Christopher Gray on the comedian's mocking tradition

They were rather cleverly named ‘bully laughs’ in a headline in last week’s Spectator. In the article beneath — which struck a chord with me — Mark Mason trenchantly set out what his sub-editor called the ‘comedy club theory of dictatorship’. This referred to the exploitation by stand-ups of the mob instinct of their audience with jokes directed at a particular member of it. “Clearly it’s a long step from the Comedy Store on a Friday night to 1930s Berlin,” Mr Mason wrote, “and I’m not for a second saying that comedians who use this sort of approach are Saddams in the making. Rather it’s the audience’s role that intrigues me. All that’s required for evil to flourish, Edmund Burke tells us, is that good men do nothing. Very often nothing is precisely what they do. But why?”

Mason fingered the compères, who do not have time for a full routine, as the chief culprits. “Mocking an unfortunate in the third row is a cheap and easy way of uniting the audience, getting the evening running. That’s why the comedian so often asks what the person does for a living — lot of people are going to say ‘lawyer’, ‘civil servant’, ‘estate agent’ or some other job for which the act has prepared put-downs.”

In the article’s opening paragraph was cited an example of bullying witnessed by the writer, where a man in the front row was singled out because of the checked shirt he was wearing. This was said to have given him “the Brokeback Mountain look”. This bore an odd similarity to an instance of audience-bullying in which I was the victim.

The occasion was the long-ago opening night at Oxford’s Jongleurs comedy venue in Hythe Bridge Street, where the Glee Club now flourishes. I was there to review. Sitting beside me, close to the stage, was Rosemarie, lately back from a business trip to the United States during which she had bought me — yes, a checked hillbilly-style shirt. Rashly, I had chosen to wear it that night. The combination of garment, grizzly beard and — at that time — gourmand’s girth irresistibly recalled Uncle Jesse Duke of the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard. The comparison was duly made by the compère — repeatedly.

By a stroke of luck, though, the opportunity arose for me to enjoy sweet revenge on my tormentor. This is a privilege granted to very few in these situations.

I had a guest that evening. He was coming straight from work in London and reached Jongleurs some time into the compère’s warm-up routine. Threading his way through the tables towards us, and ever a strapping figure, Peter could not fail to catch the comedian’s eye. The target for the host’s shafts of wit shifted.

First came a number of what might be called life-style questions. The compère struck comedy gold almost at once with the discovery that Peter drove a Volvo, in those days a guarantee of boring respectability (perhaps still — I drive one).

Doubtless scenting the likelihood of a job with potential for jokes, as already alluded to, the comic demanded to know the latecomer’s occupation. “Comedy agent” came the reply, as delightful to the audience as it was dismaying to the compère. Studying his victim more closely, he realised that he was taking the mickey out of one of the key players in his business, a person who could be of great use to him but was hardly likely to feel inclined to be so now.

In fact, being a man of forgiving spirit, Peter actually found work for the guy a few weeks later, livening up the audience before one of his television shows. The Spectator article rightly identified Dame Edna Everage as the comedy star whom members of an audience have most cause to fear. Not for much longer, sadly, with her reign of terror scheduled to end in less than a month. Her farewell tour has no doubt followed the pattern of those before it in selling out from the back stalls forwards.

Some 30 years ago, the Dame’s creator Barry Humphries arrived at the New Theatre and found an annoying lack of publicity for her week of performances. I was called into Edna’s presence and ordered to join her on a city walkabout for an Oxford Mail article. My reward was a front row seat at her show that night, an occasion of exquisite agony since I seemed likely to be the subject of some of her probing questions.

Happily, I was let off the hook, though, and enjoyed the tormenting of other audience members instead. “What lovely material, possum,” Edna said, admiring the dress worn by a woman she dragged on stage. “And how lucky you were to get so much of it.”

I laughed like a drain, as we do. This is not so much because we enjoy seeing others suffer. It is more out of relief that we are not the sufferers.