Opinion: “And then I untied her”: Is ‘Edgy’ The New ‘Hack’?
Walk into any open mic or lower priced circuit gig and take a seat. Make a note of how many times you hear a joke about rape, disability, paedophilia or sexual abuse. If you get less than eight I’ll be impressed. More and more nowadays, comedians are turning to taboo ‘shock’ subjects in order to squeeze out laughs.
“I lost my virginity when I was nine. Thanks Grandad.” is an example of the type of joke you’re likely to hear. Not that exact one, mind you. I just made that up in around five seconds. See how easy it is? In this joke, I’m not saying anything clever or insightful or even particularly funny; the punch line is simply that I lost my virginity as a small child when I was raped by a family member (not really). And that’s it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a joke where the punch line was “and then I was raped”. And frankly it’s dull. I’ve seen open spots and semi-pro (I hesitate to say professional) acts fill 5, 10, and even 20 minute sets with ream after ream of terribly constructed and badly delivered poor taste jokes, which barely have the ability to shock, let alone muster giggles. And it’s so disappointing. It is easy and it is lazy, and unless it is done skilfully, it is hack as hell.
It is understandable that new acts naturally emulate comedians who they enjoy or admire. So it should come as no surprise that as soon as Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr shot to fame, the number of new acts with similar styles and content started crawling out from the shadows. Now I am not saying that the two aforementioned pro comics are hack (although Frankie Boyle’s writing is leaning that way, given his apparent newly found joke-writing laziness), as for the most part their jokes are extremely well constructed and delivered and as the pioneers of the recent spate, they are fairly original.
So, what is ‘hack’? Wikipedia (I’m too lazy to do any real research) defines hack comedy as “a joke or premise for a joke that is considered obvious, has been frequently used by comedians in the past, and/or is blatantly copied from its original author.” In the 70s it was “my mother-in-law’s so fat”, in the 90s it was “What’s the deal with airplane food?” and now it’s “and she’s tied up in the basement”.
So, what is ‘edgy’? Edgy in the way we use it to describe stand up has a broader meaning. It can mean that the content is hard-going, dark, challenging, offensive, amoral, alternative, or any or all of the above. Edgy can be done remarkably well. Take Brendon Burns, for example. Brendon Burns won the top prize at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 for his show So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now, which was full of dark and challenging subject matter, forcing an emotional reaction from the audience to point out society’s hypocrisies. Look at the work of the masterful Bill Hicks. For shocking, but meticulously crafted and very, very funny one-liners, check out Gary Delaney, a common circuit headliner.
Edgy comedy, as a (very broad) subject is not hack, but the jokes which many acts both new and old are peddling, are. Before you get on stage and retell a load of guff about you being felt up by a priest ask yourself this: “Has the audience heard this before?” If the answer is yes, then shut up and find something more original. If the answer is no, then shock to your heart’s content. Shocking people isn’t a bad thing. Being a lazy comic who shocks for shock’s sake is.