What Luxembourg’s stand-up comedians think of the culture war going on in their art form

Reconciling two visions of comedy

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 29.09.2023

You may or may not know that there is something of a war going on in stand-up comedy. Yeah, stand-up comedy, of all things!

You also may or may not know that Luxembourg has its own flourishing and fast-evolving stand-up comedy scene.

The culture war being to some degree waged in the broader world of stand-up comedy concerns, most essentially, what kinds of material it is and what kinds of material it is not OK for comedians to do. There are those – we could call them the Amoralists – who think that comedians should be welcome to go anywhere in their material, to be as dark and offensive as it’s possible to be, to mock anyone and anything, not excluding what many consider sacred and divine, nor disadvantaged minorities, nor tragedies, nor vulnerable individuals. Then there are those – we could call them the Moralists – who think that conscience always has an important role to play in comedy, limiting its terrain, and even directing it in its more critical forms towards certain targets and away from certain others.

There are big names on both sides. Speaking just of English-language stand-up, which I know best, I can say that some very well-known comedians who are also among the clearer or more card-carrying Amoralists are Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, Jimmy Carr, Anthony Jeselnik, Daniel Sloss and Jim Jefferies, while examples of well-known comedians who have been more outspoken on the Moralist side include Stewart Lee, Wanda Sykes, James Acaster, Marc Maron, Bo Burnham, Hannah Gadsby and Hari Kondabolu. Meanwhile Lisa Lampanelli, a.k.a. the Queen of Mean, is an interesting case, having got famous jokingly insulting every kind of person and group imaginable, and then recently quit stand-up, saying that among her motivations for doing so was her realisation that more and more people were taking her jokes seriously and she didn’t want to hurt anyone.

A simple explanation of why I’m engaged by this topic is that I love all of these comedians, and find both sides in the dispute broadly persuasive.

Now, the stand-up scene in Luxembourg! It has emerged pretty quickly in recent years, and at this point involves regular free open mics and paid shows and increasingly frequent festivals in English, French and Luxembourgish, plus occasional events in other languages. A few comedians here are full-on professional, many more have already toured internationally and performed at major comedy festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe, and plenty are just starting out or perform only occasionally and have no particular ambition of taking it further. There must be more than a hundred people on the scene all told, but perhaps not all that many more. A new landmark for the scene was reached this month with the opening of Carlitos’ Comedy Club, the first here to own its own venue and offer a programme of almost daily shows.

I first became interested in the scene about a year ago, when a good friend of mine started performing at the weekly English-language open mics. I went along to a few gigs, then performed a couple of times myself. I liked the scene. It’s a bunch of real characters, extremely internationally diverse, with diverse styles and material. To me, the scene is an example of some of the most positive developments I see in Luxembourg – increasing creativity, an increasingly confident and well-funded cultural sector, and an increasing ability to channel extreme internationalism to good effect.

I first caught a glimpse of the associated culture war having a presence here when, last December, I did a series of three interviews on the stand-up scene for Radio Ara. One of the interviews I did was with Aida Sghiri, founder-manager of The Grand Duchesse of Comedy (“the Duchesse”), which was Luxembourg’s first all-female-run comedy club, and Georgia Darke, who was at the time a fellow organiser there. The club had been founded in reaction to the male domination of the scene here, and in the interview the two of them, while stressing that they have good relations with their male counterparts, spoke frankly about what they objected to: both a lack of consideration for women and of the obstacles there might be to them taking part, and what they saw as the all-too-common emotional immaturity and evasiveness and insensitivity of the jokes of male comedians – they expressed the conviction that women could help bring more meaningful, emotional and cathartic material to the art form. For balance: the currently-all-male organisers of Luxembourg Comedy, the oldest and most established comedy club in the country, responded: “We’re really happy to see dedicated women’s comedy groups creating safe spaces for their members who may otherwise feel like a minority on the scene. Most women comedians in Luxembourg continue to perform at our shows as well, and we couldn’t be happier about that. We are always looking for ways to let women comedians feel more welcome, and we actively collaborate with women comedians’ groups.” Responding to the point about the immature and insensitive jokes, they said, with a grin, “men don’t have a monopoly on those.”

Anyway, about a month after that interview, the Duchesse abruptly pivoted from being an all-female-run, mostly Anglophone club to being a mostly Francophone club – indeed, the first to hold regular French open mics – with men often producing shows too. Most of the team that had been running the club left and formed another club, Anglophone and all-female-run, called Frilly Curtains. Frilly Curtains then put out a kind of guidance document for performers – a manifesto, I’m itching to say – with the following strongly worded lines: “We don’t tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist or generally any bigoted punching down comedy. Don’t try to be edgy or shocking, it doesn’t work and will very quickly turn the audience against you, always try to punch ‘up’, never down. If you are unsure if a joke is OK or not please feel free to run it by your showrunners and we can discuss and possibly even give advice. Anything that crosses the line is subject to having you immediately removed from stage and never asked back for another show.”

