This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Every gay person who grew up before the new millennium knew that coming out of the closet wasn’t a one-off affair. It was an exercise to be repeated in the various spheres of one’s existence — family, friends, work — and there would always be new social situations in which it was prudent to find a way to communicate the information to avoid any embarrassing assumptions.
Few of us had the reach of Tom Daley, who could put out a statement on YouTube and get the job over and done with at one fell swoop. I remember being genuinely shocked when I saw that video, mostly because I couldn’t believe there was anyone out there who had actually thought Tom Daley was straight.
My most recent “outing” was as the writer of Titania McGrath, an intersectional activist who began life on Twitter in order that she might chastise the unwoke for their moral impurity and proclaim her infinite virtue to the cybersphere. For those of you who are not on Twitter — that’s the 80 per cent of the country who actually value their time on earth — you may not be aware that such self-aggrandising behaviour is considered acceptable. On Twitter, it’s the norm. It’s effectively a digital playground in which grown adults toss their half-baked opinions around like pies in that scene from Bugsy Malone.
From Titania’s earliest appearance, I resolved to stay anonymous — not to cause mischief, but more for the fun of it. If people believed she was real, I reasoned, I could enter into dialogue with her detractors. This meant that the satirical impact would not be restricted to what Titania said, but how others reacted to her. Her tweets are designed to ridicule the excesses of the social justice left, but her interactions tend to expose the folly of those on the right who take her at face value and lose their temper. As such, her targets are not limited to one side of the political spectrum.
Once the account was known to be the work of a comedian, these kind of exchanges became less frequent. For good reason, people are wary of engaging with fictional characters on a public forum. So when in March 2019 I received an email from Rosamund Urwin at the Sunday Times asking me outright if I was behind Titania McGrath, I was a little uncertain how to respond. She had been watching interviews I’d given and had read some of my articles, and had noted similarities with some of Titania’s favourite references.
This was impressive investigative journalism, but I still wasn’t prepared to give up my anonymity quite yet. As a Catholic plagued with the prospect of perdition, I cannot bring myself to tell a lie. So I fudged it. I told Urwin that I was flattered, but I neither denied nor confirmed her suspicions. Still she persisted. “Are you 100 per cent saying it is not you?” she asked. “Nope, sorry!” I replied. This was the truth, of course. I was not saying that I wasn’t Titania. By this ingenious lexical prestidigitation I was able to fend off any further queries and at the same avoid condemning myself to the everlasting flames of Hell.
After the Sunday Times article was published, the “smoking gun” was discovered by a comedy website called Chortle, which had somehow got hold of a document from the Frankfurt bookfair in which the publisher of Titania’s first book, Woke: A Guide to Social Justice, had accidentally revealed my identity. All of which meant that just at the very moment the book was due to be published, there was a sudden deluge of publicity about my authorship. I was invited to be interviewed on television, radio and by national newspapers.
One would be forgiven for supposing that I had manufactured the whole thing, and that my “outing” was an avaricious ploy to enhance book sales. In truth, I lack the necessary guile to concoct such a scheme. Only the likes of Peter Mandelson or Hannibal Lecter could be so shrewd.
Nevertheless, Titania’s fame quickly grew, and by May last year she had more than half a million followers and a second book deal. As her popularity increased, the venom of those who disapproved of the character became more toxic. For some reason these tended to be the very kind of identity-obsessed faux-leftists that Titania was satirising, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
However important it seems to one’s sense of personal identity, there is no way to protect our icons from desecration by unbelievers
Having been revealed as the author, most of this venom was now channelled in my direction. The extent of the abuse was often unfathomable, and some even went so far as to send direct threats of violence. It’s a curiosity of our times that the most vicious and bullying online behaviour tends to be exhibited by those who claim to be on the side of empathy and compassion.
I have never quite understood the kind of anger that comedy and satire can provoke. As someone who has seen my fair share of stand-up, I have often found that the best response to a joke that does not amuse me is simply not to laugh. It would never occur to me to berate other members of the audience for their poor taste, or to take to social media and complain about the comedian in question. As someone who does not suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, I am well aware that my personal sense of humour is not the benchmark for the entirety of humankind. When it comes to comedy criticism, “that’s not funny” is about as insightful as “that’s not erotic”. Try telling a fetishist that studded PVC nuns’ habits are objectively devoid of sexual appeal, and he will probably be able to show you some homemade videos that will quickly prove you wrong.
