No joke: comedians should not be silenced

My lover has left me” I announced to the 300-strong audience. “I know I made my mark on him though, because the last night I was in his sheets, I had a really heavy flow.” It was the only period joke I’d ever make in the only standup set I’ve done. I was a student and had spent the Christmas holidays soothing a heartbreak by crafting painfully intimate jokes. I had waited, terrified, in the wings, for a group of boys to finish their sketch on Samuel Pepys and then blasted out in a minidress to the sexually explicit lyrics of a song by Peaches.

Later, at the bar, I was congratulated by everyone, including my ex, who had been sitting in the audience with his new girlfriend. He smiled at me in that very attractive way of a man who knows a woman has made a “fair point” at his expense. Part flattered muse, part noble sportsman, he took it so well, it made getting over him all the more difficult. It had been a damn good gig. And I hated every minute of it.

The “special buzz that made me feel alive”, often recalled by comics, was more a crippling all-body migraine that made me want to crawl into a dark room and take a paracetamol with a vow of silence. After the gig, I trudged my bike through the snow to my all-female college on the hill. Some boys in a black tie drinking club were having a snowball fight and their snowballs hit my back, not accidentally. I imagined what it would be like to die from stoning by Etonians.

Talking about personal relationships on a public platform can be risky, painful and messy, as the comedian Louise Reay has found. Reay is being sued by her estranged husband for the content of her comedy show. The case is ongoing and so the details have yet to fully emerge. All we know is she referred to him and the breakdown of their marriage, including photos and video, in her routine about China and censorship. She was served with defamation, privacy and data protection proceedings and may have to pay damages, which she says will bankrupt her. Even though she has rewritten her show, he is seeking an injunction against her that would prevent her from making statements about him.

Under something akin to house arrest … Kathy Griffin. Photograph: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

It’s hard to say whether Reay’s routine really was a vicious ploy to deliberately destroy her husband – certainly he appears to feel he has been badly wronged. If your sole intention is to bring someone down, there are probably easier ways to do it than rehearsing for weeks in a drafty church hall, rinsing all your savings to pay promoters who don’t do anything, humiliating yourself by handing out flyers in the rain on the Royal Mile only to perform each night to half a dozen drunks at the Edinburgh fringe. Given the potential severity of punishment she says she is facing – bankruptcy, career ruin – she would have been better off using simpler techniques, such as cyberbullying or revenge porn. There is a sadness to any relationship breakdown, and it speaks volumes about their incompatibility that one party experienced the show as an assault while the other intended it as catharsis. Sadder still is her GoFundMe page in which she pleads with contributors to refrain from disparaging her husband for fear of retribution and describes her financial situation as “desperate”. If he was aiming to distance himself from her material, then legal action was surely not the best way to go about it: this landmark case puts both of them under the media spotlight and will fix his name forever on Google alongside hers.

Recently I had dinner with the comedian Kathy Griffin, who has been in hiding since her ill-fated photoshoot holding a beheaded Donald Trump. It was her first outing since being under something akin to house arrest, with deplorables at her door, her shows cancelled, and the FBI investigating her for having links to Islamic State. In a Hollywood restaurant, visibly shaken, she despaired. “He wanted to destroy my life. And he has.”

The most powerful man on earth had used the might of the American presidency to shut down a self-proclaimed D-list comic. She had removed the offending material from her sites and had issued a heartfelt apology, but it was not enough. He wanted to remove her from the cultural landscape. He was trying to erase her. When the target of satire makes a stand against the satirist, and, after the offending material is withdrawn and an apology has been issued, they are still not satisfied, it surely says more about the person’s insecurity and need to dominate the comedian than it does about the comedy. To deny any artist the expression of their lived experience is to deprive both the artist and their audience – without this freedom we would not have the art of Tracey Emin, the music of Amy Winehouse, the writing of Simone de Beauvoir.

Of course, the work has to be brilliant, too. The really talented ones can criticise nearly anyone and get away with it. But to get good takes years. A comedy writer goes on a journey to find their voice, their medium and their audience. Women tend not to carry on. Having run many a comedy night, I’ve noticed how the boys, no matter how often they die a death, usually come back for more, while the girls, however good they are, rarely have a second shot. Since the Reay case, I’ve had conversations with young female comics who are getting cold feet about the personal content of their debut shows. For them to lose their voice as a result of this case would be a shame for us all.

‘Talking about personal relationships on a public platform can be risky, painful and messy’ … Sarah Solemani.

‘Talking about personal relationships on a public platform can be risky, painful and messy’ … Sarah Solemani. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

The issue of comedy and censorship can get a little murky. One standard complaint comes from powerful men with TV shows who claim they have a right to make jokes about disabled children or minority groups, who are already battling stigma. The case against censorship can feel like a thinly veiled claim to a right to cruelty. But for women the risks of speaking up are higher and the personal is as political now as it has ever been. One thing women have in common, whatever their race or class, is that they build knowledge from sharing their experience. It is only by allowing women to talk to each other, out of the private realm, that they generate political force. As the queer black feminist Audre Lorde cautioned: “Your silence will not protect you.”

I hope Reay is not deterred from pursuing her comedy career and she uses her experiences, her pain, her fear, her wit to create a new show. I hope it’s a smash hit that both women and men will feel enlightened by. And I hope it’s so heartbreakingly funny that even her husband, despite everything, can allow himself a twinge of pride that he was once the person who loved and knew this artist most intimately.

Sarah Solemani is comedy writer and actor. Profits from this article will be donated to the Louise Reay GoFundMe page

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