If this was as clear a statement of the Moralist position as any, some material I was seeing performed on the scene in Luxembourg seemed to me typical of an Amoralist approach. My interest piqued, I have, over the last two months, spoken to some twenty-five comedians on the scene here about this question of what ethical limitations, if any, we should understand there to be in this art form, as well as how they negotiate any such limitations in their material, and how the Luxembourg context bears on the whole discussion. Eager for diverse perspectives, I tried to interview as diverse a selection as possible, factoring in age, gender, background, and level of professionalism.

A crucial point to make before I dive into what I heard: I referred in my opening line to “something of a war going on in stand-up comedy”, and I think that is right. Something of a war; not a full-on war by any means. I mean, there are a few famous comedians who have moments of being very outspoken about this, and then there are a bunch of columnists and bloggers who exaggerate the scale and stakes and starkness of the dispute and some people on social media who get very worked up about it, but the fact is most comedians and most comedy audiences just get on with enjoying themselves. Similarly and perhaps especially in Luxembourg it’s mostly just people enjoying themselves, and few comedians or audience members would ever think that what they’re engaging in could be characterised as “a war”. Indeed, that sounds like a bit of a joke itself. Nevertheless, the question at the heart of stand-up comedy’s culture war inevitably comes up here too – and more for some than others.

I’d start off my interview with each comedian by simply asking whether they identify more with the Moralist or Amoralist position. Around half said confidently that they identify more with the Amoralist position, three or four said confidently that they identify more with the Moralist position, and the remainder said, in effect, that it’s complicated. Most – in fact, all bar two – of those who confidently went for the Amoralist position did then, either with or without prompting, quickly say that some qualification is important, and I’d be surprised if any of them would disagree with a point made by Sundeep Bhardwaj, an Indian comedian much respected on the scene for his brilliant story-based material and his central and supportive role in the scene’s community: “Morality is subjective, and then there’s moral policing… as long as the moral obligation is self-imposed, not external, I’m thinking that works”.

Probably the single most striking finding from this little exercise was how very gendered the divide is here, as it appears to be to some extent at least throughout the Anglosphere, between those who incline towards a Moralist and those who incline towards an Amoralist position. The question of why this is seems to me clearly important, but, given limitations on space, I don’t feel I can attempt an answer on this occasion. I can make further observations in the same vein though. The comedians here whose material is most dark and controversial are, in my experience, all men; no doubt relatedly, the comedians who, in my interviews, had stories to tell of very hostile responses to their material from audiences were also all men – although, important to add, everyone I spoke to expressed appreciation of how open-minded Luxembourg audiences are, with only the degree of emphasis varying from one interviewee to another; and, finally, the comedians here who, at least in private, express their unhappiness with some of the material being performed by their fellow comedians are, in my experience, mostly women.

Asked whether they felt any material being performed on the scene crosses the line, maybe a third of my interviewees – and these all men – simply said no; then maybe another third said there are very occasional jokes they hear like that but they didn’t go into detail and tended to add that those jokes get a poor reception from audiences, which tells those performing them that they need to be changed or dropped, and that the glory of stand-up comedy is that it self-regulates in this very direct way. The final third – and women were not alone here, but were particularly vocal – had more to say on this. Several mentioned being upset by one comedian’s regular material on Islam and Muslim people, which they feel is malicious and undiscerning, targeting an already disadvantaged group; two said they leave the room when he’s on stage, and another mentioned Muslim friends of hers leaving a gig after seeing him perform. A couple of others I spoke to said that some very dark material performed by some comedians – material on child rape and incest, for instance – goes too far in their opinion, and makes them and, they think, audiences feel extremely uncomfortable. There were also complaints of these comedians not getting the message from audiences, performing the same offensive material again and again, without ever getting a positive response.

Now let me put the other side of this argument. (Understandably not everyone wanted to name the comedians whose material they had misgivings about. I also refrain from mentioning names where it seems to me there could be any sensitivity. Other interviewees, on the other hand, seemed to think it’s common knowledge that certain comedians’ material is felt to be hurtful by some, that those comedians know this themselves.) I spoke to the comedian who does the material on Islam. He’s an Iranian political refugee. The first thing he said to me was, “you know, sometimes the jokes are coming from trauma that people have”. He said that things he says on stage are funny in his mind, and he does not mean to hurt or offend people. He mentioned that in recent months he’s started to check that there aren’t any Muslims in the room before doing that material. He added that he’s heard, on the scene here, all kinds of jokes about all kinds of people, and he’s had a lifetime of hearing Muslims joke about Jews and Christians. “Comedy has to be free, comedy is a kind of energy, it’s looking differently at the things that people don’t pay attention to”, he said – although he did agree there have to be some limitations, and, interestingly, objected strongly to one joke he once heard mocking AA meetings, which, he pointed out in our conversation, save a huge number of lives. I also spoke to one of the comedians who does particularly dark material – too dark, according to some. He spoke about comedy being for him “a kind of therapy”, saying, “if you can make jokes about something awful, you’re almost taking back control”. He also said, “sometimes, whether something is painful, cathartic, humiliating or full-blown hilarious is a question of perspective”. For the record, I’ll add that, while I can understand the objections here, I’ve seen both of these comedians do some material I’ve liked, and I’ve heard from others about real triumphs they’ve had.