It is of course entirely natural to feel displeasure when one’s worldview is being ridiculed. I do not blame the poor writer for the Observer who suggested that copies of Titania’s first book would be given to every person in Hell, and that “lampooning the language of social justice is a cheap shot”. I have some sympathy for her position. If I were absorbed in an ideology that mistrusts humour and perceives that jokes have the potential to “normalise hate”, I would doubtless be similarly vexed by anyone who had the temerity to mock it. But that’s the trouble with religious belief. However important it seems to one’s sense of personal identity, there is no way to protect our icons from desecration by unbelievers.
Inevitably, the rage that Titania seemed to provoke merely enhanced the value of the character and confirmed that she was hitting the right targets. I am instinctively non-confrontational, and so was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden way I was being mischaracterised by strangers on the internet who perceived me as an “edgelord”: one who causes offence for its own sake. I had spent the previous three years writing an online character that almost exclusively ridiculed the political right, and in my stand-up had poked fun at all political parties, but now that I was turning my attention to the social justice left I was apparently taking things too far. I think it was when someone suggested that it would be best if I perished in a volcano that I suspected matters were spiralling out of control.
The reaction of the “comedy community” — if such a thing exists — was particularly revealing. Suddenly, comics I had known and worked with for years began to block me on social media, or write blog posts to express their displeasure at my diabolical creation. Those who knew me to be fundamentally opposed to racial discrimination started referring to me as “alt-right”, a shorthand term for white nationalist. Others accused me of being a shill for foreign powers and claimed that I was being funded by “dark money”. I remember thinking that this money must be very dark indeed, given that I have never actually seen any of it.
The insults against me struck my friend as performative, not dissimilar to how bullies at school will happily manufacture false reputations
When I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, I would spend some evenings in the performers’ bars where acts, critics and other hobgoblins of the industry would mingle and pretend to enjoy each other’s company. Not that I particularly relish these fleshpots of nepotism and mutual masturbation, but at least I would see some familiar faces. After a while, I could not help but notice that when I approached old friends from the circuit to catch up, they would look around nervously. At first I assumed this was my own paranoia, brought on by the unbridled consumption of cheap prosecco, but then a companion of mine made the same observation. These people I had been acquainted with for years, who knew me to be a decent person, were nonetheless clearly now afraid of being spotted in my vicinity.
What are we to conclude from this? It would take considerable comedic illiteracy to interpret Titania as “punching down” at minority groups, and I like to think that most stand-ups are familiar with how satire works. I can accept such misapprehensions from writers for the Guardian or the New Statesman, but that’s because these publications probably weed out anyone with a sense of humour at the interview stage. Comedians, on the other hand, are rarely successful if they are unfamiliar with the concept of levity.
During my time running a course for young comics, there was an undeniable shift in how they perceived their craft
As I’ve explained more times than I care to remember, the driving force behind Titania is my contempt for bullies. She’s an exercise in punching up at the predominantly middle-class woke authoritarians who patronise and demean minorities while claiming to defend them. This is why she describes herself as being “brave enough to stand up for the rights of minorities, even when they don’t know what’s best for themselves”. She embodies the kind of intolerant and illiberal activism that has been responsible for the rise of “cancel culture”, a retributive system of public shaming which is routinely denied by its own practitioners.
It is simply not true that in order to “punch up” one must exclusively take aim at those in positions of political power. Cultural hegemony (to borrow one of Titania’s favourite buzzwords) manifests itself in multiple ways. Even our current Conservative government is subject to ideological pressure to conform to the high priests of identity politics who prevail in all our major artistic, educational and law enforcement institutions.
A friend of mine explained the truth of it quite bluntly. He described how he had found himself defending me in a comedy club green room, after a group of comics were smearing me as “fascist-adjacent” or some such nonsense. As he put it, the insults struck him as performative, not dissimilar to how bullies at school will happily manufacture false reputations for their targets in order to justify their attacks.
