Diary: Science friction
It seems even sci-fi geeks can indulge in a spot of retrospective offence, says Natalie Haynes
I usually like geeks, and I don’t care who knows it. I don’t necessarily want to discuss with them whether Michael Gough or Christopher Lee gives the more compelling performance in Dr. Terror’s House Of Horror, or who is the most exciting Doctor Who, but I still like ‘em. And the main reason, other than a mutual preference for the sofa over any contact sport, is that I think we have the same value system. Geeks tend, in my experience, to be a rational, tolerant bunch.
So that’s why I agreed to perform at a sci-fi convention in February. But two days before the gig, I had a phone call from the organisers, who were, I should say right here, lovely. Their convention had internet forums. I know, of course it did. Internet forums were pretty much designed for people who have a Klingon suit in the garage. And before you ask, no, we don’t have a garage. After they’d announced I’d be doing the cabaret, a forum contributor had looked me up. She found a review, from 2002, which said that I could wrench jokes from, among other things, cancer. Then she complained that if the convention was going to book people like me, she might not attend again. So they were ringing to ask me not to do any cancer jokes.
It’s hard to explain why I was so angry. I suppose it’s partly a professional pride thing – I’ve been telling jokes for well over a decade now, and I don’t expect to have my skills questioned. Denied, sometimes, by zealous internet-reviewers, but not questioned. Comedy is a far more complex art, or maybe craft, than it appears – any comedian can read a room, figure out what will work and what to miss out tonight; they’re editing their act from the minute they walk into the room to the minute they leave the stage. But these people weren’t comedy promoters, so why would I expect them to know all this?
I think the real reason I was furious was the blithe assumption that it’s all right to be offended by something you didn’t actually experience. A review from seven years ago was being used by someone who’d never seen my act to complain about me in the present day. And the reason she gave, for complaining about someone she hadn’t heard of until she’d looked me up, was that she’d seen too many people fall ill with cancer to find it funny. So I guess it’s kind of ironic that she didn’t ever see my cancer routine, which was written when my mother was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma.
I make jokes about cancer because telling jokes is my job, and the kind I tell are based on life. If nice things happen, they go in my act. Same with the grim stuff – telling jokes isn’t (to me) the same as making light of something. It’s a marker of something’s importance. I joked about the difficulties of taking my mum on holiday, when no one would give her travel insurance because she’d had cancer, not because it made me laugh, but because it made me furious. The joke was about someone having cancer, but it wasn’t at her expense. And that’s the kind of subtlety you miss when you complain about something you’ve never seen.
I did the gig, in the end, because I didn’t want to cancel on the organisers at the last minute. In spite of my worries, the naysayers piped down – it was an utter delight. Plus the President of the Universe in Battlestar Galactica totally laughed at my jokes, which surely bodes well for my future. And I’m told the forums went wild for my routine on Logan’s Run.