Stand-up comedy—historically known for pushing boundaries—faces a clash in cultural taboos around subjects such as COVID vaccines, gender ideology, and race.
Before COVID-19, a rebellious instinct was a factor that lead some comedians to achieve mainstream success.
Today’s comics, however, face very different attitudes from audience members, and comedy clubs that are terrified of being canceled.
The UK, in some regards, has followed the United States where people have become more polarized over issues such as racism, identity, diversity, and the legacy of history, with social justice-style politics becoming more prominent.
The Epoch Times sat down with four stand-up comedians in Britain who have made conscious decisions not to self-censor in their performances.
“Once I did a gig where all the people shut down like a herd because I started to do jokes supporting men. I watched them shut down. I told them, they just shut down like a mass. And then I walked off stage saying they were brainwashed,” Steve Hughes told The Epoch Times.
The Australian-born Hughes, who has two decades of performing, is an internationally renowned stand-up comedian. He called out the rise in woke culture in his now famous “I’m offended routine” in 2009. (“’I wanna live in a democracy but I never wanna be offended again.’ ‘Well, you’re an idiot!’ ”)
“In the early 2000s when someone complained they were offended, the manager explained, ‘hey it’s a comedy club, man.’ Then the manager would come back into the back and boast to the comedians what they did. Now they fall one knee and beg for forgiveness and will find the comedian and ban them,” he said.
Hughes said that woke ideology is like a “psychological trojan horse” which turns people into Agent Smith-style characters from the film “The Matrix.”
“They are like psychological foot soldiers. And they are all ready to go off like landmines and attack their citizens in the name of morality and compassion and inclusion,” he said.
A sense of what he called “PC/critical race theory post-modernist ‘whatever is going on in your head is real [expletive]’” is putting British comedy clubs in between a rock and a hard place.
“If you have £250,000 invested in a comedy club, do I abide by the pressure which is coming down from me from the law, the media, the state, and the psychology from the general public? Do I accommodate this or do I just not do it and go under the threat of what could come down on me,” he said.
Hughes, a former heavy metal drummer, said that many have been sold what he called a “franchised rebellion,” a “mainstream corporate cloak” that reels in the outliers, but at the same time makes them beg for acceptance.
Harking back to the early days of punk, when it was about authentic resistance and rebellion, Hughes says now this is exactly “where we are at.”
“I did a tour in Ireland last year. I did two in people’s front rooms, 50 people came to each gig. It was some of the best gigs I ever did on the tour. I didn’t do any comedy clubs, I did rock bars, rooms in hotels, I even did a castle,” he said.
“There’s a groupthink that’s descending into comedy,” the comedian Abi Roberts told The Epoch Times.
“I am not sure how long it’s been building, but there’s very much an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group, which of course happens with any authoritarian situation and regime,” she said.
“I actually can’t believe that I am calling it an authoritarian regime living in Great Britain in 2022, but that’s exactly what is happening,” she said.
Roberts was banned from Twitter after she criticized COVID-19 vaccines in several tweets. Though she often used humor to laugh at media efforts to push the jab.
“I did Comedy Unleashed” [a club which is run by GB News presenter, free speech advocate, and comedian Andrew Doyle] and I was the only red-pilled comedian. I was prepared to talk about the ‘vaccines’ or as I like to call them ‘the treatment.’ I do not apologise for taking the pin out of the grenade, because what has happened for the past two years is so abhorrent,” she said.
“I am puzzled as to why there are not more comics like me,” she said adding that there is a “handful of us who I think of being on the frontline.”
Roberts has often castigated communism and argues that there are a lot of parallels with the regimes of Stalin and Mao in terms of people not daring to say something so as to not be persona non grata.
Though she added that people will come back to comedy, in the same way listening to Mozart was a political crime during The Cultural Revolution.
Though the comedian had a warning for stand-ups playing what she called the “woke” game.
“The problem is they think that feeding the ‘woke crocodile,’ that it won’t come for them, but it will. The ‘woke crocodile,’ nothing will ever satisfy it. It’s a zero sum game. The fool is what the king has always relied on for truth, as soon as the king says to the fool ‘shut up’ then it’s over,” said Roberts.
Craig Campbell, a Canadian comic who lives in England, told The Epoch Times the last thing a stand-up wants “is prison bars in your own mind.”
Campbell has had high-profile stints at Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, Russell Howard’s Good News and Dave’s One Night Stand, and more.
“My imperial sense of free speech, particularly as performers on stage, is that we should be able to say wherever comes out of my mind, because we are on the soapbox,” he said.
He was recently kicked off Twitter for what he believed was for joking about transgenderism. He said that transgender ideology is a “total third rail” in the public consciousness.
“If you touch it, you won’t have an account in the near future and that in itself is a tyranny of the mind,” he said.
In the past two years, he has observed a change in some audiences which he described as “a ubiquity of conformity.”
“You are looking at a completely different complexion of the audience,” he said, adding that it is like a “corporate audience.”
“The only sort of game on the field is essentially going underground,” said Campbell, ie doing more clandestine gigs for a more clandestinely-approved audience.
In 2020, Sean Collins, a veteran Canadian stand-up living in England, told The Epoch Times that certain subjects are almost treated “like a religion.”
“If I went to London and do a show with a whole bunch of 18- 19-year-olds, you can see the difference in reaction because they’re, they seem a little bit more nervous about if you do a joke about men not being able to get pregnant,” Collins said.
“You can see them just looking at you like you’re crazy not realizing that, actually, no, nothing I said there was crazy, ‘men can’t get pregnant.’ But the way we live in a society today is that people will argue that they can, which I find baffling,” he said.
Collins said that despite this he loves “comedy clubs still” but he has gained a loyal audience that is simply “less offended by things.”
He also got kicked off Twitter, not for jokes, but for questioning the COVID-19 narrative. Having lost a major chunk of revenue during the lockdown, he made a documentary called “Another Way,” which explored why Sweden stayed open, unlike other countries.
Though he said that this affected his work after. Once he was told by a club, where he had been successful many times with the audience, that “we don’t put conspiracy theorists on.”
“I’ve closed his club and rescued shows and I just got that from him. It really kicks you in the teeth,” he said.
But Collins, Roberts, Campbell, and Hughes are free to pursue any subjects they like, unlike comedians wanting to pursue a career in the mainstream or on TV.
“They will say things like ‘we need to get Labor back in and we need to get Tory back in.’ But will you ever see them on the Daily Mash [a left-wing British satirical comedy show] talk about the fact that all of the candidates are in the World Economic Forum website?” he asked.