The Reverend v The Students

The audience for the Glasgow Stand this 23 March found they’d wandered into an unexpected comedy situation – Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III (aka comedian Jim Muir) had invited representatives from Stirling University’s LGBT Society to join him in a debate on stage

Feature by Edward Whelan with Catriona MacPhee | 25 Mar 2009
  • Rev Obadiah Steppenwolfe

On the left we had three representatives from the university (or so we were told) and on the right Steppenwolfe, Raymond Mearns and Frankie Boyle, comics who all like to play with people’s 'offended' button. Our chair for the evening, to keep it all from degenerating into insults, was comedian Susan Calman. The motion (met with whole hearted boos from the audience) was that ‘the Reverend should be banned from Stirling University and all other university premises’.

This follows an incident around two months ago when the Reverend singled out a transvestite on the front row of a student union gig and repeatedly made fun of him for the way he looked. This caused LGBT Officer Mark Charters to ban him from performing at Stirling and attempt to have the ban extended across the 14 other NUS universities in Scotland. At the end of the night, however, it transpired that Stirling LGBT society had in fact refused the invitation. Charters told The Skinny "We discussed it as a group and decided not to go. We felt that we didn't have to explain and defend why we were offended." Glasgow University debate society were then called to stand in.

Keeping it as organised and as fair as possible, each representative was given four minutes, alternating between teams. Calman did a great job of mediating between giving the audience a good comedy show and shutting the Reverend’s side up when they wanted to interject at whim. The audience loved it. These, of course, were people who had paid to see the Rev’s show, so they weren’t exactly neutral, but listened to the Stirling team with good attention.

It is fair to say both sides made good points. The Stirling team, probably expecting to be ripped to pieces, held their own pretty well and could take a joke. They got the audience laughing with them when they summed things up to the Reverend: “You weren’t funny that night and you got banned: that’s fucking life.”

Their argument was founded on the student union being a private members club, not a public space, and they can ban anyone they like. The union, said the Stirling team, acted as representatives of the students and so if the students are offended, the union acts accordingly. This was backed up by points that it was an individual attack on the person in the front row, and it is unfair to make fun of someone in a vulnerable position. Another argument, met with a mixed reaction, was that if the Reverend wanted to be a good comic, he should recognise when the audience is turning hostile and adapt his act for them.

The Rev’s team made fair points too. The university must have known what to expect when they booked him, Mearns argued. In defence against the point that it bordered on a hate crime, he pointed out the Reverend is a character act. ‘You don’t ban an actor for playing Jack the Ripper!’ he said. The Stirling team countered nicely by saying they weren’t banning Jim Muir, they were just banning his act.

The Reverend’s own summing up was confusing – he declared ‘things said with confidence don’t need to explain themselves’ and then told a joke about incest and rape with the cautionary conclusion that ‘things can always get stranger’. It was a good moment of surreality on top of the already odd proceedings.

There are some simple baselines that can be easily drawn here – people have the right to free speech but there are laws that recognise hate crimes and personally, I am in favour of both.

But laughing at all the jokes I started to think – does my laughing mean I think it’s ok to make these jokes? I noticed that the only time I winced was when jokes were made close to my own bones, but do I think rape and cleft palates are fair game? I was laughing at them.

Laughing at a joke and laughing at someone in the room being made fun of feels different; we’re suddenly confronted with the butt of the joke, and we’re embarrassed maybe, or we don’t like it when a general joke becomes a personal insult. We feel it’s wrong to laugh and point. But it’s somehow less worrying when the butt of the joke isn’t there.

When Calman called for those in favour of banning Steppenwolfe there was a sudden, astonishing silence, before the audience burst with laughter at its own unanimity. It was pretty fair to say the Reverend had won.

Biased as this 'debate' may have been, it seems unlikely that the act will be banned; the LGBT society are even divided within themselves over the decision. As Tommy Sheppard, managing director of Stand Out Comedy, said: “Banning him would, if anything, enhance his career.”

I can’t see the Reverend being bothered much either way.

Catriona MacPhee on the controversy surrounding the Rev

Susan Calman's Skinny blog on chairing the debate