Edinburgh Fringe — Comedy with a Sour Aftertaste

I came across one show at Edinburgh via the unconventional route of the  BBC Radio 4 Food Programme special episode on food and comedy, which was timed to coincide with the festival and presented by George Egg (whose maniacal cookery using power tools I’ve seen live before). 

Alistair Williams was trailed as performing comedy with a message — about eating good food — or at least avoiding the nutritional disaster area of highly processed food. Given the background of this blog, it was something that appealed to me. His show How to Lose Weight and Be Less Racist was at a time that fitted in my schedule so I decided to go along to Just the Tonic at the Caves — a warren of a venue hidden away under the arches of South Bridge.

Niddry Street opposite the Caves, Edinburgh
Niddry Street opposite the Caves, Edinburgh

I was quite impressed with Williams as a performer. He had a confident stage presence that verged on cockiness without quite crossing into that territory although his blokey persona never dropped to expose any of the personal vulnerabilities that truly endear a performer to the audience.

I was far more interested in the food part of his 60-minute set. The gist of this was the ultra-simplified notion that eating any amount of “real” food won’t make you fat whereas gorging on processed pap will. (This doesn’t stand up to any real scientific scrutiny — for example, fruit is very high in sugar — but the general point is true in that unprocessed food tends to be high in fibre and fibre fills you up.)

Deep Fried Mars Bar Sold Here
Traditional Scottish Food That Eclipses McDonalds in the Nutritional Hall of Shame

I was surprised that his set didn’t explore any connections between the two subjects in the show’s title (it was difficult to imagine what those connections would be but surely that was the teaser). At one point he looked at his watch and said something like: “We’ve got twenty or so minutes left, I suppose I’d better do more on the less racist bit.” In the end there was very little that connected the two topics in the show’s title, except that they seemed to be the two subjects that Williams habitually covers. I doubt whether if I’d been looking through the normal listings whether I’d have chosen to go to a show with that title had it not been for the Food Programme’s endorsement. (Generally comedians’ shows’ titles seem self-indulgent to me — especially as they often recycle material from a previous show — and make little impression.)

Although the set seemed to avoid any overt controversy or provocation in the non-food related parts of the show there was a section when his confident persona suddenly played the indignant victim of unfair reviews and comments of previous Edinburgh shows. (Why bring up past reviews early in the show when the audience wants to be in a position to make its own judgement? Railing against past criticism on stage rarely seems to end well). Laughs were generated by the stand-up techniques of selective exaggeration and status flipping — but still a defensive choice of subject matter.

Having mostly enjoyed the show but feeling like I’d been missing something in the way of context, I later searched for Williams online.  There was surprisingly little in the way of reviews, especially recent ones.  Yet all seemed to be explained when I came across the only search result from a national newspaper (if it can be called that) — the Daily Express — praising Williams for a routine that apparently had an audience cheering (remember that verb) when he compared a no-deal Brexit with deciding to leaving Burger King.

Yes, it’s that easy — if only teams of international negotiators weren’t so much part of the elite that they don’t know how to walk through a door.  And forget all those details like citizens’ rights, borders, trade and other irritating trivia. And being part of an international union of nations is as transactional as buying a burger (quite a telling analogy). Again, this is a routine stand-up trick — make a far-fetched comparison and work it to the point of ridiculousness — except the comparison in this one is so asinine and inappropriate. A more accurate comparison would be trying to leave Burger King with a Whopper you’d not paid for (suddenly not so funny).

Of course, it’s not the absurdity that the Express celebrates but ‘s that the laughs are being generated because of an underlying hostility towards the butt of the joke (ostensibly Theresa May but also, it’s obvious to extrapolate, everyone who opposes a no-deal Brexit — most likely the vast majority of the Edinburgh fringe audience). This wasn’t a one-off. His YouTube channel and Twitter account appear to concentrate much more on this sort of material, possibly trying to play to the market for comedians with contrarian viewpoints than food.

I don’t particularly have a problem with comedians who self-identify as right-wing (and there seems to be plenty of people in the food and drink industries I associate with who aren’t exactly left wing). There don’t seem to be many good right-of-centre comedians around at the moment but there certainly have been in the past. I’m not particularly a fan of overtly left-wing comedians either, unless there’s some irony and self-ridicule in their routines. I found the “bit of politics” ostentatiously left-wing rants of the likes of Ben Elton in the 1980s to be obnoxious. A comedy tutor made the very perceptive point that a comedian should be very wary of being cheered (for making political points an audience might want to show its agreement with) as opposed to getting laughs. Getting genuine laughs is much harder than sloganeering to the converted.

So I went to see a comedy set that promised, and partially delivered, an interesting take on food but was left afterwards with an element of distaste in my mouth. Alistair Williams did some good material on the nutritional inadequacies of the likes of McDonalds. It’s a shame he doesn’t concentrate on this and also take his Burger King analogies off the online menu.

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