BRAVO: Porn Has Never Been More Popular at the Edinburgh Fringe – “Many a True Word is Spoken in Jest”

Pornography is everywhere in this year’s comedy programme – but not for the reasons you might think. Plus: awards week begins; and Andrea Dworkin, comedy heroine.

Bridget Christie performs at the Edinburgh festival fringe

Image-conscious … Comic Bridget Christie’s show takes action against lads’ mags. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian


It’s porn. Some people say it’s Nazis, but I say it’s porn.

It’s always interesting to see what’s the buzz-topic among comedians in any given year on the Edinburgh Fringe. There’s room for several, of course: one correspondent on the Chortle website claims that Hitler has overrun this year’s standup shows, but I’ve not so far heard the Third Reich mentioned once. To me, the standout subject is clear, and it’s porn – or more precisely, the anxiety that the ubiquity of online porn and sexualised imagery is corrupting how we (and especially young people) consider sex and gender.

Exhibit A is Bridget Christie’s terrific show, a large section of which covers Christie’s campaign to remove explicit lads’ mags from newsagent shelves. Elsewhere, Brett Goldstein’s whole show is about his worry that porn is alienating us from real sex, and he ends it with a vow of porn abstinence. Mark Thomas has a section in 100 Minor Acts of Dissent and which he and his fellow activists target printed smut. Alfie Brown‘s focusing on the same subject.

There are three factors at play (probably more, but here’s three for starters). The first and most obvious is that, as Zoe Williams wrote in this newspaper a few weeks ago, “outrage is building” about the pornification of our culture. It’s about time the backlash against this phenomenon went mainstream, and it shores up faith in comedy that standups are making their voices heard. Second, this has been the most female-dominated Fringe comedy programme I can remember – most of the best shows I’ve seen have been by women. And protests at porn and sexualisation go hand in hand with a resurgent feminist sensibility in the culture at large.

Third – and this isn’t meant to undermine the previous two points – is that porn is a great subject for comedians, because they can be morally crusading, and make abundant sex jokes at the same time. It’s the only subject that allows you to demonstrate seriousness of purpose, try to change the world for the better – and generate easy laughs at the same time. So: two cheers to comedy for opposing something that needs all the opposition we can muster. But how about some shows, and some gags, taking on austerity, or the hollowing out of the state, or the corporate capture of politics – or any of the other just-as-urgent subjects that don’t contain ready-made jizz jokes?

Dworkin on eggshells

While I’m on the subject, I should mention Ban This Filth!, an intriguing event staged by the Scottish novelist Alan Bissett. It’s finished now, and it ran as part of the theatre section of the Fringe programme. But it tread a similar line to, say, Goldstein’s show, somewhere between laughs, serious personal inquiry and disquisition into the morality of pornography.

The show’s conversational tone is set from the get-go, as Bissett chats to the audience as they enter the auditorium. Its major strand traces our host’s relationship with pornography, from boyhood innocence, to the point where he’s shamefacedly buying “scuddy magazines” from a newsagent two towns away, up to the present day – when teenagers (and children) can access far more, on their phones, every second of the day.

Alongside this, Bissett cuts away to extracts from the writings of the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. Bissett plays Dworkin straight, and her ideas about porn and the oppression of women begin to affect and complicate the sexual adventures of our narrator, with which they are intercut. That would be rich enough – and Bissett is such a convivial and crafty performer, we want to hear every word he says. But the closing stages add another, vital dimension, as Bissett finds his new anti-porn ideas challenged online by women who work in the sex industry. Their voices gate-crash the show, which is both funny – as Bissett’s radical feminist pretensions are needled – and profound, as the difficulty is laid bare of reaching black-and-white conclusions on this monster issue. It’s a super show, all the better for defining its own language somewhere between staged reading and confessional, comedy and theatre.

The moose is loose

At the start of the Edinburgh fringe’s big awards week – the shortlist for Fosters Edinburgh comedy award is announced on Wednesday – the first have been claimed by Al Lubel and Danny Ward. Previous winners of the Amused Moose Laughter Award, which is run by the London comedy club of that name, include Tony Law in 2011. Lubel’s show, which I wrote about the week before last, details the American standup’s terrifying relationship with his mother, and makes merry with the self-esteem issues resulting from it. Ward’s show Pressure Point, which I’ve yet to see, is about his high-blood pressure, anxiety disorders, and the fact that he’s spent the last two years living in his auntie’s conservatory.

The pair now share a £5,000 for the development of their comedy careers. Lubel responded by saying, “I’m happy, thank you. I’m pleased the moose was amused. My low self-esteem is going to have a bit of problem with this.”

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