Over the past few years, Reykjavik has seen a boom in stand-up comedy in English, with notable groups like Goldengang taking the stage in an interlude between Jón Gnarr’s self-deprecating surrealism and a rise in the city’s fledgling community of amateur performers.
A surge in open-mic nights and audience-reliant improv (in parody of quintessential British game shows) have incubated a new generation of English-language comics in Reykjavik who have gone on to create stand-alone productions of their own. Among them are women comics whose projects respond to the structures that have normalized rape jokes, particularly in American comedy, and to the comedians that make stand-up in English an uncomfortable, and perhaps triggering, space.
Comedy is a Safe Space
In 2017, Rebecca Scott Lord, an MA student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, conceptualized a performance piece in reaction to the #metoo movement; ironically, she did this from the other side of the fence, herself feeling alienated by the sense of community that the movement created. Dismayed by the frightening statistics of unreported violence that her social media feeds told of, she felt that a sense of concrete action was missing from the movement. Rather than resting complacently inside that realization, Lord applied it to a sphere that felt deeply personal to her: comedy.
With partners Lóa Björk Björnsdóttir and Salka Gullbrá Þórarinsdóttir, Lord made a piece of protest art, Comedy is a Safe Space, in a bloody-but-unbowed response to a culture that continues to accept and celebrate comedians who discredit and belittle survivors of sexual harassment and violence. The format is simple: each of the three performers restages headline-making rape jokes by famous comedians (Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, Jim Jefferies) with the goal of delivering their lines in exactly the same manner—right down to pauses for breath—as the original comedian, but sans all ornamentation. The austerity of the surroundings reveals the joke for what it is at its heart: just plain awful.
The key to this performance piece (it skirts the line between comedy and avant-garde performance) is its process of desaturation. The disarming circumstances that surrounded the original jokes—an engaged audience, jokes of a different nature, theatrics—are entirely removed, leaving the audience alone with the language of ‘throw-away’ rape jokes that offhandedly normalise violence.
Jokes-In-Between JIB Comedy in English
Though comedy duo Kat McDougal and Kimi Taylor don’t share the same project as Lord, they’ve structured their open-mic night, Ladies & Gentlemen and Everyone Inbetween (& on the Outside), to encourage the audience to very simply throw sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and racism in the bin. The show is a workshop-style gem of comedy in English in Reykjavik.
McDougal and Taylor created an infrastructure to ensure mutual respect and an open platform at this comedy night in English, building a “safe word” into the night in the event that a performer crosses a line or brushes up against a boundary. The safe word—it changes each time—gives the audience veto power. And since everybody knows the word and what it symbolizes, it’s clear that the audience member who utters it isn’t heckling.
From the get-go, the pair makes it clear that the show is an inclusive space where typically shy visitors can feel free to stand up on stage in front of an audience small enough to be called ‘intimate.’ And since comedy is a very specific form of storytelling, the duo defines loose themes for participants to follow, encouraging them to tell stories, instead of jokes, as a step toward their first punch line. But the themes are in no way intended to be prescriptive guidelines, so participants that want to stray from the path are encouraged to do so (that is, until someone shouts the safe word).
Self-Awareness Through Laughter
The idea behind these shows is simple: comedy creates a framework that, in many ways, makes it easier to deal with the hard issues. A good comedian’s routine will be full of pain, loss, humiliation, and frustration, but those struggles are communicated through laughter. Humour brings us into dialogue with our deepest fears. It’s one of many art forms that make it possible for us to reconcile with ourselves.
These ‘safe spaces’ are created with that in mind: comedy should, and perhaps must, wrestle with pain, but it can also wrestle with sociopolitical issues to achieve an agenda. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a masterwork of political commentary that shows the ways in which the ridiculousness of human nature betrays itself: women withholding sex can stop a war in Aristophanes’ comedic universe.
But comedy should bring about external and internal change in a way that doesn’t cause harm or further exploit marginalized groups, unintentionally or otherwise. And such radical acts are a necessity; in a world where populism is gaining ground, creating a place to engage with complex issues without running the risk of abuse or misuse is necessary. These performers get in the way of the belief that it’s ever acceptable to hurt another living being. They find the locus of power, and as a communicative medium, they do something to stimulate a willingness to comprehend power structures and to change them.
Jokes-in-Between will host its next open mic night in September at Gaukurinn. The show offers comedy in English.