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Making people who don’t agree with you laugh by Athena Kugblenu

I have been performing comedy for over six years. In that time, over hundreds of shows to certainly thousands of people, I can count on one hand the occasions I have had an audience who looks and feels like they might be just like me. This isn’t just an observation on race (I’m African/Indian mixed). This is an observation on gender, politics, class, up-bringing and in life experience overall.

This is a circumstance many ‘minority’ comedians can fall into. Whether we like it or not, humour is often culturally specific. I have a joke about Super Malt that white audiences do not find funny. Mostly because they don’t know what Super Malt is. I have to accept that some of my ideas, references and observations will have to be meticulously set up, translated or thrown in the bin because 92% of this country doesn’t have the familiarity required to understand why my bit about hairdresser appointment times being pure fabrication is hilarious (white privilege is not having to deal with women’s afro hair salons!)

This is not insurmountable. In fact, difference is often a great tool when creating humour and it’s a fantastic opportunity to share life experiences that would otherwise remain unknown to an audience. My favourite part of being a comedian is centring my story for the time I am on stage in a creative industry that centres white British stories as standard.

It asks more of my writing; I have to use sharper devices and think of more elaborate and subtle reveals. It improves my performance as I need to sell my jokes harder than other comics with more accessible material. However, if I can tell my stories about encounters with the police, or ‘white feminism’ whilst making people laugh, then maybe I am imparting my own habit of critical thought to an audience member who is therefore not only entertained, but educated. In this world of ‘fake news’, badly informed Twitter threads and viral sensationalism, this is a satisfying thought to have. I am not an authority on any subject. But it is nice to throw my views into the mix.

If being a politically minded black comedian in a white industry has taught me anything, it is that when people who don’t agree with you laugh, they actually laugh harder. This is totally compliant with the science of humour. People laugh when they are surprised, when a punch line is unexpected or pleasingly original. If a punch line carries the weight of a different and contrasting worldview, it is more likely to meet this criteria. If anything, comedians are incentivised to be challenging – the task is harder but the reward is sweeter.

Being challenging is not a guarantee of quality. I don’t think audiences laugh at everything that feels different to them. The habit of some right comedians who grumble about free speech, political correctness and progressive politics is tiresome except to their already converted audiences. Defiant jokes only make people laugh if the rationale makes sense. Laughter is the result a convincing argument. Not malevolent contrarianism.

Understand this, and you can be brilliant. Some of the best comedic routines are ones that go against the grain because they aren’t built around a tiresome whine, they are about real, essential observations. Yes, our most famous and wealthy comedians are pretty agreeable and they make a great living expertly musing on highly relatable topics (Peter Kay, Michael Macintyre, John Bishop, Sarah Millican and so on).  But when I think of comedy that inspires me, I think of Dick Gregory, Richard Prior, Patrice O’Neal, Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Bernie Mac, Dave Allen – all comedians who are considered to be some of the best to ever do it, with routines decades old that still stand the test of time, not just for being funny, but for being important. 

My hour show this year has jokes about being drunk on public transport, fixing washing machines and thoughts that put me off when I’m having myself a nice bit of sex. But I also try to explain why I’m sick of defending Jeremy Corbyn and how we didn’t do enough when the Windrush scandal broke this year. I am trying to write and perform interesting and stimulating comedy. I am also trying to make audiences laugh too. If I can do both, that will make me happy with my small creative contribution to the world.

My Edinburgh show is called Follow the Leader, Underbelly Bristo Square, 5.30pm until 26 August.