Archive | April, 2011

Royal Zombie Flashmob Arrests

30 Apr

I was one of five people dressed as zombies who were arrested for ‘potential breach of the peace’ in London on the 29th of April, 2011 – the day of the royal wedding. This is my account.

My friend Chris Farnell runs a zombie blog, and had heard there would be an event involving zombies for the Royal Wedding. As Chris lives in Norwich and I live in London, he asked if I would go along to take pictures and report for him. I had heard that Queer Resistance were some of the organizers and that there would be a gay zombie wedding as part of the celebration. I wasn’t sure on any of the finer details, but it sounded like fun.

I heard the event would be 10:00 – 12:00 at Soho Square. I had noticed that the Twitter hashtag #RoyalZombieFlashmob wasn’t moving at all that morning, but I didn’t think much of it.

Me, dressed as a zombie bridesmaid, about to head out

Me, dressed as a zombie bridesmaid, about to go out reporting

I got zombied up in a bridesmaid’s dress, headband of white flowers, dark circles around my eyes and some ‘blood’ (lipstain) running down my chin & from a wound in each arm. My housemates said nice things about my costume and told me to have fun. I left my house in Archway at about 9:45.

On the way my mother rang and asked what I was up to. I told her “off to report on a zombie flashmob for the Royal Wedding”. She was tickled and said it was nice to see the tradition of alternative celebrations was still going strong. “Don’t eat any brains I wouldn’t eat, Kiddo.”

En route my friend Mary, a journalist with more than a passing interest in zombies texted saying she’d heard that the organizers had been arrested the night before, and be careful.

Soho Square at about 10:45. Not much happeningI got to Soho Square at maybe 10:45. Nothing much was going on. As I arrived a few journalists and photographers who were already leaving took my picture and interviewed me. They said it was a “damp squib of a story” and nothing was happening.

I heard from a couple of other stragglers that the organizers (apparently a guy called Chris Knight and some about five or seven others, reports differed) had been arrested the day before for ‘attempted breach of the peace’ and a large stage guillotine had been impounded. Apparently the plan had been to execute some royals in effigy.

This guy, the only other zombie for a while is, I've learned, Robert Carlyle. He was head of the London Independent Film Festival Jury this year.

The only other zombie for a while

Within Soho Square there were maybe twelve people there for the demo – one dressed as a crusader with a colander on his head, a couple of people with crowns made out of gold paper and everyone else dressed in pretty normal, boring clothes. I heard a few chants of “one solution: revolution!” Three film crews were milling about, bored, more photographers and journalists milling about, and a pretty obvious police presence. I decided to hang well back and stayed on the other side of the square to where anyone else was.

Journalists kept approaching trying to interview me about my aims and objectives as I was pretty much the only one who looked like a zombie. I was a bit embarrassed, given that I’d come to report on it too and had no idea about aims or anything else – I just happened to have dressed up. I explained I was mainly there to report on it too. Lots of people took my picture. I couldn’t really find anyone to speak to myself. Apparently I was the story. Whoops.

Zombie wedding cake

Zombie wedding cake. Plainclothes police officer in blue hoodie.

      After maybe twenty minutes the people who I’m lazily referring to as anarchists (probably republican but other than that I have no idea what their aims/objectives/sympathies were) cut a ‘zombie wedding cake’ – I finally came in closer to get a picture. Eventually I stood on a bench to get a decent shot past all the other press, but I noticed that many cameras were trained on me, not the cake, as they were there to report on zombies and I was the only one who looked like a sodding zombie.

The maybe-anarchists handed out slices of cake (chocolate sponge with some jam on top – very nice.) They kept saying anyone could have some cake, “even plainclothes police officers” – and they took great delight in pointing one guy out. He was slouched on a park bench in a hoodie (hood up) with his arms folded.

“The main thing we’ve been doing is plainclothes policeman-spotting. They‘re the ones that look shifty and uncomfortable” – Martin Wheatly, freelance photographer with Sinister Pictures

There was a hell of a lot of wandering around aimlessly, talking to bored journalists and posing for bored photographers. No one seemed to really know what was going on – we’d all turned up to see a thing which, as far as we could tell, wasn’t happening.

This is Amy Cutler. She is awesome.

This is Amy Cutler, a phd student and creator of Passenger Films. She is awesome.

After a while Amy Cutler – a fellow zombie enthusiast who was also going to be recording events for Chris’s blog – turned up. We sat down in the grass while she borrowed my zombie blood (lipstain which I later needed to scrub with a nail brush to get off my skin – sorry Amy, should’ve warned you).