Conducting a kind of indirect exchange between the various parties to this disagreement, I asked what the offended parties thought of this idea of using stand-up as self-therapy. They invoked the principle “joke from your scars, not your wounds”, and said “it’s not fair to dump our trauma on the audience”. I certainly feel there’s sense in this guidance, but I also agree with a point one of the offending parties made, that great art – including great stand-up – does sometimes come from rawer emotions (Gadsby’s Nanette is perhaps a good example), and it’s probably a matter of skill whether the artist can render their trauma in forms that audiences welcome and benefit from.

Another thing that struck me in the interviews, I have to say, was how little thought some comedians seemed to me to have given to the ways in which jokes can be harmful to some people in some circumstances – and perhaps that’s understandable given that it’s a young scene, and, by every indication, a very friendly and well-meaning scene. I mean, maybe some of them just haven’t had cause to think about these things so much.

Quite a few spoke as if genuinely cruel and harmful jokes just inevitably won’t be funny and won’t get laughs. Thinking of what I myself have laughed at, some of Frankie Boyle’s material, and particularly his material on people with disabilities, comes to mind as a strong counter-example. What’s more, it is a fact that even Dieudonné’s most transparently hate-filled antisemitic jokes, some of them leading to convictions of hate speech, get many people laughing.

One of my interviewees was adamant that it’s impossible for comedians to propagate harmful ideas, as, he claimed, they can only work with ideas their audiences already have. I don’t buy it. My own experience is of constantly being introduced to new ideas by comedians – indeed, I think almost my entire introduction to politics, including my absorption of extremely negative views of certain political figures and parties, I can attribute to watching stand-up comedians on panel shows in my early and mid-teens.

Speaking of which, I mentioned to some of the comedians I interviewed one of the things that first made me strongly feel that some kinds of material, and even kinds that are very common and reliably get laughs, really should be understood as just not OK: That was my experience of watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy, about the troubled life and early death of musician Amy Winehouse, and in particular the part where we’re shown a series of clips of comedians on those panel shows I loved as a teenager making jokes about Winehouse’s substance abuse and mental health issues in the very months leading up to her fatal overdose, which may well have been to some degree intentional. I remembered those jokes, and many more like them. I remembered laughing at them. Seeing those jokes now though in the context of what she’d been going through made me feel terrible. And so I was shocked when I mentioned this to a few comedians I was interviewing and some of them said they feel such jokes were OK, as Winehouse chose to be a celebrity and getting publicly ridiculed is part of the celebrity deal. In fairness, they hadn’t watched the film, hadn’t had that immersive experience I’d had. Still, I want to answer that point. Leaving aside that Winehouse was very young when she became famous, and that it looks like her fame was more a side-effect of her pursuing her love of music than something she chose as such, and that it’s not as if she could then really have chosen to be rid of that fame even if she’d wanted to, it seems to me very strange to think that, just because someone chooses to be famous, it’s OK for us to publicly live-mock – and possibly encourage her in – her death spiral.

Some of those I spoke to stressed the point that, if you find a comedian’s material offensive or upsetting, you don’t need to watch it – you can change channel, or leave the show, or make sure you’ve done your research and not attend in the first place. But, as some of my Moralist interviewees countered, that ignores the fact that even jokes we don’t hear can play a role in determining how other people think of us, or of people like us, or of other things that matter to us; and how they think is of course liable to have an effect on how they act, and so we can suffer consequences of those jokes anyhow. So, for instance, trans people do not need to watch transphobic comedy to suffer its consequences.

I think the strongest answer to all of this from those with an Amoralist leaning was: yes, there is a price to pay for the full freedom of our art form, but it’s a price worth paying. This point, to be clear, was not a strictly legal one – and no one I spoke to argued that stand-up should be subject to greater legal censorship, nor is that an argument that the big-name Moralist comedians or even the columnists are making, as far as I’m aware. No, the point was more that we’re better off giving comedians the space, both institutionally and through just not being too trigger-happy or brutal with our condemnations, to tell jokes that could be very hurtful to us.

