Scott Capurro on political correctness in comedy
The controversial comic examines pushing the boundaries
What can and can’t be said on stage? Fearless London-based US comic Scott Capurro has been asking that question on- and off-stage for years, performing challenging, shockingly funny stand-up. Here, he shares his thoughts on political correctness in comedy.
© Sudhir Pithwa
Many years ago, when I was a legitimate actor in San Francisco, I got the idea that audiences weren't listening. Maybe it was the tired tourist trade for which I was performing, or perhaps I, at the tender age of 28, was disillusioned, but theatregoers seemed detached.
I wanted to test audiences and see if words could change their perceptions, and the first opinion I was eager to alter was that homosexuals are all camp, limp-wristed, foppish clowns. I wanted to make people think differently about gay men.
This had to begin, obviously, in straight comedy clubs. I'd already successfully played the one and only gay club in San Francisco. Josie's, the vegan juice joint I called my performance home, had allowed my comedy skills to grow among likeminded homos, but I wanted to hone my craft in a wider world. The US seemed, especially then, obsessed with butch arrogance, so I flew to the Edinburgh Fringe and was nice on stage for three years while I searched for my true comic voice. I felt I was funnier, more clever and cunning off-stage than on. I had to transfer my guile from backstage to the fore.
Eventually, and oddly, I finally found the one item that audiences wouldn't tolerate, and that was making fun of Anne Frank. Women rule comedy rooms, and Anne is no exception. Let's take another example...
Two years ago I was in Covent Garden telling a joke about a girl who's missing. Her parents are Brits and she's probably dead, but one person's hope is another's punchline. An audience member stood up, lifted the collar of her tweedy overcoat and announced to her workmates, 'I don't have to put up with this from some sad fucking queer.' No one wants to see a gay man abusing a woman, but the bitch was coming at me so I punched her in the side of her head.
Now, I know I sound sad, but that's mostly the fat talking. The woman 'came at me', meaning she passed too closely to the stage and I took a swing at her with the palm of my hand. I batted her right temple, enough to make her head bob.
'Oi,' she barked, 'I just had head surgery.' 'Well it didn't fucking work,' was my response. I should've won the argument earlier with words, but I'd had lots of coffee that day and verbal abuse all my life.
I've got a blind spot where the word 'queer' is concerned (unless I'm paying someone £50 to whisper it into my ear). When my sexuality is used as a weapon, the comedy club becomes a schoolyard and I'm 14 again, tall and skinny and mouthy, a huge ego and a low self-esteem - the constitution of a serial killer or hairdresser or yoga teacher or brain surgeon. To hide my attraction to my male friends I was funnier and smarter than everyone else. I dressed well as camouflage. I hated myself for hiding, the way a comic hates himself for brutally putting down a heckler.
Bigotry sets me off, so I beat the crowds to the punch by being outrageous. In Amsterdam I reminded the Dutch of their complacency in 1939, and their responsibility for little Anne's death. I was not invited back to Amsterdam for 12 years.
When I did my Frank shtick in Edinburgh, Cambridge Footlights members stormed out, in tears. I was upset too: Surely, by 2001, someone had covered Anne Frank in their act!? However, it seemed Anne remained virgin territory, and as the walkouts increased, so did the number of subjects one could discuss onstage.
I received death threats, and when several comics stopped talking to me I knew I was doing something right. Taboos kept getting smashed because I had less left to lose. I saw the confusion and angst in the front row's eyes. Finally, we were getting somewhere - the audience didn't know what was coming. How exciting for them! I fed off their sweat and steam.
In central London, a few years later, a comedy club booker - an old hippy with a Jewish wife - threatened to ban me for being a Holocaust denier. My response, on stage: 'What Holocaust?' Oops. That club closed eventually anyway. Sorry, it was purged. Cleansed? Whatever.
In Australia, I was asked to do a set on live television to promote the Melbourne Comedy Festival. I sent them the set in outline form. When, during my performance, I eroticised the Christ figure, complaints were lodged. Who knew Jesus could still cause a buzz? I was accused of improvising, of varying from my script. I'd like to say, in a revolutionary sort of way, that I had, but I hadn't.
Still, my Festival show was banned by the Catholic Church on Easter, although one wonders what an Orthodox Catholic is doing at my show, especially during Christ's erection, other than procuring among my younger fans... TV producers were apparently fired for letting me experience the joys of freedom of speech, and the Festival, in feigned outrage, removed their support from my show.
Though it's been made clear to me many times, even within the last few days, that I'm not invited back to work in Australia, I've become a showbiz myth, and 'Don't pull a Capurro', meaning 'don't go rogue and do relevant material', is the warning given to most comics before stepping in front of an Antipodean TV camera.
