“The New European” (hands up who’s bought a copy – no? – I thought not) headlines “Brexit turns the Fringe into a comedy of errors”. Other papers have highlighted the use made of the Brexit vote by comedians in Edinburgh.
Roger Helmer MEP (UKIP formerly Conservative)
For many comedians, the Edinburgh festival is the pinnacle of the year – a 30-day marathon of gigs in cramped, dark venues in which to test their comic mettle in front of audiences from all over the world. Material is written, scrapped, rewritten and rehearsed months in advance.
But this year, on 24 June, a Brexit-shaped problem presented itself to comedians. Performers from Al Murray and Mark Steel to Bridget Christie and Simon Evans all had material that presumed the UK’s future in the EU was safe, or ignored the referendum altogether. And so, with just a month to go until the festival, they had to start from scratch.
Christie scrapped all her material and penned a new Brexit-themed Edinburgh set in the past week. “I’m later with this set than ever before but I couldn’t not change it,” she said. “After the referendum everything seemed irrelevant and different and like the whole world had changed. I looked at what I was doing in my show and realised it just didn’t seem that interesting to me any more.”
Christie’s previous sets have never shied away from addressing politically and socially fractious issues, and she said it would just be “odd not to talk about Brexit”. However, she said that with feelings still running raw around the referendum result, and the short amount of time she had to write and learn the new material, it was “obviously a risk”.
When she tried out some of the material on audiences over the past week, its reception was not seamless. “More so than other issues, you run the risk of really splitting audiences on this,” she said. “I thought feminism was divisive but this? Well … ”
Christie’s show will now be based around the premise that she wants to talk about anything other than Brexit – be that gardening or vibrators – but that she keeps getting distracted as she remembers the result.
The outspoken comedian has a lot she wants to say on the subject, and admitted some of it might raise the hackles of her audience. “I totally reject this notion, which is coming from a lot of people on the left, that we mustn’t criticise leave voters,” said Christie. “Everybody has to admit that there were a lot of people who voted leave for not noble and legitimate reasons. Just look at the 500% increase in race hate crimes after Brexit.”
She continued: “And people saying that the middle classes and the educated elite are demonising the working classes as racists. Well, I’m working class and I don’t accept that at all. Racists are being demonised; it doesn’t matter what their socio-economic background is. We have to talk about it – in the media and in comedy.”
Murray said the vote to leave the EU had given a new lease of life to his character, who could be found in a jubilant mood and “breathing the sweet air of freedom”.
“When it comes to writing jokes, this referendum outcome is a better one,” he said.
Murray said his pub landlord character had been born out of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and feeling that had been simmering for years and was brought to the surface by the leave campaign. “I’ve always thought this whole crisis has been brewing for 25 years,” he said. “I used to have people say that my act was really out of date, banging on about Europe – and I would always think: ‘Really, you fucking wait.’
“I used to have the landlord doing these barking-mad conspiracy theories about the EU, and watching that simply glide into the mainstream has been very interesting.”
It was a view echoed by the Australian comic Nazeem Hussain, whose show deals with issues of racism and Islamophobia. He said the Brexit result – and subsequent rise in racist attacks – had simply validated the material he had already written.
Matt Forde, who was once a Labour party adviser, lamented how he had initially written his whole Edinburgh show on the premise that in politics you have close shaves but “in the end sense prevails and thank God we stayed in the EU”.
But after the referendum result came in, “obviously I had no other option than to write an entirely new show from scratch. Politics suddenly became a firework display, really, where everything’s in flames,” he said.
Once Forde got over having to tear up mountains of material, including jokes about David Cameron and George Osborne, things got “really exciting”.
He said it had been very easy to find comedy in the referendum campaign and fallout. “Selfishly, Brexit is a bit of a godsend as a comedian who writes about politics. So even though this is a completely new show, if anything there has been too much material to work with,” he said.
“I’ve been doing political shows at the fringe for a few years now, and every year you get a sense that people are becoming more politicised, but the reaction to Brexit is like nothing else in my lifetime. So making comedy out of it is cathartic.
“People who would never have dreamed of going to see a political comedy show are far more inclined to now.”