Comedy & Context

I first posted this on Twitter via TwitLonger on 23rd August 2012.  It refers to this sketch.


Have you heard of The Secret? It’s this book that says you can attract good things by asking the universe for them. It’s bollocks, obviously. If you think differently, this blog is definitely not for you. I’m not going to go into all the reasons it is bullshit as they can easily be found elsewhere on the internet. If you like The Secret, good for you, but please stop reading.

Okay, they’ve gone. Here we go…

One of the aspects of The Secret I find most offensive is the notion that if bad things happen to you, it’s somehow your fault for thinking negatively. That has very unsavoury implications. Anyway, I have a character in my show who is an exponent of “The Gift”; a thinly veiled version of The Secret and at one point she says that Holocaust victims have brought it on themselves. It is one of the most offensive things I could think of and so I put it in the mouth of this vile character.  You can see the sketch here.

Today I had a lady (who was asleep on the front row for most of my show) come up to me after the performance and say that the Holocaust joke was “not on”. I asked what specifically was not on about it. She said “well, that’s just my opinion”. I asked if she realised I was playing an awful character and my point as an actor and writer was the exact opposite of what the character was saying. As is often the case, I might add. She didn’t say anything to that. I also pointed out that context is everything in comedy and maybe some of the subtleties were lost on her as she had been asleep for much of the show and checking through her train tickets for the rest. She mumbled that that had nothing to do with me and then hurried off.

But honestly, did she really think I was standing on stage and saying “holocaust victims brought it on themselves” with no layers of irony whatsoever? Why did she think the rest of the audience laughed? How can she possibly have not realised I was satirising people who think that way?

There was some debate recently about whether rape can ever be mentioned in comedy. I say of course it can, anything can, but it is context that makes it either acceptable or not. I tend to ask myself who is the butt of the joke. In this case, if the butt of the joke had been the victims of the Holocaust, that would have been unacceptable but in reality, it was the character I was playing. That is who the audience is laughing at. It’s a very important distinction and one which I take very seriously. I have seen sketches that boil down to “isn’t rape funny” and they’ve been universally shit. If used intelligently and with flair, however, I do believe there is no subject that can’t be tackled with humour. It can even be a powerful and sneaky way of getting a strong point across.

Also, a small disclaimer, I had about fifty people in today and she was the only one who was asleep. The rest of them were totally loving it, obviously. It’s ace. Come. Only two performances left.

Gemma Arrowsmith: Defender of Earth
Le Monde | Venue 47 | 16 George St, EH2 2PF.