Several comedians I spoke to pointed out the crucial difference there is between free open mics and paid shows. At the open mics, comedians are experimenting, they’re learning what works and what doesn’t – and one element of that is what offends and what doesn’t, or how exactly to set up a joke so that it makes the point and gets the laugh but doesn’t offend. “You’re seeing the sausage being made”, as Leandro Johann Silva, Brazilian and one of the more risky comedians on the scene, poetically put it. I’d add that comedians are mostly young – not that any of us are ever done with our moral education – and audiences can contain people unlike any they’ve known before, and often they’re trying to say things they couldn’t say in everyday conversation, and so they’re learning not only comedic but also general life lessons, and our forbearance is appropriate.

And maybe that forbearance should extend beyond open mics. One comedian I spoke to, Benny J, an Aussie whose material concentrates on his experiences living with a degenerative illness and chronic pain, made another point that seems to me important here: fundamental to humour is an act – even if just a micro one – of going outside of the realm of ordinary thought, and a large part of what circumscribes ordinary thought is ethical values, so comedians are often going to be near or on that line dividing what’s OK to say from what’s not, and occasionally falling very much on the wrong side of it is an occupational hazard for them. As others I spoke to intimated, this defining quality of going outside of the realm of ordinary thought is also why comedy can often challenge us in important ways; along with some of them, I really think that a lot of comedy that some people find offensive is, in fact, intelligently challenging mainstream ethical thinking – see, for example, Louis CK talking about abortion in 2017 or paedophilia in Sorry, or Bill Burr talking about racist old people in Paper Tiger, or even, in a way, Patrice O’Neal advocating Harassment Day in Elephant in the Room.

A final reason that some Luxembourg comedians gave for allowing space for even jokes that can be very hurtful to people is that we are all perhaps healthier and stronger, in both intellectual and emotional ways, if we can laugh about everything. Or at least we need that sometimes. Thinking of a passage from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I want to say that we are, in a sense, slaves to what we cannot laugh about, and able to at least start negotiating our relationship with things we can – which is not to say that such enslavement, as I’ve termed it, is never appropriate. In any case, we are back to that therapeutic dimension of comedy.

One of the more remarkable comedians on the scene here is Scott Reuter, a native Luxembourger who on stage adopts the persona of an intensely depressed and cognitively challenged quasi-Incel. His material, delivered deadpan, is dark and shocking but extremely funny. Off stage, Scott is very different, but makes no secret of the fact that it’s not as if there is no relationship at all between his material and his own experiences: “Everybody goes through tough times in their life. I figured that stuff gets easier if you don’t take everything too serious. I always rather joked about my problems than to cry about them. That way I was able to grow stronger and move on. I’m trying to teach others to do the same.”

Scott also mentioned to me how one of his – on the surface of it – most offensive jokes always gets good laughs, and he thinks this is just because of how creative it is. Other comedians made this kind of point too: the more sensitive the subject, the better the material has to be. Or, put differently, the better the joke is, the less people will get angry or upset about its contents. I love this fact. This is how high-quality comedy can sometimes tease us out of our enslavements. Richard Fox, another native Luxembourger, with a particular gift for hosting and crowd work, told me that when a comedian on the scene does very offensive material, the other comedians would never tell them to stop doing it; they would maybe tell them to make it funnier.

Being able to laugh about everything is of course not the same as finding every lazy, insulting joke funny, nor is it the same as always being preoccupied by the comic element in a situation that has other, less benign-seeming components. Likewise, granting comedians that space to say things that might hurt people is quite different from welcoming them to hurt people, or even welcoming them to be negligent as regards any hurt they cause. I think of a point that was made to me more by the Moralist-leaning comedians, that you can joke about absolutely anything so long as you frame it right – so long you get the set-up right, your persona and tone, your sense of context, your reading of the room.

Dan Belkin, a fully professional and diversely talented Canadian comedian here in Luxembourg, markets his Room Noir shows as “a safe space for our darkest and dirtiest thoughts”. That’s one upfront way of framing material, allowing audiences to better self-select, and appealing for their sympathetic indulgence. Dan tells me he’s never had any negative response to those shows.

David Copeland, an Irish-Greek comedian who grew up in Luxembourg and whose another of the more established and darker ones on the scene, says: “The limitations are there… They should be set by the comedian’s assessment of the relationship between himself and the audience… A relationship must be formed (even in a five-minute set). A relationship requires trust and respect. Acquire that, and you would be surprised how much you can get away with.” Aida Sghiri, the aforementioned founder-manager of the Duchesse, whose own material is principally about her experiences as an Arab woman dating in Europe, made a similar point to me: within a close relationship, if you don’t doubt the love and good will of the other, every kind of outrageous or ostensibly insulting joke is OK.

Benjamin George Coles
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