Free speech is more than just a laughing matter

Free speech is under attack in Britain. The police are knocking on doors to tell people off for ‘offensive’ tweets. The Government is proposing a new regulator of online speech. Universities are no-platforming speakers that don’t chime with student unions’ narratives. Places of work are forcing employees to sign contracts that ban certain phrases and words.

This culture of censorship has even reached the industry designed to push the limits of acceptability: comedy. At a comedy night you may be picked out of the crowd and receive a joke at your expense, or you might be offended by one that touches a personal weak spot. But in the end, it’s all in the name of having a good laugh. Comedy is supposed to be judged based on whether it is funny, not based on who it is offending.

This principle, however, is under dire threat from a new movement of ‘woke’ comedy. Woke comedians want to purge all potentially offensive material from comedians’ content. Boundaries cannot be pushed. And why would they? What comedian would risk the collapse of their entire career as a result of one offensive joke?

In February, the ASI hosted comedian and social commentator Andrew Doyle, who spoke out against this new culture. As a comedian, you learn quickly if a joke has gone too far. You will deliver the joke you have been practising and rehearsing in your set and if it doesn’t go down well, no one will laugh, people will look uncomfortable and you will learn not to say it again. Comedians are there to make people laugh. If that isn’t happening, they’re going to change their material. As such, material is designed to please the audience.

Andrew spoke about Comedy Unleashed - London’s Free-thinking Standup Comedy Club, explaining the ethos that:  

“If something is funny, it’s funny. We shouldn’t be afraid of exploring prejudices, contrarian views and hidden thoughts. If someone is gratuitous or nasty, people won’t be amused. The audience is the ultimate judge.”

This resonated with me and the other young politicos in the room. Comedy is becoming predictable and stale. The same jokes are made over and over about what happened on a flight to Malia. Andrew spoke of something new, something fresh. Something that was so compelling, I left and immediately purchased a ticket for the next show.

I did not know what to expect when I travelled to the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. I had been so brainwashed at university into thinking free speech was dangerous and something you needed to be protected from, that I was anxious at the thought of sitting there for hours of being offended. I went to the bar, bought a pint, took my seat in the second row, and waited for the show to start.

All of my worries disappeared within a few minutes of the host taking the stage. I have never laughed so much in my life.

Was some of the material controversial? Yes. Was it funny? Absolutely.

Afterwards I talked to Andy Shaw, a founder of Comedy Unleashed to find out more about what drove them to create a ‘safe space’ for comedians. Andy grew up with rebellious free-thinking comedians like Spike Milligan, Monty Python, Dawn French, and now he’s watching comedy start to die.

It started with a gig on the eve of the general election which brought together politicos from across the political spectrum. People who were intellectually curious, who didn’t see comedy as a vehicle for moral education. From speaking to Andy, one point that really stuck with me was that comedy is about exploring ideas, creating characterisations and thinking freely. It can be absurd and childish, as there is something naturally liberating about comedy.

Comedy had started to be seen as a negative experience, which is why Andy Shaw and Andrew Doyle decided to set up a club based on free thinking, expression and free speech. There is no need for self-censorship at Comedy Unleashed.

I asked Andy if he had one take home message to give to people who’ve never been to one of the events, but were considering it, he said: “If it’s funny, it’s funny. Every night is unpredictable, I don’t even know what’s going to happen anymore, and I organise it. It’s free expression, and that’s why we love it.”

“The growing culture of censorship is a danger to a free and liberal society. In recent weeks we’ve seen the cancellation of a free speech society event at Bristol University and Jordan Peterson’s fellowship at Cambridge University cancelled,” the ASI’s Matthew Lesh explains. “Freedom of speech is core to our humanity, to our capacity to think what we want and hear what we want. It’s through the process of debate, hearing a wide diversity of ideas, that we are able to separate good ideas from bad ones in the eternal human mission towards progress.”

Comedy Unleashed offers a new opportunity to spark debate, to question people on the material they say, and in this intense political PC climate, it gives people a chance to speak, without the fear of being locked up simply for a retweet.