Opinion: I Was A Misogynist Comedian
Comedian Michael J Dolan takes himself to task for allowing himself to write misognystic jokes
In June this year I put out my first stand-up record. Self-released, I tried to rattle up some press but mostly I was told to shove it. In the end I managed to get two reviews on indie comedy blogs and I was grateful for those. One was lovely. Enthusiastic, positive, the kind of thing I was hoping for. The other called me a misogynist and compared me to Bernard Manning. I was a little bit fucking shocked.
My initial reaction was that this was clearly wrong. The writer had brought an agenda to the review, she'd mapped her own paranoia onto an entirely inoffensive show. I tried to laugh it off, forget about it but I couldn't stop thinking about it, couldn't stop analysing my act, looking for where I'd crossed the line.
I don't consider myself a misogynist, but then I'm pretty sure most misogynists don't. That doesn't mean they don't hate the living shit out of all women, they just don't know that they do. Was I one of these deluded nutcases? Roaming the land's stages barking sexual threats at terrified women all the while still thinking myself ever so modern?
I called a friend (hey, look at that, some of my best friends are women). Well-read when it comes to contemporary feminism, little gets past her. I thought she would tell me the reviewer was full of shit, that I had nothing to worry about and that would be that. I asked her straight if she thought that any of the material was misogynistic. She said yes.
We went through the show and she pointed out parts she wasn't comfortable with. It was awful. I had been proud of this show, but looking at it now there are things I'd change. Some jokes I would remove entirely. Individually, they feel borderline. Together, they work to colour the whole in a nasty woman-hating hue. There's one joke towards the end of the record about tying up an ex and burying her alive which I now definitely consider to be the worst bit. That joke specifically is predicated on an act of violence against a woman and I believe that it speaks of a bigger problem in comedy.
I offer this observation, not as a defence, but by way of explanation. It's easy to lose sight of yourself as a comedian. In most comedy clubs I performed in that joke would easily get the biggest laugh of my set. It was such a sure-fire hit that I'd close on it. On the record however, in front of the slightly hippie crowd at XS Malarkey in Manchester, it receives a deservedly muted response (and I'm flustered by that, you can hear it in how I move into the next routine).
The truth is that misogyny is rife in British stand-up right now. Step into any comedy club and see how long it takes until one of the acts calls a woman from the audience a slut for a cheap laugh. See how many jokes revolve around the comic visiting violence on some imaginary girl and marvel at how well those jokes are received. Or just count the rape jokes. There may only be a few, but there will almost certainly be one or two.
Except that it isn't just one or two. The defence so often used is that they're only jokes. They're not to be taken at face value, we obviously don't mean it. But you'll rarely hear a contemporary act try to justify racism that way. We know that in a culture of racism every racist joke contributes to that culture and that none of them are acceptable. This is no different. In our culture of misogyny, of violence against women, every misogynistic joke contributes.
I wasn't vigilant enough. I let things into my act that I shouldn't have. I believe we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we currently do and think beyond just crowd pleasing. The crowd don't necessarily know what's best for us.
The racist comedians of old were left behind as the rest of the world moved on, some wilfully refusing to change, some genuinely unable to see what was wrong with what they did. A new generation of comedians are about to be left behind. Those peddling misogyny, homophobia or other varieties of hate to drunks who don't know better are going to find themselves out of favour.
Usually when a comedian apologises for the horrible shit they got caught saying, it's a climbdown for PR purposes. That's not what this is. I know this because I didn't really get caught. Sales of the record were insultingly low and not even my friends read the reviews, so I'm pretty sure no other fucker read them either. I'm not saying the work I put out is indefensible, just that I am no longer willing to defend it. Except maybe the cat bit.
Finally then, the worst part of this. After five months agonising over the content of my act and wrestling with all this self-loathing, after writing this piece which has taken me all of those months, I re-read the review in question only to find that it doesn't actually call me a misogynist, it just says that some of my jokes about women are a bit shit. Which they are.
Evidently I've got my own paranoid agenda. I hate myself.