It is a blustery evening in early April, and a crowd has gathered in east London’s Bethnal Green to watch a comedy show. They seem like a fairly typical audience: white, but not exclusively so; male, but not overwhelmingly. Slightly older than average, perhaps, but I still spot plenty of young couples, and even a teenager or two.

But don’t be fooled. This is not your run-of-the-mill comedy night; this is Comedy Unleashed: a rebellion against the “safe, tramline orthodoxy” of the contemporary comedy circuit, according to its website, and a haven for “free-thinking comedians who leave their self-censorship button at the door”. Notably, that includes “cancelled” figures who have faced censure for their comic material or social media posts, among them standup Andrew Lawrence and Father Ted writer Graham Linehan – both on the bill tonight – as well as Daniel O’Reilly (otherwise known as Dapper Laughs), Mary Bourke and Leo Kearse. Comedy Unleashed is also clear about what it won’t tolerate: “nodding along to sermons with wisecracks is out”.

Say what you like about Comedy Unleashed (and as free speech advocates, I’m sure they would encourage that), but the demand is clearly there. Five years in, its 300-seater London gigs regularly sell out, it has a monthly event in Leeds – which according to co-founder Andy Shaw is booked in for the next two years – and last year embarked on a UK-wide tour, featuring Reginald D Hunter, Geoff Norcott and Tony Law. The “free-thinking” comedy club is cropping up across the pond, too: in March, podcast megastar Joe Rogan – himself no stranger to a backlash thanks to his use of the N-word and antisemitic tropes – opened his Comedy Mothership venue in Austin, Texas, with Roseanne Barr (who was removed from her own sitcom after tweeting racist insults) and Tony Hinchcliffe (who was dropped by his agent for using racial slurs on stage) on the opening lineup.

These clubs position themselves as a necessary corrective to an over-censorious comedy industry. Although the “say-what-I-like” megastars remain Teflon-coated – the likes of Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Dave Chappelle get Netflix specials and play major venues – it is also true that the strata of standups below them have had gigs cancelled for making offensive jokes. Shaw makes a point of courting comics who have been lambasted online for expressing particular views. “If somebody’s cancelled we’ll put them on, on principle and let the audience decide if they’re funny or not,” he says. On the morning we speak, Shaw tweets an open invitation to TikTok star NoHun, who made the news that week for repeatedly commenting “men can’t get pregnant” under the Instagram posts of a trans man.

Nabil Abdulrashid, whose routines on race relations on Britain’s Got Talent attracted thousands of complaints, which Ofcom did not uphold. Photograph: Dymond/Thames/Syco/Rex/Shutterstock

Welcoming cancelled comedians may be Comedy Unleashed’s calling card, but is it a USP? There are other venues that are willing to host complained-about standups. While Linehan – whose Father Ted musical was axed as a result of his Twitter campaign against trans-rights activists – has only ever gigged at Comedy Unleashed, Bourke frequently appears at other clubs and O’Reilly will next year embark on a 22-date UK tour. This autumn, Andrew Lawrence will play the Leicester Square theatre, one of London’s best-known comedy venues.

Martin Witts, the Leicester Square theatre’s artistic director, believes every comedy club “should be a free speech comedy club”, and that standup is an art that is almost impossible to police. “You can’t dictate what people say on stage; indeed there’s no way you can prepare for some things that are said on stage, either.” He doesn’t personally endorse all the acts he hosts – Lawrence, who had gigs cancelled for racist tweets about black footballers missing penalties in the Euro 2020 final, has some material he finds “a bit reprehensible” – but Witts sees that as irrelevant.

If people are constantly worried about possibly of offending a single person in an audience, they will never be funny

Andy Shaw

On one occasion, Witts asked a white comic to stop using the N-word – “I had a quiet word and said it’s upsetting people. He actually hadn’t thought about that” – but his only solid red line is the existence of a criminal conviction associated with the comedy itself. “An example of that is [French comic] Dieudonné. We booked him, the Jewish Chronicle got involved and it was decided that it wasn’t right to book him, because there are certain things which aren’t acceptable.” (In 2009, the Leicester Square theatre cancelled a performance by Dieudonné after he was fined by French authorities for making antisemitic remarks; he has since spent time in jail for the same offence.)

