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Yianni: Transgressing the ‘line’

By | Published on Monday 27 July 2015


ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award winner Yianni returns to the Fringe this year to explore the big fat line. As in the line jokes sometimes cross. Supposedly. But what is that line? Where is that line? Why does it seem to constantly shift?
Inspired by an email he received from a comedy booker explaining the no go areas for his upcoming gig, Yianni’s show ‘Why Did The Chicken Cross The Line?’ gets to the bottom of it all.

CC: So give us the background to this show – I believe it all began with an email warning from a booker?
YA: Yes. I did a gig where all the acts received an email specifically requesting that no comedians make jokes about “rape, paedophilia or Lady Diana”. Apart from the fact that it immediately made me want to make – actually funny – jokes about all three of those things, to prove that it’s the treatment not the subject matter that defines acceptability, it also made me ponder what must have happened in the past in order to necessitate an explicit warning to every single comedian performing at that venue. As an Aussie, I particularly laughed when I read the ban on Princess Di jokes. C’mon guys. How long?!?

CC: Once you’d decided to explore the ‘line’, did the show require much research?
YA: I didn’t do any specific, additional research as fifteen years of making light of things in front of rooms full of people has been time spent living in a petri dish. I just thought about what my central point was, the topics I wanted to discuss, and then scoured my memory for anecdotes that fit. Talking about where the line is in the abstract is very dry, so I’ve made as much of the show as possible funny, with relatable stories and interactive routines that provide a direct in-the-room experience of where the line is.

CC: Do you think comedians have a ‘line’ in their minds when they are writing their material? How do you decide when to cross it?
YA: I think everyone’s got a ‘line’ in their minds every instant of their lives, which is how we decide moment by moment what is and isn’t appropriate to say and do. Comedy is no different, it’s just the rules in a comedy club differ to, say, the rules at work. There’s a definite art in guiding an audience across the line and back again whilst still getting laughs. A skilled and experienced comedian will do it deftly and most importantly, consciously. Inexperienced or poor comedians however often do it clumsily and unwittingly. The key is to stay one step ahead by empathising with the audience, anticipating how they’ll respond and also preparing contingency plans!

CC: You alluded to the important of context there, how time and place impacts on what is and isn’t appropriate. Where do you think the line is drawn at the Fringe, say compared to the average comedy club or a TV panel show?
YA: In the same way that alcohol isn’t sold to minors, a comedy night in a licensed venue is designed for a narrower and more mature audience than a TV panel show. A TV panel show in primetime, by definition, has to be palatable to everyone from kids watching with parents to 80 year olds who grew up watching Frank Carson. It’s different again with the Fringe. You usually get an audience ready for and wanting an hour long show, so they give a little more time to thinking about the ideas behind your jokes; which means they can go with it if you intelligently take them along with you over the line. But in all cases, the line isn’t so much determined by the content of the jokes, even though that will vary, but by whether there’s a goodness of heart behind them. I think audiences can pick up on that, whatever age or demographic, although you do get more freedom at a Fringe show to set that context.

CC: Some comedians set out to offend. So can crossing the line be the main objective of a show?
YA: A comedian should set out to get laughs, not to offend. If in getting those laughs, they provoke, disturb and make people confront their own prejudices and preconceptions, all the better. But the primary goal in my opinion should always be laughs. Once you lose that, then you’re just some prick saying upsetting things in front of a bunch of people.

CC: Do you think the ‘context thing’ is one of the reasons why there seems to be a flood of misogyny and racism on the social networks, people treat social media like they’re down the pub, and draw that ‘line’ far too late for what is actually a public platform?
YA: That’s how the media have often interpreted it I think, but properly applied, context isn’t some technique for rationalising bigotry. It’s the ever-present property of human discourse that things actually have a context, and to pretend otherwise is a form of oppression. The American documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles once said, “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance”. Racism and misogyny that come from a hateful place are unacceptable whether you’re down the pub or on social media. I’ve always thought that if you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face then you probably shouldn’t say it full stop.

CC: The flood of offensive banter online seems to have been accompanied by increased sensitivities in some quarters to political correctness. Is this the right response?
YA: I think it’s always right to be sensitive to a lack of compassion, which is what I think offensiveness is, deep down. But if you read any online argument, what so often happens is that people express their anger at someone’s lack of compassion by insulting them, which shows a lack of compassion towards the – albeit imperfect – person they’re offended at and thus doubles the lack of compassion in a situation. And you get an ever decreasing circle of insults! This just creates a bunker mentality, polarises debate and makes it almost impossible to move forward. I think we need to hate the sin but love the sinner – I’m with Gandhi on that one.

CC: Is it ever the right thing to do to joke about rape and paedophilia?
YA: I wouldn’t say the right thing, like it’s an imperative. But humour is a coping mechanism against the horrors in the world, we evolved it for that reason. Rape and paedophilia are unquestionably horrible things. They’re highly loaded topics which – in an audience of 100 – statistically will bring up painful memories in probably around 30 people, and produce an empathetic response in most of the other 70, so they really have to be done with skill and sensitivity. Joking about them is like trying to do the really hard Sudoku with a room full of people who hate numbers.

CC: And Lady Diana?
YA: No. No matter what. Rape and Paedophilia okay, but never joke about the people’s princess. It’s car crash comedy.

CC: The show went down really well at the Perth FringeWorld festival. Tell us about that.
YA: I did the show at Perth FringeWorld so that I’d have to have something ready by January that would then be really polished by the time I did it in Edinburgh. I saw it as a work in progress, so I didn’t send any press releases out because I wanted to develop it under the radar. As it turns out, the original dates plus some extra ones sold out and it got nominated for best comedy show! I have now resolved never to send out press releases again.

CC: You’ve done a fair few shows on the Free Fringe in the past, why did you decide to go with The Stand this year?
YA: Apart from the fact that I love The Stand, because they really look after their comedians, I wanted to do the show in a space with a proper lighting rig and sound. The Stand offered me a room and slot which was ideal, so I decided to take it. However, I love the Free Fringe and am also doing a Free Fringe show called ‘Comedians Against Humanity’, where guest comedians improvise stand up based on Cards Against Humanity cards played by the audience.

CC: And finally, last time we spoke you’d booked Edinburgh International Conference Centre for a one-off show. Other than the ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award it won you, how did that go?
YA: It went great. Basically, as part of my show ‘Think Big’ I set out to sell out the entire EICC – with its 1200 seats – over the course of the 2013 Fringe. I sold 360 tickets So, not a sell out, but still far more tickets than I’d ever sold to any previous show. I learnt that in aiming high and ‘failing’ I still achieved more than I ever had before. So this year I want to sell every single ticket to my show. Help me out here people.

‘Yianni: Why Did The Chicken Cross The Line?’ was performed at The Stand Comedy Club 2 at Edinburgh Festival 2015.

LINKS: ycomedian.com

Photo: Mark Dawson