As a young teenager I careered from obsession to obsession; football, music, books, and at one point – when I was about twelve or thirteen, I think, stand-up and TV comedy. In reality, the latter was all I could actually access, being far too young to head into London to go to comedy clubs, so I watched everything from dire dross like Birds of A Feather to slightly less dire VHSs of Lenny Henry live. Stand up comics certainly never came to play at the local Arts centre – or at least, they didn’t until Eddie Izzard announced that he was playing the Barnet Old Bull. The Old Bull was a small, scruffy place, way off the comedy circuit – but in those days Eddie Izzard was perhaps six months to a year off being celebrated as the next big thing in comedy.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, but I had read something about him in the paper and thus knew that he would be worth watching.
So I tried – increasingly desperately – to persuade my mother to take me to see him… and failed, because she, perhaps understandably, concluded that the difference between the content of TV comedy and live stand-up was rather greater than I appreciated. My request was turned down because, she said, the comedy would likely be ‘blue’.
It strikes me as odd in retrospect that this concerned her greatly (there were no restrictions on swearwords in our house and in fact I have a happy memory of her playing me her vinyl copy of New Boots and Panties by Ian Dury & The Blockheads, in order to each me some new ones), and it’s funny to think that in those pre-internet days I had no way of persuading her of the truth – that Izzard, in fact, never, even in those early days, really strayed into ‘blue’ comedy.
So, I missed the gig and, after a while, pretty much lost my interest in comedy as I turned my attentions elsewhere. But for one reason or another I’ve always remembered the conversation we had and wondered who else from the world of cuddly TV is a foul-mouthed animal when transported to the stage of the local arts centre.
This week we went to see Reginald D Hunter at the Brighton Dome, and my expectations were actually pretty high; both in terms of expecting it to be funny, and expecting it to be blue. In the event, it was certainly incredibly funny, and Reg went to some lengths to explain to his very white, very middle class audience that he had no qualms about using words like ‘nigga’ or ‘faggotry’ (“I’m not that cuddly TV nigga”, he warned us). His set though, was far more thoughtful and nuanced than I was expecting, and although the performance was laced with the odd crude joke, it generally served the purpose of his broader point, even if it almost certainly (inevitably) honed in on cheap laughter.
For the most part, the set was preoccupied with exploring the things we claim to know about ourselves, and the tension between that and the many things we refuse to acknowledge. Key to his thesis is that we’ve become complacent and unable to exercise self-restraint in our lives, whether by refusing to control our lazy desire to watch and consume crap or to resist facing self-examination or honest self-assessment. Key to all this is his reassurance, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’. This simplistic assertion is not borne of unsympathetic cruelty or withering disdain, but instead an earnest notion that we choose not to look at ugly truths because we’re ‘waiting for something prettier to come along’. Using the age-old technique of audience ridicule, he even provides some graphic (if not particularly insightful) examples. It’s clever, rude stuff.
That said, his show is broadly without structure; anecdotes come and go, not always explicable until later on. This isn’t the result of careful foreshadowing, but rather evidence that, as of yet, Reggie isn’t as disciplined as he might be about constructing his theme. He relies, I think, on his immediate and engaging manner to waltz through complex ideas which could do with a bit of further explanation. But the general tone of his set is both ruminative and ribald, here troubling and there smoothly easy-going. It’s a nice combination of the natural comic instinct which Reg possesses and the semi-urgent discoveries of his own ascent into middle age. Having never seen him before, I don’t know if he is growing up, but his set is a nice mixture of the fast maturing, the puerile, and the naturally charming.