Would Comedy Unleashed stop short of hosting somebody with a similar conviction? “Our red line is: is it funny?” says Shaw. What about hate speech? “There’s a really funny joke about hate speech: what is hate speech? It’s anything we hate.” It is also the law, though. Shaw sighs. “If people are constantly worried about the possibility of offending a single person in an audience, they will never follow their art or be funny.”

Main offender … Joe Rogan, who has launched his own night which regularly features jokes at the expense of the trans community. Photograph: Michael S Schwartz/Getty Images

In some areas, this free rein seems only theoretical: I witnessed no racist remarks or Holocaust denial at the Comedy Unleashed show I saw, and have seen no reports of them. Yet there was a constant stream of jokes about transgender people, a theme seemingly also common to Rogan’s Comedy Mothership. In its review of the opening night, the Hollywood Reporter noted that “within seconds of the first comic taking the stage, a gay slur was thrown out, followed by jokes about trans people. The audience hooted.” According to Shaw, in Comedy Unleashed’s case, this is a result of the desire to ensure its comedians aren’t “frightened of dealing with difficult topics; people are talking about all sorts of subjects that are not being dealt with in comedy. Sex and gender is a good example: that’s a really difficult subject and to deal with it comedically is really important from a cultural perspective.”

It is not true that such topics are verboten in the comedy world: for a start, there are trans comedians who routinely make jokes about sex and gender. However, the ambition in some quarters to avoid offence is not entirely an anti-woke fantasy, either. Ophelia Francis is the booker for 2Northdown and 21Soho, small London venues that often host work-in-progress shows and up-and-coming comedians. While she has no written policy or officially banned language, if she “can see the potential of anyone saying anything on our stage in front of our logo that could hurt or offend just one single person, then it’s not worth it for us at all. Those who perform on our stages, I trust wouldn’t be using language to offend.”

If someone says something on stage that could hurt just one single person, then it’s not worth it for us at all

Ophelia Francis

Recently, Francis was offered a gig by “a very big name, which would have sold out and made us money, but the profit is not worth it if people who we work with are hurting from words they’ve said”.

It is an approach that Shaw argues is representative of the whole of the mainstream comedy industry. “All the people who have influence in the industry – the TV commissioners and the comedy critics and the people who run it – are not taking risks. They’re worried about an adverse reaction and instantly respond to it, rather than being a bit more grownup and saying: if you don’t like it you don’t like it, that’s up to you; go and watch something else.”

The reality is more complicated. As an outsider, it is impossible to judge the industry by what never reaches our screens, but it is possible to argue that the world of TV comedy still considers offence to be an occupational hazard. After his joke about Roma people and the Holocaust caused mass outrage online in 2022, Jimmy Carr was backed by Channel 4 which announced another series of his gameshow, chief content officer Ian Katz commenting: “I defend the rights of comedians to make offensive jokes and if they can’t, then comedy is dead.”

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Nor do the other networks always err on the side of caution. Despite making headlines for censoring its back catalogue, in 2020 – mere weeks before the show was removed from the iPlayer due to its use of blackface – Little Britain’s creators reprised their controversial transvestite characters for pandemic telethon The Big Night In. The same year, the BBC doubled down on a Famalam sketch that Jamaica’s foreign minister judged to be “outrageous and offensive” to Jamaicans. Months earlier, Nabil Abdulrashid’s performances on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent, during which he joked about race relations, received more than 3,000 complaints; all of them were rejected by Ofcom.

Trans comic Jordan Gray, whose career has not suffered despite attracting 1,500 complaints for her routine on Friday Night Live. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

In the live arena, things can be less clear-cut. Take the case of Jerry Sadowitz, the veteran comic known for his shocking material and extremely misanthropic persona, whose show at the Pleasance at last year’s Edinburgh fringe was cancelled hours beforehand, reportedly because he had used the P-word and flashed his penis the previous evening. “The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material,” read the venue’s statement on the matter. However: “Opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are not acceptable and the Pleasance is not prepared to be associated with such material.” (The Pleasance declined to speak for this article.)

