New Internationalist

Comedy for a cause

June 2012

Pitfalls can await the unsuspecting comic, especially at benefit gigs, writes Steve Parry.

This column was published in the June issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

madame.furie under a CC Licence

As a comedian, my favourite gigs are benefit gigs. OK, so they’re unpaid, but for someone like me who spends much of their time being professionally immature, these shows offer a rare opportunity to do something worthwhile with my questionable ‘skills’.

The great thing about them is they’re organized by political activists, not showbiz impresarios, so they tend to have a quirky, homespun feel. Slick, soulless commercialism is replaced by lo-fi, big-hearted amateurism. Inevitably, this fingers- crossed/never-done-it-before/how-hard-can-it-be model of show business does occasionally result in the odd glitch. Here are just three of the pitfalls that have befallen me:

Pitfall 1 – no microphone

This took place at a quiz night for a local anti-cuts group, where they were raising funds by selling booze in a mildly nefarious and speakeasy-ish manner through a raffle. The idea was that you bought a ticket, handed it to someone else, and then got a polystyrene cup of warm wine thrust at you. This ruse apparently side-stepped the rules, allowing the promoters to sell cheap grog.

A fantastic idea, were it not for the fact that all the effort put into identifying and exploiting loopholes in the licensing laws meant that the people in charge took their eye off the ball microphone-wise. Now, the microphone is a pretty crucial tool in a comedian’s trade; without one you’re just a bloke shouting in the corner of a room. Which, as luck would have it, is something your average leftie seems to quite enjoy.

Pitfall 2 – no seats

As well as shouting, activists seem to have no problem with standing up, as proved at a benefit gig I once did at a fire station. I arrived to find that a disco was in full swing, with 300 people dancing. Upon seeing me, the DJ cut the music and announced there would now be some ‘really funny comedy’. This went down badly with the dancers, who by now were really getting into the groove. I walked on stage and ploughed though my act while the audience either went to the buffet, jeered ‘turn it back on’, or carried on dancing regardless. So much for solidarity being a two-way street.

Pitfall 3 – nobody in town

Recently, I was approached to host a show to raise awareness of the atrocious treatment of Bradley Manning, the US solider accused of whistle-blowing about US war crimes and currently languishing in a high-security prison. The organizer was Lindi, a brilliantly tenacious and enthusiastic peace campaigner who’d read something I’d written in these pages and tracked me down. The gig was to be in Cardiff and I agreed to get involved.

I was three phone calls in before I realized Lindi wasn’t actually based in Cardiff but 180 kilometres away, in Cornwall. I was 200 kilometres away, in London. Logistically it would have been less hassle for Bradley to have arranged the gig himself. We went for it anyway.

Steve Parry is available for benefits, fundraisers, raffle draws, fun runs, weddings, christenings, children’s parties, bar mitzvahs...

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