Two more cheery zombie enthusiasts joined us – I later learned they were Ludi and Erich. They got some snazaroo facepaint and brushes out of their bags and, with a plastic Starbucks cup full of water, Ludi started to paint Erich up as a zombie.

Ludi paints Erich. Photographers swarm.

Ludi paints Erich. Photographers swarm.

      Photographers surrounded us. This was the most interesting thing they’d seen so far.

While we were getting talking (and complimenting Ludi on her blood-spatter paint effect on the back of Erich’s head) a scuffle broke out towards one of the side entrances of Soho Square. I went by to take a picture or two but there wasn’t much to see: a line of cops blocking the exit with blank expressions on their faces and some of the maybe-anarchists saying that cops had taken their friend for no reason. One guy seemed to be waving his flag in their faces and the mood was turning.

I’ve since found video footage of it here:

It gets nasty: police take one demonstrator. We make a swift exit.

It gets nasty: police take one demonstrator. We make a swift exit.

As this was happening I spotted that three of the four roads leading off Soho Square were now lined with police, with police vans parked nearby. I went back to where our fellow-zombies were painting faces and said we should move now. We went out the one unblocked road, back on to Oxford Street. Amy Cutler joked that at this point the zombie demonstration had “split into demonstrators and zombies.”

On the corner of Oxford Street and Soho Street there was a Starbucks (55-59 Oxford Street, to be precise). We agreed it was a shame to get all dressed up with no place to go, so maybe we should go for a coffee. I was a bit wary about staying so nearby, but the other zombies (rightfully) pointed out that we were just being consumers now so there shouldn’t be any problem.

A family of zombies just outside Starbucks

A family of zombies just outside Starbucks

      We ordered coffee. We saw two women and one man, zombied-up, heading in to Soho Square with two small children. We ran out to get a picture of them and warned them it looked like it was getting nasty. They had American accents and one of the kids had a sign which said “princesses are pigs.”

As we went back inside the Starbucks we saw three or four (memories differ) police vans indicating left to turn into Soho Square. We took our seats by the window again and rolled our eyes that this was completely silly and disproportionate and the cops must be really bored today.

At around 11:45 about three or four cops came into the Starbucks and asked us to come outside. We picked up our stuff and followed them out. They lined us up outside the window of Starbucks and informed us we were being stopped and searched. We asked under what grounds – they said Section 60. This meant nothing to us so we asked what it was – they said they had reason to suspect we were going to disturb the peace.

I have since looked up Section 60 and it relates to having cause to suspect a person is carrying a weapon. This was clearly not a risk from us in the first place, and was even more clearly not a risk once they had searched our bags and found nothing more incriminating than cameras, bottles of water, facepaint and books.

Zombies being stopped and searched under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

Zombies being stopped and searched under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

I took down cops’ numbers and made notes as I went. My handwriting from this point was especially bad as I was shaking a bit, high on adrenaline. We knew we hadn’t done anything wrong, but it was scary all the same.

For the record, the numbers I noted down were:
EK 477
EK 244
EK 125
EK 113.
According to Wikipedia this means that they were constables from Kentish Town.

I said if dressing like a zombie was a breach of the peace then I breached the peace every hallowe’en. The police in question clearly knew it was a bit ridiculous, and made quite pleasant chit-chat throughout. Constable Loughlin (EK477) who was searching Erich, upon hearing his accent asked “you over here on holiday? You enjoying it? Shame today’s a bit cloudy, isn’t it?” The officer searching Amy made chit-chat about the book in her bag (A Million Little Pieces) “Have you read that book?”

We asked if we could go now. They said they had to still hold us as the way we were dressed indicated that we may disturb the peace. We kept pointing out that we’d just been drinking coffee in Starbucks. They said that this was true but we might go on to meet others and create a disturbance elsewhere.

I have since seen footage (3rd and 4th videos) that James Newman, a man filming our stop and search, was searched and arrested himself. He was searched under Section 60, and arrested on the grounds that his own credit card with his name on it may have been stolen property. I wasn’t aware that any of this was happening at the time.

At this point I wanted to use my phone to text or call a friend, update the Twitter hashtag on the flashmob, etc., but an officer told me to put my phone away. I have no idea, looking back, whether that was something they had a right to request or simply a police officer’s personal preference. Either way, from 11:45 we were incommunicado.

