Christian Knowles points out, this isn’t a problem at comedy gigs as clubs are licenced premises and under 18s aren’t allowed. When it happens, as with Forde and Barker, it’s usually at comedy festivals. But stand-up Neil Delamere, who is heading to the Fringe this year with Neil by Mouth, says festival audiences can offer far greater peril than crying babies.

“I once had a couple with their trainee guide dog in the audience who decided to take a p___ in the front row,” he recalls. “The blind owner didn’t see it but everyone else did. How do you deal with that?”