There was an odd moment the other night. We were at Up the Creek, the comedy venue in Greenwich, and it had already been a curious evening. There was a restless air of violence, as though the whole crowd was saying, ‘you looking’ at me?’ in that moody, twitchy, dying-for-a-fight kind of way. Someone had already been thrown out by the bouncers and there were hecklers yelling out random belligerent nonsense even before the first comedian came out on stage. I was surprised, and quite entertained. The first time I’d been here, last year, had been a sedate evening when a group of Radio 4 comics honed their acts for the Edinburgh fringe. Funny? Yes, very. Edgy? No. Tonight was different, though, and made a change from a quiet invalid’s evening of crochet.
We had finally got to the headline act, after various comedians had come and gone and attempted to silence the hecklers (impossible). The last chap was a very funny Irish comedian, who had been on Radio 4 quite a lot, but also knew how to swear. He soon got the measure of the antsy crowd and was making lots of jokes about the extraordinary toughness of South Londoners. This goes down a storm with South Londoners (even the ones who do crochet), so we were all getting along famously. And then he made some sexist crack about something. I can’t remember what, which explains why I do the crochet instead of the comedy, but it was a nasty joke at a woman’s expense. And after it, there was a silence. There wasn’t even the embarrassed laughter that comes when you find a joke funny but know you shouldn’t. It just plained bombed. Even the men didn’t think it was funny, and most of them seemed so drunk that they were even laughing at the hecklers at this point.
It didn’t really seem like a powerful moment at the time. I just felt that squirm that comes from seeing someone failing on stage, and wished he’d move on. But not enough, any more, to give a token laugh to the horrible joke.
And, when I got home and thought about it, I realised that was the difference. Women aren’t laughing politely at rubbish sexist jokes any more. And that makes continuing with them rather difficult, it seems. This comedian, a clever chap, rapidly adjusted his act to fit the audience, and came up with lots more about our ineffable Sarf Lunnen toughness. It was a small moment, but that’s all it took to steer him away from a night of the sort of cheap anti-women jokes we’ve all heard a billion times.
It made me wonder if women’s polite laughs through the ages at rubbish sexist jokes, just to spare the blushes of flailing male comedians, have allowed the genre to flourish, though that would be blaming women – yet again. I remember comics like Les Dawson in my youth coming out with streams of mother-in-law jokes, some of which definitely seemed funny to me at the time. All were based on the premise that middle-aged women were jealous, bossy and domineering, both to men and other women, an idea which I find a lot less funny now of course!