I asked what we could do to prove that we were bored now and wanted to leave. The police seemed pleased to know we had changes of clothes and makeup remover with us and said that would count in our favour, but no, we couldn’t go yet. The stop and search process was apparently still going on, despite the fact that they’d finished searching our bags and pockets, and had given each of us our little stop and search forms.

There were five zombies: myself, Amy, Erich, Ludi and a girl we didn’t really get a chance to talk to, who the Guardian article identified as ‘Deborah, 19’. There were five zombies lined up along the Starbucks window and sixteen police officers.

Various press buzzed about photographing this. We kept being asked if they were “your friends” despite most of them having clearly visible press badges on lanyards around their necks.

Zombies are informed we are about to be arrested for breach of the peace

Zombies are informed we are about to be arrested for breach of the peace

      Then the police got news on their walkie-talkies, evidently from some superior who wasn’t there, that we would be arrested. They apologized, and informed us that we had to stay there until their colleagues arrived who would arrest us.

After maybe ten minutes more police officers in high-vis jackets arrived and handcuffed each of us. The handcuffs had a big black plastic separator between each wrist. We were cuffed with our hands in front of us, one hand facing left and the other facing right.

From looking at the Guardian online video (7:30) I can tell you that Amy’s arresting officer was definitely number ST 4519. Erich’s and my officers’ numbers are less clear, but it looks like Erich’s officer was number ST 4826, and mine was ST 4514. The area code ‘ST’ followed by a four digit number indicates that these police were Special Constables from Whetstone.

We were loaded into a police van which sat there for a long while. Deborah, 19, was loaded into a different van.

The van door was open and various journalists poked their heads through the door, including the Guardian journalist. We were told we’d be taken to a police station, though it took them ages to find out which one.

All the arresting officers (one per person) were cheery enough and amused by the situation. Every officer we dealt with was perfectly pleasant – they pointed out to us that Prince Harry was still single and played AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ in the van – but the fact remained that we were being arrested for wearing fancy dress (or, in my case, for wearing misapplied Max Factor Lipfinity lipstain).

It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get across London. During that time we went past Hyde Park and probably saw more of the crowds than we would have otherwise.

Two and a half hours after the handcuffs have been removed: marks still visible

Two and a half hours after the handcuffs have been removed: marks still visible

The handcuffs hurt. They sent shooting pains into my fingers intermittently. The officers explained that if I’d keep my hands perfectly still with the cuffs just resting between those two bones on each hand this shouldn’t hurt – but in a moving car, with one hand held horizontally above another (i.e. no way to rest my arms), this was virtually impossible. Also: we were relatively pleasant arrestees who they were being nice to. I’m sure if they’d disliked us the officers would have put the cuffs one or two notches tighter and it would’ve been agony.

On their walkie-talkies the police kept referring to us as ‘prisoners.’

In the van we agreed to wait for each other outside the station and go get a coffee or a drink afterwards. Deborah, 19, (we realised later) had not been around for this conversation.

The fifth zombie: Deborah, 19

The fifth zombie: Deborah, 19

      We arrived at Belgravia Police Station near Victoria at about 1:15. One by one we were booked in. Skip the next few paragraphs if you know the drill, but we didn’t, so this was a new one on us: pat-downs, shoes (including flip flops and the undersides of feet) checked, pockets and bags gone through. All my jewelery was confiscated as I apparently may have self-harmed with my two silver rings, hoop earrings and watch. As they took my watch I asked if there was a clock in the cells. I was told there wasn’t, but I could ask an officer what the time was.

The officer booking me in wanted to know if I “needed” my glasses. “Are those just reading glasses, or do you really need them to see?” I found myself channeling my middle-class uppity very well: When the officer failed to spell my name I did it for him in phonetics (“Echo, India, Sierra, Echo, Mike, Alpha, November…”); when I was told I could have literature on the arrest/on stop and search I insisted that I wanted it; when they asked how I was I glared and replied “bored”, and I insisted that they let me take a phone number from my mobile for my one call. When they asked who the phone number was for I replied (truthfully) that it was a friend of mine who is a journalist.

For the record: I was bricking it – but I’ve been raised with brilliant, informed, left-leaning organizations like Young Quakers and the Woodcraft Folk all my life; I did debate soc in sixth form and at uni; I regularly email my MPs and others for Avaaz/Greenpeace/Amnesty etc.. As such, I am probably in one of the top percentiles of obnoxious people who know their stuff. Had I not had such middle-class bluster and composure, I’m sure I would’ve just capitulated to feeling guilty, and like a criminal, from the start.

