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‘As Soon As Comedy Feels Controlled, It Loses Its Power’: The Comedians Afraid of Lawyers

The myriad threats comedians face is explored in the new edition of ‘Index on Censorship’, writes its Editor-in-Chief Jemimah Steinfeld

Comedian Rosie Holt interviewed at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Photo: Rich Dyson/Alamy

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Just the idea of having lawyers pre-approve her jokes makes comedian Rosie Holt break out in a cold sweat. It’s understandable. As Holt says, “intimidation is like poison to comedy” – and legal threats are a particularly insidious form of intimidation.

“You never see them, the public never knows about them, and yet few threats are as powerful as the threat of losing all your money in a lawsuit.”

Holt is writing in the new issue of Index on Censorship, alongside her brother Charlie, a lawyer. The magazine highlights the myriad threats comedians face, from arrests in Uganda, China, Vietnam and Belarus; to comedians being killed at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The risks of a good roast landing badly – usually invoking the charge ‘offence’ – are high, something we knew when we started to commission this edition. But what we didn’t expect was that some of these risks would come via lawyers. And yet there they were, lawyers, at the centre of several pieces.

In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others within the political establishment appear unable to take a joke, so stand-up comedians are showing scripts to lawyers before performing. “What does it take to be a stand-up comedian?” comedian Neeti Palta mused. “Quick wit, quicker legs and a lawyer on speed dial.”

The UK’s comedians do not have lawyers on speed dial (that we heard of at least). Still, fear of legal repercussions is alarmingly close.

Just say the name Louise Reay to anyone in the UK’s comedic scene and watch their reaction. In 2018, Reay mentioned her estranged husband in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. She was then sued by him for defamation, breach of privacy, and data protection to the sum of £30,000 plus legal costs. Before the case came to an end – he dropped the charges – comedians throughout the UK were rattled.

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The case “raised serious concerns about the perils of drawing on individual experience for artistic purposes,” Andrew Doyle observed. For David Baddiel, “it would be a pity if the outcome… meant that comedians’ versions of their histories would have to be constantly checked by lawyers before they could be told on stage”. Sofie Hagen confessed to legal concerns ahead of the show Dead Baby Frog, which was about her abusive grandfather.

Even in the absence of a courtroom drama, what Reay’s case highlighted was that the supposedly sacred, safe space of a dim room serving cheap drinks to a chortling crowd was not, in fact, quite so sacred or safe.

Reay’s case was personal and some may dismiss it as irrelevant to other comedians. Except comedy is often deeply personal. Mining one’s own experiences and repackaging them for comedic effect is standard practise.

Doyle has described comedians as “parasites”. “If you choose to associate with us, don’t be surprised if some of your more egregious behaviour ends up forming the basis of a routine,” he wrote as he imagined a scenario in which his exes pressed charges too.

The personal is one thing, the political another.

Plenty of sets go beyond riffing bad relatives to public interest stories riffing bad people. And thank goodness for that. In the words of Shalom Auslander, another contributor to this Index issue, comedy “masquerades as folly, but it can take down an empire”. The problem is that, today in the UK, the emperor comes with an army of lawyers.

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Our courts are not in the best place, having garnered a global reputation for claimant-friendly libel and defamation laws. The rich and powerful take up lawsuits here with little to no legal merit, their only real purpose being to silence journalists and civil society players from exposing wrongdoing. It would appear comedians are no less immune. Only they’re arguably even more exposed – journalists at least have editors behind them.

“All the best comedy is either unfiltered or appears unfiltered,” said Holt in response to the idea of sets being written in the abstract. “As soon as comedy feels controlled, forced or affected it loses its power.”

In Holt’s article, she describes how, for years, comedians had been whispering about Russell Brand, who in September 2023 was accused of rape and sexual assaults (allegations he denies). Two of her friends had even included Brand in their routines. Both received threatening legal responses.

Holt said she could give countless examples of comedians having “whole passages from stand-up acts, articles or books about celebrity misconduct” scrapped due to legal concerns. Except she can’t say who. She’d be sued.

Comedians peddle in the uncomfortable and ideally take aim at those most deserving of being pilloried. Sometimes they punch up, sometimes down, sometimes sideways, sometimes inwards. Whichever direction they’re punching, fear of lawsuits will and has made some soften their blows.

A concerted effort is underway to close the loopholes that turned the UK into such an appealing place for litigation, and we can only hope the campaign for legal change wins – for comedians as much as others. To paraphrase the great American humourist Erma Bombeck: when humour goes, so too does civilisation.

Jemimah Steinfeld is the Editor-in-Chief of Index on Censorship. Editions of the magazine can be viewed here


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