Witts, who used to manage Sadowitz (“If you can manage Sadowitz; he’s a bit like a wild horse”), subsequently booked him a much bigger show at west London’s Hammersmith Apollo, while celebrities and comedians protested at his treatment. Other comics have avoided career damage for doing similar things on paper. Daniel Kitson used the P-word in his 2017 show Something Other Than Everything and had no gigs cancelled. After comic Jordan Gray, a trans woman, exposed her penis on Channel 4 show Friday Night Live last year, Ofcom dismissed the 1,538 complaints it received and Gray’s career has since gone from strength to strength.

At the same time, the permissiveness that Shaw maintains is Comedy Unleashed’s driving force doesn’t feel entirely consistent with the tenor of the evening. A topic that crops up in various sets at the event I attend is Channel 4’s Naked Education, a programme in which teenagers are confronted with naked adults. Swedish comedian Tobias Persson says he feels like “part of an underground resistance movement” for denouncing the show as perverted, an observation greeted with clapping and murmurs of “Yes!” in the crowd. The suggestion that such television should not be broadcast doesn’t seem to fit with a free-thinking ethos. Does Shaw see the irony? “I don’t remember that, to be honest,” he says.

Rather than the concept of free speech – something that even the apparently risk-averse Pleasance says is a guiding principle – it’s the idea of the audience identifying as an underground resistance movement that feels like the best distillation of Comedy Unleashed’s distinctive appeal. In this case, the establishment – the mainstream – is a magic eye picture that changes depending on the angle. Some might say Comedy Unleashed is about as mainstream as it gets: many regulars appear routinely on GB News – where co-founder Andrew Doyle hosts his own show – a channel that has featured multiple Tory MPs interviewing each other; while the Daily Mail, Britain’s biggest newspaper, has run numerous articles on Naked Education, calling it “sinister and dangerous”.

Within the world of comedy, which does tend towards the politically progressive (in 2020, Geoff Norcott joked he was one of about “six” rightwing comics in the UK), it makes slightly more sense for Shaw to refer to his night as “very countercultural”. Although it jars to hear him compare its ethos to the early 80s advent of alternative comedy, which made stars of Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle and French and Saunders. (The Comedy Unleashed podcast’s logo is a picture of Rick from The Young Ones.) Alternative comedy in this country began by standing in opposition to the sexist and racist material of the working men’s club comics who were ubiquitous at the time, the very attitude Comedy Unleashed claims is ruining comedy today. At the same time, it’s difficult to transpose those attitudes wholesale to today: Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are among those who have complained about cancel culture’s deleterious effect on comedy.

Unlike the obscenity laws that saw Lenny Bruce arrested in 1960s America, causing offence is not a crime (although that is not always clear, even to the authorities: in 2021, Merseyside police was forced to retract its own advertising slogan: “being offensive is an offence”). Clearly, using it to regulate comedy is a staggeringly imprecise enterprise; there are no universal anti-offence guidelines. Nor should there be. In fact, all talk of absolutes in the comedic realm feels strange, whether it be moral – unacceptable opinions, the refusal to host comedy with the potential to cause offence, the idea of total free speech – or comedic. Shaw’s motto is: “if it’s funny, it’s funny”, but funny is not a fact. Comedy is necessarily subjective, and at its best can puncture ideological purity. Despite being generally appalled by his social media activity, during his standup set I found myself laughing at Linehan’s whimsical material about pizza wackaging, putting me in a moral grey area that could only really exist in the realm of live comedy.

Comedy Unleashed also turns out to be rather vague in practice: a theoretically unbounded space that doesn’t end up testing the limits of general propriety. When attempting to sum up the kind of comedians he is looking for, Shaw returns to the same phrase three times: he is looking for acts “who have got something about them”. What that something actually amounts to, it seems, will always be a matter of perspective.

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