I asked how long we would be kept in until. The officer kept saying “until it’s over” or “until it’s died down.” When I kept asking for something more specific, a ball-park figure, c’mon, he shrugged and said maybe 7:00 PM.

We were each photographed with our arresting officer. Front, side, other side, and from behind (I have a remarkably distinctive derriere). We were then each shown into our cells.

For those not in the know: police cells are really boring. There is nothing there. Mine was a tiled room, which was cold despite the sunny day. The ‘window’ was glass bricks so you couldn’t see out of it. There was one bench with an uncomfortable wipe-clean gym mat-type mattress on it, with a pillow made of the same. There was a stainless steel toilet with no seat, no toilet paper, and no sink. I had to ring the little bell and ask for toilet paper, and had to ring the little bell to be allowed out to wash my hands in the sink outside the cells when I was done.

As we were evidently well-liked and clearly no threat we were given, variously: the books from our bags, cups of tea and blankets. Some of us were given ‘lunch’ (imagine your worst school dinners, then make it neon and inedible – seriously, I’m not fussy and I only managed about three spoonfuls) – some of the later book-ins weren’t fed as they’d been booked in after lunchtime (despite the fact that we’d all been detained since 11:45).

The officers also eventually gave me the literature I’d requested on the arrest*, but there is no getting around the fact that it was incredibly boring, we had no idea how long we’d be there for, what time it was, or whether we’d be charged.

(*Amy has informed me she overheard officers saying that they’d better let me have the literature on it “What, cell 9? Yeah, you’d better. She looks like the type that’d cause trouble if you don’t.” Thank you for telling me this, Amy. It makes me very happy.)

As it was, my copy of the procedures book had the relevant pages ripped out. I requested another. I read it, but it was virtually no use as it kept referring to other documents, laws, bills and statutes which I had no access to.

Mary Hamilton (@newsmary) - was who I chose for my phonecall

Mary Hamilton (@newsmary on Twitter) – was my phonecall

          When I got bored/worried enough I demanded my phonecall. I had written down my friend

Mary Hamilton

          ‘s number on the leaflet I’d been given, which is just as well as the police claimed they couldn’t find the copy they’d made of the number when they confiscated my phone and everything else.The officer insisted on dialing the number, and wanted to know who he’d be speaking to. I replied “I’d hoped

I’d 

        be speaking to her.” When it went to answer phone he handed me the handset and I left her a message. I asked the officer the time and he said 2:00. As I went back to my cell I checked with him again – no, whoops, it was 2:30. While it’s hard to tell what’s an honest mistake and what’s deliberately dicking someone about – since they’d already tried to confiscate my glasses, I was not inclined to assume the best of them.

Not being able to track the time in an empty room is a very strange, dislocating experience. Other things I did to keep myself entertained included yoga, sit-ups, singing (tiled room = amazing resonance) and attempting to sleep. The matt/pillow/blankets smelled musky and lived-in.

3:45PM - released without charge from Belgravia Police Station

3:45PM – released without charge from Belgravia Police Station

          At 3:45 we were released, one by one. We were told we were not being charged with anything and “it’s [the wedding is] all over now.” They advised us where the nearest sink was and told us to we should wash our faces and go home. I got the distinct impression from the officer doing this particular procedure that he thought I should be grateful. My friend Chris (of the

zombie blog fame

        ) has pointed out our release was almost exactly the time that Kate and Wills got into a cab and left the final public celebrations.

We didn’t wash our faces. Myself and Amy were let out first and we waited outside the police station for the others. Erich and Ludi turned up, but no Deborah, 19. We made enquiries and found out she’d been let out first, and had presumably just gone home. She was probably feeling the same mixture of shame, anger and harassment that the rest of us were, but without peers to laugh it off with.

Four zombies released without charge

Four zombies released without charge. Note the hazchem sign

      The four remaining zombies went to the nearest pub for a drink. We swapped contact details and spoke about what we could do, given that it was clearly an unlawful arrest. We bounced ideas, but nothing is confirmed or sorted yet. However, we did learn that we are all pretty damn politically-informed, and pretty damned uppity.

Erich, wonderfully, turns out to be Erich Schultz, the director of the London Independent Film Festivalwhere Robert Carlyle, ‘King of the Zombies’ was the head of the jury this year. (Too good. Just too good.) 