Not too long ago, in the cellar of a Soho gay club, when I diplomatically suggested to a Chinese-American woman that her driving might suffer because of a lack of periphery, a lesbian chucked ice at my temple. In self-defence, I flipped the lesbo table, then other tables were turned. Later the Chinese woman apologised, and stated, in quirky grammar, she didn't require the 'lesbian's aids'. I said, 'If only lesbians did get Aids, we'd all be equal.' That joke suffers in print...
For telling incest jokes about my own father the Daily Mirror stated I was evil and should be forced to leave the country. For telling jokes about the Daily Mail's slobbering coverage of Goebbels's - sorry, the Queen's - Jubilee, a promoter told me I was evil and should return to the US. For telling jokes about Obama to a middle-class, white, cross-armed crowd in my hometown of San Francisco, I was told by a 'fan' that I was autistic and practically British.
Comedy clubs have, for a long time, been a female's safe space. Not on-stage, because of the pure misogyny of stand-up, but off it. A husband won't win that fight about offensiveness, so he keeps quiet, while women determine what's appropriate. And even more than 'queer', the word 'inappropriate' rushes me into a rage. I mistrust authority, and anyway who draws the boundaries? After all, not every comic wants to be a hackneyed TV presenter. If I'm not worried about taste and decency on the BBC, then why be limited by arcane rules at a live performance?
Because most people have no sense of humour, stand-up comedy is cultish. It's also cheap to produce and, relative to other live performance like Shakespeare and all that made-up garbage, inexpensive to attend. The masses are gathering, stumbling like zombies towards comedy clubs. Online bookings are more prevalent, shouldering out loyal locals and enticing lazy hen parties and other terrorists that travel in packs and have seen McIntyre, so they know what comedy is, mate.
But I don't want me to be liked by a pack of strangers. If they want a clown they can afford, they should storm a children's party. And tolerating a comic is demeaning. If an audience member has an idea they want to share, then bring it, but griping about one's feelings? I'm not wearing a white coat and I have a husband, so one's feelings should be saved for lucky friends.
Just last weekend a woman barked 'racist' at me in a room of 200 otherwise well-behaving audience members. I was joking about the Koran and the bigotry of radical Muslim fundamentalism, so her remark might've been welcomed had it not been directed at me. The crowd, already a bit tense over my mentioning the Koran and Big Mo, grew quiet, nervous, which made my loins twitch with excitement. What might happen next? The beauty of live performance is anticipation.
'All Americans are racist,' she then stupidly continued, ruining both her argument and the room's anxiety. Two hundred laughed at her expense, and I was reminded how tenuous is a comic's grip of control on that tiny, wooden stage. The heckler approached after the show and asked me if I'd like to discuss the misogyny of my act with her female friends, gathered like a coven in the back of the club.
'You mentioned rape. We're uncomfortable.'
I had mentioned rape, but my husband's rape of me, which I then said was impossible because you cannot rape a gay. 'You're married. Don't you want to have children?' She asked this with true concern. 'No, not all gay men are paedophiles,' I responded, then removed her hand from my knee, ushered her away and suggested she try to have fun. 'I'm too drunk,' was her response. 'But I know comedy. I used to work in a comedy club!' One shudders.
'Your moral compass is just right,' a man told me after my set last month, privately, at the bar of a lovely, sprawling comedy room near Leicester Square, while his girlfriend visited the ladies.
That made me uncomfortable. I don't ever want the audience to know what side I'm on. I've got no sides. I'm trying to deliver more than one argument. I'm like the US Army: I don't take a position, I'm just there to help clear up this mess of confusion about political correctness, because there is none. Everyone's boundaries are different, thank Goddess. If we all agreed, nothing would be funny.
If at least parts of the crowd aren't shaking or angry by the end of my set, they haven't got their money's worth and I feel a bit dirty, like I've let down the contingency of cantankerous, crabby, clarifying comics by smothering myself in sticky, gooey kindness. Yech!
There's a threshold I must pass, even in a brief 30-minute set, where the crowd realises 'queers' can be something other than lonely, sexless, mincing, prissy, overweight, wall-eyed elves with one joke and no friends. We can also be varied, like any ambitious voice on the comedy circuit.
So I'm argumentative, disagreeable, miserly, confrontational, sexual, manipulative, affable, frank and self-abusive. I'm also fast, so those with reservations have little time to ponder. I'm not just a cocksucker; I'm a grinning idiot with barbs. I'm a comic who reveals hypocrisy and helps tragedies fade.
Comics shed light. We're as necessary as a lightbulb, yet harder to replace.
Picture credits: David Windmill and Sudhir Pithwa.
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