Libel in stand-up comedy is no joke

PUBLISHED: 13:00 07 March 2018

Stand-up comedian Louise Reay

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Heard the one about the comedian being sued by an ex after she used him in her act? IAN WILKIE says it is no laughing matter

Stand-up comedian Louise Reay is being sued by her ex-husband for defamation after allegedly referring to him in a derogatory manner during her show at the Edinburgh Fringe. The dispute arises from a section of Reay’s show Hard Mode, whose central theme was, ironically, that of censorship. Performed during their break-up period, Reay is accused of alluding directly to her husband in a contentious manner while also reproducing his image. Reay’s defence is that of the comedian’s right to freedom of speech. But her ex-partner claims that portions of her act constituted a public accusation of misconduct against him. The results of the trial will surely have repercussions for all comedians.

On the one hand it is part of the comedian’s job to mine their own experiences and repackage them for humorous effect. Comedians are expected to make universal capital out of acts of human folly and often highlight their personal failures in the process. Comedians through the ages have generally been granted a shifting form of comic license. They are supposed to poke fun at authority and to question orthodox thinking.

Society has long granted comic voices the right to reflect our own frailties back at us. We live in an era where we enjoy our comedy laced with a dash of awkwardness and tension (just watch a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office for proof). Ideally, it comes with an extra side order of offence aimed at those who are believed to be most deserving of being pilloried, as Saturday Night Live’s well-received satirical swipes at the Trump cabinet seem to indicate.

But, on the other hand, in tackling difficult and taboo areas comedians often run the risk of seemingly going too far. Comedians whose material has supposedly crossed into unacceptability at some point include Julian Clary, Frankie Boyle and Kathy Griffin. In each case the comedian underwent a mini trial-by-media. The position that was struck assumed that the comedians had committed a form of excessive verbal violence upon individuals who were in no position to be able to respond in any like-for-like way.

Blurring of the comic stage articulation with a real persona occurred with Lenny Bruce and his infamous conviction for obscenity (followed by a posthumous pardon). More recently Louis CK’s sexually predatory comic persona turned out to be far too uncomfortable following allegations of sexual misconduct. Both examples show how the line between joking and questionable self-expression becomes blurred.

Indeed the notion of what Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves call the use of an “ironic stage persona”, in their book The Naked Jape, will doubtless feature in the fall-out discussions which will stem from the Reay case. No one would doubt that Les Dawson’s jokes about his wife or mother-in-law or Joan Rivers’ brutal albeit ultimately self-deprecating gags featuring her husband Edgar were examples of affectionate comic exaggeration and caricature. The humour’s basis in any kind of reality never seemed important. Audiences clearly understood that this was a case of “only joking”.

However, as Carr and Greeves also note “a joke is a blunt instrument of communication” and Reay’s experience suggests that comedians may, in future, have to exercise more caution in making the distinction between their joking self and their actual self.

Pity the poor comedian. Bringing another level of nuance to the act of public joking and remodelling its ancient conventions will make a very difficult job even harder. In her career, the veteran American comedian Phyllis Diller made many gags about her fictional husband, Fang. “Fang is a good loser,” she said. “He lost 11 jobs in one year”.

However, as American comedy promoter Carl Unegbu notes in his book Comedy Under Attack, shortly before her death, Diller mused on political correctness and said: “I’m a comic. I don’t deal with problems when I’m working… I want people to laugh.” This is the comedian’s default position.

The Reay case is likely to be difficult to rule on. It is the sacred role of the comedian to make people laugh. Their tool is the joke. But if that blunt instrument results in personal injury, the court has to decide who takes the blame. If it can be proved Reay was indeed joking, the court will have to establish a precedent about an issue which has long been exercising people’s opinions in the ongoing debate about offence versus political correctness in comedy. Where will the culpability be seen to lie? With the sanctioned joker who hurls the comic insult or the “over-sensitive” victim who is assumed to lack a sense of humour? Whatever the results, the ruling will contain consequences for the act of making jokes in front of an audience. And that is just not funny.

Ian Wilkie is a lecturer in performance at the University of Salford; this article also appears at www.theconversation.com

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