I went to see the comedian Mark Thomas in Newcastle last night, doing his 'Trespass' stand-up tour. Mark's a political activist in the best sense of the term. He's the sort who stages weirdly humorous stunts to shame councils and corporations and politicians into doing the right thing when it's easier for them not to.
For example, when Amazon bought 'Love Film', they decided not to offer subtitled films in the UK, because they didn't have to. (In the USA it's compulsory.) So if you're hard of hearing, then... tough. Mark and some mates went to the headquarters in London, and over the front of their building stuck the biggest posters they could create, saying 'LOVE FILM, HATE DEAF PEOPLE!' By the afternoon, Amazon had strangely announced they were changing their policy.
That's classy, it's witty, it's effective, and it's non-violent too.
But in the show, Mark's language is... well.... fruity. He uses an awful lot of that Anglo-Saxon word which is commonly used as a verb, sometimes as a noun, and often as an irrelevant adjective or adverb too. And it goes on, and on and on... again... and again.... and XXXXXXX again....
Now Mark is a socialist and an anarchist, so I suppose he sees the use of language like that as a dissenting work of free expression against an oppressive order. And now he's over 50, he says he doesn't care because he doesn't have to. And I use bad language too, like most people, usually as an expression of rage at my own ineptitude or the willful stupidity of others. I'm not proud of it, and really need to watch my mouth in company when I'm tired or grumpy- which if you know me, is usually most of the time.
But by the end of the gig, for all my admiration of the man, the language was starting to grate- a lot. I know that's all part of the package with Mark Thomas. You don't go to his gigs expecting sweetness and light. Well actually, there is a lot of light. He sheds a lot of deep insight into the way our world runs, and most especially how the rich and the powerful misuse it (and us) for their own ends. But the weird thing is, I know that when he wants to, Mark can be just as subversive and funny and pointed and political without using the bad language. He's done it on TV and radio, and didn't make it look that hard. And I bet it won him a wider audience for his political views too.
A few years ago, the comedian Frank Skinner ran a little experiment. He did several gigs with similar audiences, running the same sorts of material -only in some of the gigs, he was careful not to swear. And guess what- he got more laughs. I've seen several others develop an act that isn't based on bad language, and make a successful career of it, comedians like Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Mitch Benn, Harry Hill or Bill Bailey. They usually don't swear at their gigs, because they don't need to.
And there's a danger lurking in 'not caring', or just saying it's all part of your free expression thing, because it can all start to unravel into bitterness. I'd hate that to happen to Mark. We need him.