We all laughed about the fact that we all had been to demos where we had anticipated trouble – where we wrote legal aid phone numbers on our arms, left ID at home, etc. but this wasn’t one of them. This, we thought, wasn’t even a demo: it was a picnic with fancy dress.

We went on to Regent’s Park where some friends of mine were having a (non-peace-breaching) picnic. The friends included my phonecall Mary Hamilton, who interviewed us there and then on her iPhone. The interview with me is here:
In retrospect, I would like to retract my statement about people “clearly antagonising” the police. I have since seen footage from up close of what actually happened. From across the square we could just see people getting wound up and loud, and we knew it’d be smart to get out of there fast.

The interview with the other three zombies is here:

So, what now?

We (four) are looking at our options. If Deborah, 19, wants to get in touch then please do. We were stopped and searched using legislation designed to prevent football hooliganism, and the police used the powers of arrest as an arbitrary method of dispersal. We were released without charge as there was nothing to charge us with – but they were clearly hoping we’d crawl away, chastened and grateful that it was over. However – and I can’t emphasize this enough – we weren’t doing anything illegal. This was police harassment.

This was pretty mild police harassment as it goes and almost every officer we met was perfectly pleasant – but this does not undo the overall shittiness that our right to free assembly was revoked and we were illegally arrested and detained simply because the police didn’t like the look of us.

We are looking into things such as Black and Green Cross, various legal aid, Liberty, maybe even the Twitter joke trial people.

When it comes to battles to fight, I never imagined mine would be the right to dress up like an idiot, but this is the one that’s happened to me and I’m not going to let it slide. Being arrested and detained for nearly four hours is not an expectable, acceptable, or legal consequence of wearing some fake blood.

Metropolitan police: you have messed with the wrong zombies.

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Cruel Comedy: A Lower Low

21 Apr

This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 21 April 2011.

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: THAT’S NOT FUNNY!

I love live comedy, honest I do. I spent two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and I’ll be there for the full three weeks this year. Some of my best friends are (very good) comedians. However, as a scene: live comedy has a problem. I haven’t been an aficionado for many years, so maybe it was always there – but if recent articles are anything to go by; it seems to be growing. Increasingly, the search for ‘edgy’ material is translating into a scene where the recoil laugh – the I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that laugh – is the only one aimed for. The targets are ‘soft’ – minorities and marginalized groups – and the jokes prod at the same old prejudices. The numbers of times I come home from a comedy gig wanting to dry-clean my brain is rising.

teethMy hackles were finally raised enough to write this article after an especially bad gig I went to recently. A sketch group of white, able-bodied young men performed a series of female grotesques which were so consistently unpleasant that – though cheerily presented – the unmistakable undercurrent to the evening was ‘we really don’t like women much.’ Most sketches involved a member of the group donning a plastic wig to ‘be a girl’ – and every female character was a Lolita, a whore, a woman giving birth or a mother who hated her children. The punchlines ranged from coat hanger abortions to incest to rape to paedophilia. At my table, from about halfway through, we didn’t laugh so much as look to each other for reaction shots and a reality check. Had there not been other people on the bill who I really wanted to see, I would have just walked out.

The problem is more widespread than just one shit comedy troupe. People more eloquent than myself have pointed out this return to the bad old days. It seems like the decades of hard-earned progress, a basic standard of ‘don’t be a shit to the marginalised’, is being discarded because now it’s apparently ironic. Sexism is increasingly tolerated (after all, everything’s sorted and equal now, so just lighten up, bitch) and other kinds of prejudice are also creeping back, too. ‘It’s not racist, it’s just un-PC, and no one likes political correctness. So, while we’re at it, what about those immigrants, homos, and the disabled, aye?’

Increasingly comedians who get pulled up for saying genuinely unpleasant things (I’m looking at you, Frankie Boyle) have taken this to be their selling point and then upped the ante in general douchery. While Jordan, the gossip-magazines’ favourite glamour model, might seem a fair target, when exactly did her disabled son become fair game, too? Let alone in a joke about incest and rape. I’ll repeat that: an incest-rape joke about a disabled eight-year-old child.

While I’m sure there has always been some truly unpleasant comedy around, its apparent mainstream acceptance is a new trend. The Frankie Boyle joke aired on Channel 4. This worries me because our words do carry a power – they reflect how we see the world, but they also set our standards for what is normal, acceptable, okay. The trickle-down effect has real-world consequences. The rise of the rape joke can be a horrific trigger for those who have experienced it. In increments, these themes – packaged as entertainment – normalise these horrors and dismiss their seriousness.