It doesn’t matter to these comics that the accusations are untrue; it only matters that they are seen to be opposed to the pariah in their midst. This is a matter of self-preservation in an industry which is hostile to anyone who does not toe the ideological line. It’s as good a theory as any, I suppose.
In her speech launching the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, Nica Burns (director of the festival’s comedy awards) had said that she was “looking forward to comedy’s future in the woke world” and that “the woke movement” was now “setting an ever-evolving agenda as it seeks to establish a clear marker for what is unacceptable today”.
At the time, some people told me that they had found this troubling. Here was one of the most influential figures in the industry proclaiming her fealty to an ideology that is fundamentally opposed to freedom of speech, and sees artistic expression in terms of how it perpetuates “power structure” in society. Tellingly, none of those who shared their concerns were willing to do so publicly.
This is why I have such sympathy for those free-thinking young comics whose instinct is to take risks and puncture the prevailing orthodoxies. While the industry remains systemically woke, they will always be likely to self-censor rather than risk scuppering their career before it has even begun. I have seen first-hand how this trend has developed over the past few years.
As for the comedians I still call close friends, you could probably count them on one of Abu Hamza’s hands
Until recently I was running a course on stand-up for aspiring young comedians, whose sessions took place on Saturday afternoons at a theatre in central London. It was a forum in which the group’s members could develop new material, hone their performance skills, and offer each other criticism and advice. I enjoyed being exposed to such a wide range of new talent and seeing them improve as we went along, and it was gratifying to see so many of them subsequently pursuing a career in stand-up.
I only ran the course for six years, but during that time there was an undeniable shift in how these young comics perceived their craft. Cultural developments are typically imperceptible, yet here I could see evidence of the sea change with each term’s new cohort. Discussions about limitations in comedy became increasingly fraught, with more and more participants pushing back against the notion that their peers ought to be able to joke about anything. By the end of my time at the theatre, there were members of the group who seemed intent on policing the material of others and assessing its moral quality. One even boasted about how she had taken to attending open mic nights in order to castigate comics who had offended her sensibilities. It was as though one of the Pharisees of the New Testament had been reincarnated in teenage form.
I lost the job because of Titania. Apparently, one of her tweets had made a member of the group feel “unsafe”, and so the theatre felt they could not renew my contract. This is the reality of working in comedy in the current climate. Still, by this point I had other sources of income and was only really continuing out of a sense of loyalty to the theatre. Their failure to defend artistic freedom in the face of palpably disingenuous appeals to “safety” was disappointing, but really it’s just the latest in a series of relationships that have become impossible to sustain due to a fictional character that I created. It does seem strange that we should have reached this point, but such is the inanity of the identitarian left’s ongoing culture war.
In spite of all the problems that Titania has caused for me, I consider her a familiar spirit of the more benevolent kind. Her live tour was postponed because of the lockdown, but I look forward to joining her on the road later this year. I consider myself very lucky. I have never been censored, and I am able to make a living without having to compromise to the whims of comedy promoters and executives.
This is something I am always keen to emphasise to up-and-coming performers: in the internet age, there are all sorts of opportunities to bypass the legacy media and build a substantial audience for your work. As for the comedians I still call close friends, you could probably count them on one of Abu Hamza’s hands. But there are many with whom I remain on good terms, and I’ve even managed to forge some new relationships with others who are growing weary of the circuit’s culture of conformity.
I should think it takes a sizeable ego to want to stand on a stage and seek adulation from a crowd of strangers, and I’m sure that applies to me as much as anyone else. I have always acknowledged that sometimes the best artists are morally bereft, and yet my mistake was assuming that comedians should be any different. In his memoir Looking Back (1933), Norman Douglas writes that humanity can be divided into two camps: “gentlemen” and “cads”. Gentlemen are “those who value human relationships” and cads are “those who value social or financial advancement”. I have learnt in recent years that, with a few honourable exceptions, comedians are cads. Maybe that’s an inevitable feature of an essentially self-regarding form of artistic expression, but I’m happy to say that getting kicked out of this club isn’t so much a snub as a relief.
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