There’s a joke I often use in the middle of my busking act. After singing and cavorting with audience members I announce, “If you’ve just arrived and are wondering who I am and why I’m here: My name is Michael Bublé!” and then I add, “This is what I do on my days off!”
It works because Mr Bublé is from the Vancouver area and for a brief moment there is a hint of plausibility that what I’m saying could be true. It’s a favourite part of my show. It’s an easy joke and it draws people in to what I’m doing. Or at least it used to.
A couple of weeks ago as the words were leaving my lips I was already regretting them. The previous day it had been announced that Bublés 3 year old son has cancer. This is a terrible thing to happen and I would never consider making fun of something like that but the words were already out and the reaction to the joke was… muted. Some faces frowned and I had that sinking feeling that performers get when they put themselves into a hole that they need to climb out of.
It’s a horrible feeling when the audience turns against you. Symptoms can range from people shifting in their seats to outright booing. But no matter what form it takes I always find it extremely unpleasant and unfortunately I’ve experienced it more than once. I partly blame the ukulele for this. The ukulele lends itself to comedy, novelty and satire, but, when it comes to comedy, different audiences have different moral codes so a song that has people holding their sides at one concert may just as soon have them holding their noses in another venue.
It’s disconcerting because some of my own favourite originals such as I’m the Handyman at the Mustang Ranch and Bird Lover draw on old-school British innuendo, double entendre and word play. This George Formbyesque style is from a period when censorship rules were strict and jokes about taboo subjects had to be disguised. The creation of songs with layered jokes is fun but extremely difficult to do and in some cases a song can take years to refine. I don’t use off-colour language and I avoid being obvious about the double meanings of what I’m saying. I leave it to the mind of listener.
But wouldn’t you think, in the age of Trump, that performers should be able to say anything they want without a backlash? The leader of the “greatest nation on earth” gets to say anything he wants so shouldn’t the same be true for us plucky purveyors of plink? Surprisingly I’m finding the opposite to be true. So much so that I’ve stopped playing some of my adult comedy material except among friends.
For whatever reason, whether it’s our atunement to social media criticism or a visceral reaction to Mr Trump’s shocking displays (someone should build a wall to prevent him crossing the boundaries of good taste), I’ve noticed that audiences have become acutely sensitive of what is okay to laugh at.
It seems clear that times have changed. Satirical personas from the 1970s such as Alf Garnett and Archie Bunker were brilliant because, while being funny, they also demonstrated the stupidity and ignorance of bigotry. But unfortunately not everyone recognizes such satire and it is highly unlikely that similar shows would find their way onto mainstream TV if they came out now.
One of the problems with satire and irony is that they often use the creation of a persona that appears to approve of the very thing the performer is making fun of. Within most audiences a majority of people get the satire but there is always a minority who don’t. They confuse the character of the comic persona with that of the performer.
In a live show this discrepancy works out okay so long as enough people are laughing and the minority, who don’t get the satire, are forced to examine what it is they are not getting. But things get especially hairy for the performer when the laughter doesn’t come and the minority gain the upper hand in voicing their disapproval.
However the area of political correctness can get grey. Even I’ve been caught out. Several months ago at the Vancouver Ukulele Circle one of our performers sang a song about an inflatable adult-toy. People generally enjoyed it but then I got an email from a woman who thought the song was misogynistic and perpetuated rape culture. At first I found myself agreeing with her but I discussed the matter privately with others and changed my mind when I got a response from another woman who said,
“It’s a difficult thing for a satirist to try to communicate to an audience that doesn’t recognize satire, and which instead mistakes the text for the satirist’s own attitude instead of the mockery of that attitude… The song is not a funny ode about an adult toy; it’s a funny ode ridiculing people whose attitudes to people are such that they’d best stick to inanimate objects as sexual partners.”
Choose your audience. It’s very uncomfortable when a potentially hilarious song falls flat. If you have questionable or satirical material it is wise to spend some time thinking about who you’re playing for. Will they get it? Is your persona obvious enough? Do you feel exhilarated about doing the song or do you get a sinking feeling to even think about playing it?
It is not possible to please all the people all the time but you at least want to come away from a show feeling you did more good than harm.
So bear that in mind before you sing to the world about the relationship between you and your inflatable Donald Trump roommate. Maybe keep that one for your close friends.
© Ralph Shaw 2016