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There’s nothing funny about Jew-baiting

When did it become acceptable to hound Jewish audience members out of a comedy show?

Simon Evans

Simon Evans
Columnist

Topics Culture Free Speech UK

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On Saturday night, at London’s fashionable Soho Theatre, Northern Irish comedian Paul Currie performed a largely non-verbal hour involving mime, slapstick, prop work and audience participation. Towards the end, he produced two final props – two flags, one Ukrainian, one Palestinian. He encouraged support for their respective causes. He then gestured to the audience to get on their feet for a comically contrived standing ovation.

Most of the audience played along. But a few did not. When Currie asked them if they didn’t enjoy the show, one of them said that he was enjoying it, until the flags emerged. He was Israeli.

Accounts vary as to exactly what happened next. According to a report on Chortle, Currie then ordered the man out of the theatre. ‘Leave my fucking show now’, he reportedly shouted. ‘Get out… get the fuck out of my show!’, he repeated. The Israeli audience members did indeed leave. And as they did, the crowd chanted ‘Get out’, ‘Ceasefire now’ and ‘Free Palestine’ at them. In a complaint to the theatre, the Israelis said they felt physically unsafe after crossing the stage under a barrage of abuse.

Soho Theatre put out an initial apology of sorts on Monday, saying that it was ‘sorry and saddened’ by the incident. Last night, it put out a considerably stronger statement, denouncing Currie’s ‘intimidation of audience members’ as ‘appalling’ and ‘unacceptable’. Soho Theatre says he will not be invited back to perform.

This is a delicate issue for a comedian to write on. It concerns one of the things I find it hardest to be funny about – namely, comedy. And also, you know, Jew-baiting.

If this controversy were only about Currie’s act, then the core principle at stake would be free speech. Comedians should feel licenced to offend. They should be at liberty to express their ideas – whether those are sincerely held, or just propositions worth exploring through art. But that’s not quite what we’re dealing with here.

If Currie had communicated to the audience via puppetry, mask or three-foot-high letters, painted on a winding sheet in pig’s blood, that he thinks the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir or even the rank and file of the IDF are genocidal maniacs, no better than Heydrich, Himmler and Eichmann, then I would defend his right to do so.

I would also defend the right of Jews, Israelis or anyone else to protest at the door in response. And the right of fellow comedians to let their feelings be known on social media, however dispiriting those might be.

But demanding that a paying audience member, who is not being disruptive or even especially disrespectful, get out – screaming at them that they should do so – is a different matter entirely. It crosses a line.

I would still defend the right of Paul Currie to get it wrong. To lose his temper, or badly misjudge the situation. Although, sadly, he does not appear to have misread the room at all. On the contrary, he was rather swept up by the positive feedback loop, where the audience itself was ever-so-slightly drunk on righteous moral condemnation.

This did not happen in a vacuum. By which I do not mean the terrible loss of life in Gaza, or the terrible events that preceded that, or the many, many other events that preceded those.

I mean the context in comedy. Today, many comedians, and those who write about comedy, have a tendency to weaponise, aggravate and inflame the divisions that exist in modern Britain. To provoke the meanest and lowest and cheapest of laughs, laughs only just this side of a snarl. It comes from a place of self-righteous certainty.

I remember attending gigs after Brexit, seeing comedians up and down the country encouraging their audiences to loathe and despise thy neighbour. I remember one act in particular, who opened their set with the unambiguous request: ‘Can I just ask, if there is anyone here who voted for Brexit? If so, can you please just FUCK OFF?’ It got laughs and cheers, but I felt profoundly uncomfortable – and I didn’t even vote for Brexit. The fact that this vitriol was born of a moral certainty that Brexit itself had been motivated by hatred and spite only made it harder to confront.

You might well argue that modern anti-Semitism, or an intense loathing of Israel, is entirely unlike hatred for the less metropolitan, less well-educated and less well-represented in the media demographic that voted to leave the EU. And it is different. But it does grease the same groove. There is that same moral certainty. That same disdain for the perceived enemy. And it does tend to come from the same kind of crowd.

Perhaps we as comedians do have a responsibility to try to untangle the moral and political knots of our time. But chanting slogans and waving flags at frightened Jews really does not feel like the way forward to me.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.

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Topics Culture Free Speech UK

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