"Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger! Paki, paki, paki, paki, paki!" The slurs ricocheted off Roy "Chubby" Brown's tongue. "Who said I'm not allowed to say those words?"
I remember someone at school asking me if brown people can blush. The answer is yes. The audience laughed, cheering Chubby's taboo-exploding verbal dexterity while I glowed terracotta-red, radiating hot embarrassment across the aisles and rows.
I bought a ticket to see Chubbs for a few reasons that I can't quite prioritise. One of them was the comedian Andrew Lawrence. He recently took to Facebook to express his discontent with the overrepresentation of "ethnic" comedians, liberal comedians and "women-posing-as-comedians" on the BBC. Everything he said was wrong (if only the BBC was left wing), but he did make me think about the ideologies behind my favourite stand-ups.
I watch a lot of comedians, but they're usually politically correct, metropolitan elitists like Stewart Lee or Josie Long. I was being parochial. I needed to seek out their antithesis, to ride the dialectic express all the way to racistville. The answer? Taking a train to Epsom to see the UK's most popular and controversial right-wing comedian: Roy "Chubby" Brown.
This is the kind of thing you can expect to see at Roy "Chubby" Brown gig
After quite an uncomfortable warm-up act – a 45-year-old woman in fishnet tights doing the splits and singing "Sex on Fire" – Chubbs arrived on stage to "Gangnam Style", while all those familiar with his catchphrase chanted: "You fat bastard! You fat bastard!"
He looked quite sweet in his trademark outfit: technicolour jacket and trousers, flying cap with raised goggles, bright white socks, brown loafers and a glowing fake tan. Like a steampunk children's entertainer. Coming on to Psy's big hit seemed like a strange capitulation to a culture he usually derides, but then he reached the microphone: "Turn that slitty-eyed shite off, you fucking cunt!"
The music stopped and the laughter began.
He went straight into a routine about Ebola (which he called, perhaps on purpose, "Eboli"). "We've got AIDS from West Africa; we've got malaria from West Africa; we've got pneumonia from West Africa and now we've got Eboli. Apparently the Africans got it because they were eating bats. No wonder them niggers have got big lips!"
The one gasp in the audience was offset by lots of laughter. "I know what I'm saying's controversial, but if the time comes when we can't poke fun at each other, then it's a fucking sad time," he added, in what must be the worst defence of free speech ever half-arsed into existence.
So why did I really buy a ticket to watch this fat, old white supremacist? Aren't I now guilty of colluding with him? Yes. But there are other considerations. Firstly, Chubby can be situated in an important comic tradition that I'm not really familiar with. We can trace his act through working men's club comedians (Bernard Manning, Les Dawson) to early 20th century performers like Max Miller (whose technicolour suit Chubby's is a nod to), all the way to the Victorian music hall, which was the era's dominant institution of popular entertainment.
This continuum was England's only idea of stand-up until the 80s, when comedians like Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton provided a radical rupture: "Alternative Comedy". Cultural historians like Andy Medhurst think Chubby is the most significant remnant of that former trend: a boisterous and offensive comedy, typically for a working class audience. This makes Chubby interesting for someone interested in comedy. Putting him in context doesn't excuse his jokes, but helps us understand their source.
Secondly, Chubby is politically relevant because his act can be read as a rally against some key components of globalisation and postmodernism, whose societies are increasingly fractured and atomised. For Stewart Lee, observations that an audience can relate to are treated with scorn (or are highly esoteric), but Chubby sketches a diagram of communal Englishness, full of Wetherspoon's, ASDA and copies of The Sun. He's been playing to over 150,000 people a year for three decades, but you'll never see him on the BBC; in this sense, he is genuinely subversive. It's said he articulates his audience's political disenchantment, with Chubbs himself pointing out that his loyal fans are "rough people from rough houses on rough estates" who know that "[he] was just like them, except [he] struck lucky and found a way out". (Chubby – real name Royston Vasey – grew up on a council estate in the bleak industrial town of Grangetown, Yorkshire.)
Thirdly, I thought it would be funny to watch an old racist man make old racist jokes in my presence. And that's probably the honest reason: a mix of curious voyeurism and ironic masochism.
But Chubby operates on a level of irony, too. His worst jokes rely on playing two imaginary worlds off against each other: the MailOnline world of swan-murdering Muslims and the equally fantastical world of a culturally united, rule-abiding, pre-immigration England. But he knows the tabloids are full of fiction. By exploiting their universe of exaggerated narratives, he taunts his audience with a romantic projection of what England was.
One of the lowest moments from the gig: "Did you read in the papers about those Muslims burning poppies on Remembrance Day? Sick cunts. The guy who does my gardening's a Muslim, and he observed the two-minute silence. After I whacked him with a fucking shovel!"
