In part one of this blog I talked about the responsibility an act has in terms of considering the material he or she shares with audiences, focusing specifically on Reg D Hunter's recent show at the Hammersmith Apollo. This isn't really a particularly unique topic. The issue of 'where's the line?' is consistently revisited with varying results. In the last blog I threw my thoughts into the mix.
As I mentioned however, the gig in question was rather dramatic in that it ended with a large amount of heckling and some back and forth between Hunter and two audience members. I included a link to another audience member's blog which outlines exactly what happened but I'll try to give you a summary. Essentially there were two vocal complaints about a couple of Hunter's jokes which focused on rape and molestation. The other account I linked to doesn't point out that Hunter did enter into debate with these women and that is something I think he should be praised for. However, ultimately, he didn't see eye to eye with them and angrily cut them off in order to end his show.
Whether or not Hunter was within his rights to say those jokes or whether the audience members were within their rights to complain, one thing occurred to me. They weren't even on the same page. And the reason Hunter said he was so angry was because, as he kept saying, 'I'm on your side. I'm in your service.' He claimed that people were too eager to jump to being offended when they weren't really listening to what was being said. He said that the audience were perceiving in an intent to his words that wasn't there. Whatever I think about his comedy, about whether he's being lazy or spreading false stereotypes, I have to admit one thing. It's impossible to predict how an audience will perceive something. While you don't have to condone out and out aggressive comedy, it's not a good idea to expect comedians to water down their material just to avoid confrontation.
And okay, what about us? What about us as audiences? Are we too quick to hear what we want (or, weirdly, don't want?) to? Jon Ronson, again in his new book, discusses the case of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who lost her job as a result of a tweet she sent reading 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS! Just kidding, I'm white!' The resulting maelstrom saw twitter go into overdrive with people responding in outrage to what they saw as her ignorant tweet. Sacco herself? Just really confused. She thought it'd be clear it was a joke intended to reflect the idiocy of living in a western world bubble. She told Ronson 'To me it was so insane of a comment for an American to make I thought there was no way that anyone could think it was a literal statement'. Yet so many people did. Was that her fault for not writing a funnier joke or not specifying her stance on AIDS? Or was it the twitter public's fault for assuming the worst?
Hunter's show that night ended on a fairly sour note when a woman in the audience responded to what I'll call his 'rape joke' with the heckle of 'Not funny'. Hunter articulately responded that saying so in a room where a few hundred are laughing proved her point untrue but accepted she and others may not find it funny. Mid-way through this discussion a second woman joined the conversation, criticising an earlier joke about him sexualising his niece. Again Hunter responded well and welcomed the woman to articulate her reasons why whilst demanding that the gentleman next to her cease trying to physically restrain her from speaking out. I'd personally agreed with her. The joke had been weird. It had a funny and clever punchline which I Iaughed at but the situation he described in the set up left a weird feeling. When he began answering the woman though I realised something. As the woman screamed 'You shouldn't be doing that to a 14 year old girl', Hunter responded 'I never said 14. And in this story I'm in my late teens. Don't make out like this happened yesterday.' And he was right. This woman, and a few others in the room, had heard trigger words and leapt to a conclusion. It's not that it made his joke instantly benign, but it shone a light on an audience's ability to completely miss the point of a joke and maybe, just maybe, this wasn't Hunter's fault. This time.