Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's NotesBul Ly Laugh Sorship

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's NotesBul Ly Laugh Sorship

Article excerpt

Have you ever wanted to know how dictators stay in power? Try visiting a comedy club. I went to one the other night. The acts varied in quality. No one died on their backside, no one stormed it, the audience went away happy. But at a couple of points the thing happened, the thing that gives you a clue about dictators: the comedian picked on a member of the audience. In fairness they were both minor examples. One was the compere assessing how a line had gone down. Two guys in their fifties sitting at the side had laughed. 'Wow, even you two liked that, ' said the compere. 'Look at you, Waldorf and Statler there.' Everyone laughed, including Wa ldorf and Stat ler, and the even ing moved on. Later, a comedian commented on how people were dressed, including one guy in the front row whose checked shirt gave him 'the Brokeback Mountain look'. Again, it got a laugh, no more was made of it.

But you should have seen the people nearby. Their body language said everything: tense shoulders, sideways glances at Checked Shirt lest a full turning of the head draw the comedian's attention to them instead, laughs more nervous than everyone else's. Because that's what happens when someone gets picked on: the rest of the audience breathe a sigh of relief that it's not them, and settle down to enjoy the spectacle. Only when those sitting near the victim become sure they're not going to get picked on too can they settle down as well. But boy, when they do . . . The audience becomes a single mass. The victim has to sit there and join in, of course. But don't let's kid ourselves what's going on here: it's bullying.

Seeing an audience behave like this you're struck by just how powerful the herd instinct is. It doesn't seem to matter which herd you belong to - it's just enough that it is a herd, and someone is outside it. Their status as a non-member makes your membership all the more life-affirming. It's this instinct that dictators mine to such great effect.

I should point out that I'm not talking about every act of comedian-on-punter aggression. Sometimes it's started by the punter himself, with a heckle, and after that he deserves everything he gets. Stephen K.

Amos greets unsuccessful heckles with: 'You hear that silence? That was yours. You hear that laugh? That was mine.' Some heckles do hit the spot, a sign of the two-way tension inherent in any worthwhile evening of comedy. …

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