This is not an argument for censorship – I had fervent arguments a few years ago with Daily Fail-reading colleagues about whether Jerry Springer: the Opera should be shown on TV (yes, yes, a thousand times yes!) – but there is a huge middle ground between Mary Whitehouse prudery and comedy which is getting pretty close to hatespeech. Please, guys: self-regulate a little by engaging the brain.

Microphone - copyright Brian CrotazSome would argue that if I don’t like this brand of comedy, I just shouldn’t watch it. To some extent they’re right, and I do try. When I saw a poster in Edinburgh for a standup show called ‘The Lying Bitch and the Wardrobe’ (I see what you did there) I had a pretty strong inkling that this wouldn’t be my kind of thing and I didn’t go. But on a mixed bill (as almost all small live comedy gigs are) there’s rarely any warning what each person will do – so while you might have gone along because you recognise one name that you like, there is no disclosure until you’re hearing it that the third act, Joe Bloggs, will be your prejudiced asshat for the evening, berating you all with a microphone for at least ten minutes.

Oh, and you paid to see this.

I don’t think anything should be off-limits – but some topics are so unpleasant (not to mention increasingly over-mined) that if a comedian wants to tackle them they will need to be so damn funny, so ingenious, original, tactful – that 80% of comedians just shouldn’t bother. Needless to say, the 80% that aren’t up to speed don’t get this, and the 20% that can do it well often have better things to do than prod triggertastic subjects and tired old clichés with a great big stick. They’re off crafting material that makes you belly-laugh (and think) rather than just titter nervously in disbelief.

From a purely technical standpoint, shock humour suffers acutely from a law of diminishing returns: the audience build up a resistance to it, and that alone would be good reason to limit its use.

Fat Kitten Improv

Fat Kitten Improv – wonderful and non-bigoted

I think the thing which is missing (besides originality) is a measure of basic empathy. In the increasingly desperate search for ‘dark’ and ‘cutting edge’ material, comedians forget that a lot of their lazily-picked targets are people. Real people. People with feelings and also (self-interest alert, guys:) people who go to comedy gigs.

The rising amount of ‘ironic’ misogyny is not creating a particularly friendly environment for a certain 50% of punters. Last year I went to the Comedy Store to see twelve different comedians being filmed for The World Stands Up. I wasn’t entirely sure if the person who’d invited me along had intended the evening as a date or not, so it was potentially awkward already. Then, as the evening unfolded, four out of twelve comedians used ‘bad fellatio’ as the bedrock of their sets. One standup spent his whole set mocking his wife for not pleasuring him correctly. In the narratives that we heard that night, women’s main role was as dispensers of sexual favours – and we couldn’t even do that right. Thanks, guys. I haven’t been back to the Comedy Store since.

For another example, I was once out with a group for a friend’s birthday when a standup did a set about making a mess in the disabled toilet and blaming it on a disabled person. While he wasn’t to know that birthday girl, sat in the front row, had cerebral palsy – why did he think this would be a good topic in the first place? How many times has he encouraged the able-bodied to laugh at this disadvantaged minority’s expense?

Catherine Semark

Catherine Semark – smart, funny, feminist

One piece of etiquette that people seem to be riding roughshod over is whether you have a ‘claim’ to your material. While there aren’t (and shouldn’t be) any rules about who is allowed to talk about what, whether or not you’re on the receiving end of a prejudice can make a huge difference to whether or not you have the empathy, warmth, and originality to do it well. Richard Pryor, Omid Djalili, Sarah Silverman, or Goodness Gracious Me on race: usually very good. Jim Davidson on race: enough said.

This isn’t an argument for ‘nice’ comedy. Some of my favourite comedians are pretty darn dark and twisted – Bill Hicks, Dylan Moran, and I heartily recommend Loretta Maine and The Beta Males – but the ‘type’ of twisted is crucial. Jokes are about status – people use them every day to agree boundaries of what’s acceptable, and with that comes a certain amount of responsibility. When activist comedians such as Mark Thomas or Kate Smurthwaite use humour to mock people in power for making bad decisions, that’s something very different to a middle class standup laying into ‘chavs’ for talking funny and drinking cheap booze.

Anger and humour are very often interlinked, but where you aim that anger makes all the difference. Aim it ‘up’ at deserving, more powerful targets and it’s subversive, it can hold people to account – satire has a long and proud tradition. Aim that anger ‘down’ at the underdog and it’s tired, old and – frankly – it’s bullying.