It's not even a joke, just an image: a scene of slave-plantation-style brutalism. It's basically an incitement to racial violence. And it got a round of applause.
Chubby's measured reflections on Islam
After about half-an-hour in, I began to worry. He'd covered niggers, chinks and fucking Muslims, but not us Indians. When was it coming? Maybe he liked us, after all? Was he leaving us out because we're hardworking and contribute so much to British cultural life, with doctors and cuisine and Sanjeev Bhaskar?
Then: "There's an old man who lives alone next door, and we were a bit worried because we hadn't see him since Christmas. The postman came round and said there was a fucking awful smell coming from his letterbox. So I called the police. They knocked down his door and our worst fears were confirmed. He'd gone away: Pakis had moved in!"
There was cheering and applauding. Big bald men were convulsing with laughter, their eyes glistening in the lights.
As both a Paki and somebody's neighbour, I should have found that one unpalatable. The guy to my left – who'd been honking with laughter throughout like some kind of racist goose – glanced to gauge my reaction. I don't remember what it was. Lord knows there's been times when I've walked into the kitchen while my mum's been cooking and confused the aroma of garam masala and garlic for the putrefying stench of an old man's corpse. But I still couldn't relate, nor did I feel offended.
Once the transgressive thrill of hearing "Paki" and "nigger" had dulled, even his fans started to appear fidgety and bored.
His fans seemed like they'd be normal people after they were done sitting through his shower of comical bigotry. But I still couldn't build up the courage to ask them why they were there. There was an irreducible separation between us – determined by race, obviously, but also class. Yes, I'm an ethnic minority, but I also went to private school (cf: hard-working Indians), a good university and have a nice job. My race and class put me outside Chubby and his fans' remit, but while the former subjugates me, the latter privileges me: hence my nervous laughter and fluctuating levels of offence.
The show dragged on for an hour-and-a-half, littered with self-deprecating jokes about his weight, his son being gay, his daughter getting pregnant, his wife "once having long legs and big tits" and now having "big legs and long tits". But once the transgressive thrill of hearing "Paki" and "nigger" had dulled, even his fans started to appear fidgety and bored.
Towards the end a girl got up from the front row and went to the toilet. "I'll be seeing you later, split-arse," said Chubby, cheekily, and everyone laughed. After an odd rendition of "The Entertainer" on the piano (no jokes, just a recital), he started a serious bit about his diagnosis of throat cancer ten years ago: "We all know someone who's been affected by cancer…" But the crowd interrupted him, jeering and laughing. The split-arse had come back to her seat! When Chubby realised they weren't laughing at his cancer but encouraging him to sling more insults at the woman, he did so. But there was a brief moment – and I saw it on his quivering, bulbous face – when he was really confused. 'They're not laughing at your cancer, are they, Chubbs?' he must have thought. In that moment of vulnerability, you could feel the tragedy of his charade.
"Britain's Rudest Comedian"
Royston Vasey started making offensive jokes 30 years ago because his manager told him he'd sell more tickets if he ditched his clean act. His controversial views didn't come from any burning grievances, but were a fashion, a way to distinguish himself, like his multi-coloured costume. There's sometimes a faltering confidence – which you see in the Channel 4 documentary on him, Britain's Rudest Comedian – that belies the intensity of his racism. It's as if he feels his political jokes have got out of hand, that he's no longer a comedian but a mass therapist for the disillusioned. A telling moment from the documentary: "I've been doing this material for 34 years. It's too late to stop now."
Given that I'm a culturally confused mess paying to have my dignity affronted by a 69-year-old man, and the man in question is a tragicomic figure unable to appreciate the seriousness of his ideas, the only unknown quantity left is Chubby's audience. It'd probably be neat and journalistic of me to draw some parallel with UKIP voters – in fact, one bit where Chubbs downed a pint of ale while the crowd cheered was pure Farage – but it feels inappropriate. To extrapolate any generalisations about the "ordinary working people" of England from Chubby's audience would require a condescending leap of logic.
At the same time, denying the importance (and even existence) of a violently disengaged section of white, working-class England who find catharsis in Chubby's words would be self-defeating – the kind of denial that's gutting the Labour party's voting base and marooning all political parties in general. These people exist and they don't self-identify as racist. So you're left with an insoluble situation: a society lacerated by divisions in class and culture that remain unarticulated, creating a silence that makes them run deeper. For all his flaws (racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc, etc, etc.), at least Roy "Chubby" Brown makes society's contradictions painfully and exaggeratedly visible. Several times a week. In sold-out theatres across the country. To a darkened mass of big, tough men who laugh so hard they sound like they're crying.
I quickly darted out while they were giving Chubby a standing ovation. I went to my fucking Paki parents' house that night. We ate a fucking smelly curry.
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