Frankie Boyle insults disabled and laughs at rape, but could he summon up the courage to mock the IRA? Of course not
What do you call a few thousand Feile an Phobail revellers laughing their heads off at a Hunger Strike joke? Gibraltar, anyone? Or maybe Gerry Adams' membership of the IRA? Nothing, as it happens, because the above topics didn't arise at the Frankie Boyle gig yesterday evening. Which is hardly surprising, given the comedian's penchant for jokes about people with disabilities and rape instead.
The IRA didn't get a look in during Frankie's repertoire. Which is a bit disappointing, because the real test of whether an act is offensive or not, is when it hits the jugular of the people watching, and reactions can be gauged.
By and large, the crowd were content to laugh at everybody else instead, as Frankie was Boyle-less on jokes about republicanism.
The gig had been hit by controversy before it even began, after a tense few weeks of criticism for the people's festival for hiring a comedian who has poked fun at those with Down's syndrome in the past.
Opening with the line "I cant tell you how sorry I am to have divided your normally united city" - a pointed reference to the affair - Boyle touched on the subject of offence and comedy a few times. This newspaper was unsuccessful in being able to get reviewing tickets, so yours truly sourced some on the internet for resale yesterday. Interestingly, the seller had decided not to go after hearing the nature of Boyle's past jokes. Her ears had, in my humble opinion, a lucky escape.
In advance, Saint Gerry Adams, one of the founding members and a long-time advocate of Feile an Phobail, was quoted as saying that Boyle was "the right type of act" for the festival. That may be because of his political leanings, which are in keeping with events Feile has showcased in the past, or his previous comments on the Palestinian situation where he likened it to "apartheid". But Gerry should have probably taken the time to listen to Boyle's routine before putting his foot in his mouth again.
In 2009, in Feile an Phobail's own programme, it stated that "Feile an Phobail, in its ethic, vision, tolerance and inclusiveness, is living proof of how arts, culture, sport, open debate and discussion can raise up entire communities and contribute to peace, progress and the wellbeing of society in general".
Someone didn't get the memo when booking this act. In the first 30 minutes of Boyle's routine alone he told jokes about paedophilia, rape and abuse, people with disabilities, suicide and depression. It was while touching on the subject of cancer research, however, that he referenced this newspaper shouting "stick that in your f****ing Belfast Telegraph". Hardly the epitome of inclusiveness that Feile has prided itself on in the past.
Most of Boyle's jokes are unprintable. But take this one, as an example of one of his less offensive ones. While talking about speed limits near primary schools he said: "The only people driving responsibly near primary schools are paedophiles, and that's only because they're doing it one-handed." You get the picture? Funny, it ain't.
At the risk of offending the Glaswegian comedian, I have to say that this writer found his gig boring, quite frankly. He doesn't like newspapers anyway, so I doubt it'll fizz on him. Frankie has been critical of the Press before. While writing on, wait for it, 'offence and free speech' he had the following to say: "Who decides whether we should be outraged by something we haven't seen or heard? The Press. Our seething collective lid. None of us would trust a journalist to hold our pint while we went to the bathroom, yet we allow them to be ethical arbiters for the entire culture."
Sometimes, Frankie, there is no need to be an arbiter on jokes about Jade Goody's sex life in the run-up to her death, included in his routine in the past, or those with disabilities, or indeed rape. Most people with a moral compass simply don't like it. It reminds them of the ugly side of human nature - that side that tells us it's OK to poke fun at those who have had a hard time, or who can't defend themselves, or the vulnerable in society, because it's all dressed up as "comedy", and let's face it, we don't all want to look like Mary Whitehouse, do we?
Only, it isn't OK, it's far from OK, and it's even worse when the gig is held in the bastion of west Belfast, an area which prides itself on outwardly showing every "ism" available to humankind. Feminism? Check. Non-sexism? Double check. Telling jokes (and laughing at them), about Madeleine McCann (batting off an intake of breath from the audience with "she's still alive in that joke!") should not be acceptable, no matter how much a champion of free speech you consider yourself to be. There is, as I've said before, a difference between offence and abuse, and sometimes the line gets blurred.
For the record, I'm no prude, and nor was I an advocate of Boyle's event being cancelled. I don't think he should have been booked in the first place, as I didn't think he was in keeping with the spirit of a community festival, but I wasn't in favour of banning him either. And yet, I couldn't even last his whole set, choosing instead to leave rather than listen to any more. His skit didn't surprise me - what did, however, was that people found him funny, or cheered at some of the more outrageous jokes. For me, it was akin to booking a modern Bernard Manning, minus the racism with a bit of criticism of Cameron, and American foreign policy for good measure to even out the offence. I have no idea what Feile were thinking.
Ironically, while Boyle is writing in the Guardian about the Tories, and his take on lefty politics (he was quoted in the Guardian as saying he was "more left wing" than Chomsky), his comedic routine is different to the very stance on marginalised groups that he attempts to stand up for in his writing. Last week it was migrants, the week before that he wrote a piece about cuts in benefits for people with multiple sclerosis, among other things. It's hard to square that with a comedian's routines which have included jokes about disability.
If puerile humour is your thing, you won't have gone home disappointed. I left feeling tainted, rather than enlightened, thinking that the joke was on the West Belfast Festival for having booked him in the first place.