Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What I learned from a religious text

Recently I went to see the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road, middlebrow, middle class of things - a West End musical, and it had more to say about the state of the world, and it did so in a funnier, more charming and energetic way, than the vast majority of 'stand-up comedy' (including my own cack handed efforts).

Not only that, but it dealt unflinchingly with the abject horror of life in a poor Ugandan village - from AIDS to warlords to female genital mutilation - in as profane and scatological ways as you could imagine.

Also, it has really catchy songs.

The show (as you've probably guessed by now) is The Book of Mormon. A musical written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park and Team America fame, and Robert Lopez - one of the brains behind the puppet based musical Avenue Q.

I am coming late to this party, the show has run in London for nearly 3 years and is selling out a 1000+ theatre 8 times a week, for an average ticket price of £100 - and there's been hardly any Daily Mail-esque furore. In fact it has been embraced by the musical theatre community, winning awards, rave reviews and plaudits from everyone.


And this for a musical that features a song that explicitly tells God to fuck off. Repeatedly. In different languages and orifices.

So - how are they 'getting away with it'?

Particularly at a time when there is much hand wringing about comedians saying contentious things in their shows - whether it's material about rape, or stuff that no-one is entirely sure is racist or not.

The show is consistently funny and smart all the way through - but there's also an emotional centre, a vibrant, almost youthful, energy, and an honesty to it.

When told that the South Park guys have written a musical based around Mormonism, I don't think it would be unreasonable to imagine that there'd be an element of 'HAHA RELIGION LOL', or the snarky 'oh, those poor believers' often deployed by atheist comedians. (full disclosure: I'm an atheist).

But Book of Mormon isn't that. Yes, it talks about the origins of Mormonism in a tongue-in-cheek way, and points out the inherent racism in that faith (as the song I Believe states - until 1978, apparently when 'God changed his mind about black people') but it doesn't feel like Mormons are being attacked - in the end, it's more about the stories we tell each other in order to try and make the world a better place - and as such, the official response from Mormons has been 'measured' (If you google the response, that's the word that keeps coming up!)

Contrast this to when Jerry Springer: The Opera came up against organised picketing and a sustained media outrage machine, when a right-wing homophobic group posing as Christians took umbrage at one line where an imagined Jesus says he was 'a bit gay'.

The show also touches on white guilt and the saviour complex westerners have when it comes to Africa, but neither does it paint the Ugandan villagers as 'noble savages' or Mr Myagi-style 'wise ethnics'.  It plays with the stereotypes and prejudices without re-enforcing them.

So what's all this got to do with stand-up?

A lot of new comedians worry about whether the joke they've written is likely to offend, and you can tie yourself up in knots trying to second guess what's going to set an audience off - when in reality, you have no idea. As Frank Skinner used to say, one of his parents was electrocuted changing a light bulb and the other run over following a chicken across the road.

However, there are some certain hot-button topics (rape, race, religion etc) where it becomes more likely. So should you do the joke?

I think deep down, comedians know whether the joke fits in with their individual morality or whether they're doing it because it gets a 'response'. I would argue, that if it's the former - do it, if it's the latter, then that's not enough.  Or work out how to make it fit the former.

Of course some times, the joke is the contentious nature of the material - see Springtime for Hitler from The Producers or Everyone Has Aids from Team Amercan. But there's more to that than just going 'HAHA RAPE LOL'.

If you have a routine on a hot button topic,that's not getting the laughs - then you're not doing it right. You haven't made the joke funny enough, or more likely the subtext pertinent enough for people to 'get over' whatever the superficial subject matter is.

The Book of Mormon (the musical, not the actual religious text) teaches us that with enough intelligence, honesty and charm - you can make jokes (or showstopping Broadway numbers) about absolutely anything.

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