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Dapper Laughs, the UK's Most Controversial Comedian, Is Trying to Reinvent Himself as a Feminist, Sort Of

After being turned into a pariah for a rape joke, the laddish comic is working to rehabilitate his reputation while satisfying his hardcore fans.

by Joel Golby
23 November 2015, 6:10pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

On my way to meet Dapper Laughs I walked past one of those poster walls in Shoreditch and saw three ads for his new DVD, The Res-Erection. Dapper is back, is the thing. He has been resurrected. He has been resurrected for the sort of people who need a hyphen in the title "Res-Erection" to fully understand that hide-in-plain-sight erection joke. And a year on from his now iconic Newsnight seppuku, it's clear that Dapper still has his critics: Each Res-Erection poster—in a vista of otherwise undisturbed adverts—had been torn to bits, Dapper's thrusting crotch shredded and scattered to the wind. Someone had written "CUNT" on one with a Sharpie.

Ah, I thought. That's my poetic intro sorted, then.

Because dip a thermometer into the Dapper Laughs public opinion broth and it still comes out hot with outrage. The day after I met him, Dapper was monstered on Twitter after declaring himself a feminist in a video interview with campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. A recent gig at a bar in Guildford was half-heartedly petitioned by a local activist group. An interview in July in which Dapper said he wanted to be educated to help teach his audience about gray-area topics like sexual consent and catcalling resulted in headlines like, "Dapper Laughs Blames His Critics For His Rape Jokes, Says They Should've 'Educated' Him." There's still a real dearth of moistness out there.

But there's also a loyal-through-it-all fanbase. And therein lies the duality of Dapper Laughs, a man trapped between two stones: placating critics who never consumed his comedy until it was a hot-button issue, while keeping the fans happy with his catchphrases. Lashing out at constructive feminist critique, but also putting on a somber turtleneck and saying, "Actually, women-hating banter is bad." Dapper Laughs is throwback comedy in a time of high-minded criticism, and it's already hurt him once.

So is The Res-Erection the start of a new wholesome, family-friendly Dapper, one who will finally win over his detractors? Haha, no. There's like a whole ten-minute bit about fingering, and he mimics a handjob for ages.

I went full immersionist for this meeting. I watched the entire hour of The Res-Erection, and the DVD extras. I followed Dapper Laughs on Snapchat for weeks. I re-watched the entirety of his ITV2 show, Dapper Laughs: On the Pull. I watched so many Vine compilations that YouTube now thinks I like Vine. I read think-piece after think-piece after think-piece.

Yet, I still couldn't take a pulse on the infamous rape joke that, ultimately, led to his demise:

Dapper's story, which he's reiterated over and over, is that he was parroting a girl in the front row who was asking that he heckle her friend, suggesting she was "gagging for a rape"—a line amplified infinitely when repeated contextless into a microphone by one of the UK's most divisive personalities. And suddenly, that was it: Dapper was painted as a rape apologist and the high priest of lad culture, his show taken away from him, his tour canceled, his management split. A banterous Icarus who flew too close to the sun.

"I was completely deemed as the pro-rape comedian for six or seven months," he says early into our interview. Dapper is nervous about meeting with VICE. Dapper's people are nervous about meeting with VICE. He gets me a pint and tells me he didn't like Clive Martin's piece about him, but that if he was reading it about anyone else he would be laughing his tits off.

There's still an underlying distrust of the media, a certain detectable bitterness, one that flows into The Res-Erection, a loose hour that leads with a 20-minute explainer about that Newsnight interview, Dapper explaining how he was pushed into it, Dapper explaining how his father's cancer diagnosis colored his decision to kill the character off, Dapper at pains to explain how he was misrepresented—that feels more like an attempt to plaster a wound inflicted on his fans than a bid to make them laugh, like the slow introduction of jokes at a wake. I mean, imagine making a joke at a wake. You can't just walk into a wake and start miming deep-throat right from the off, can you? You can't do your primo fingering material at the start of a wake. You've got to wait a good 20 minutes, get all the somber stuff out of the way first.

The Dapper that slowly starts to blossom into view during The Res-Erection is different to the man who was killed off a year ago; you sense he is deliberately sidestepping his own catchphrases in a pointed attempt to avoid turning into a Little Britain circa-series three self-caricature: just one "OI OI!," just a couple of "she knows" ("I'm trying to get away from them," he admits). Instead, what you get is a sort of universal dating-is-quite-tricky-isn't-it-and-what-about-those-handjobs-eh middle ground. It's lad-lite: not quite banter, not quite venom; two parts Jay from The Inbetweeners and one part Marbella club night warm-up act, the background noise to a thousand simultaneous lads-night-out pre-drinking sessions.

It's also a throwback to the Dapper Laughs who first made his name on Vine. As Dan (his actual name is Daniel O'Reilly; the church and state line between the actor and the character is exceptionally clear) explains, Dapper Laughs started as a way to lampoon the lads he grew up with—lads as the butt of the joke, a loving caricature rather than the dangerous, wolf-whistling pariah he became.

"When it all started was with lads saying how they all got tit pics and shagged loads of women," he says. "I find my friends very funny, I find myself at 15 and 16 very funny, so when I sat down and developed the character I decided to just amplify that—taking the piss out of lads, taking the piss out of how they're derogatory towards women."

Early Dapper builds on lads' inherent fears and insecurities; the same fraught self-doubt that makes them obsess over the size of their dick, the same need to be relevant that makes them shout out of moving cars.

Here's a good example:

But then:

But that was before. Now, in front of me, sits Dapper 2.0, and Dapper 2.0 is trying to move towards the "aren't lads dumb?" version of himself and away from the "take your bra off or I'll stab you with a knife" incarnation, which I think we can all agree is progress. But when considering the reformation of Dapper Laughs, the key question is: Did he really understand why jokes like "take your bra off or I'll stab you with a knife" might have been an issue?

"I think the only way to approach the drama and embarrassment of what I went through is to mock it, and go back to mocking Dapper Laughs," he says. "It all got a bit fucking tense towards the end, you know, and just being a little bit... you know, let's be honest, I wasn't very up to date. I never took the time before I was attacked—with feminism and sexual harassment and stuff like that—I never took the time to really understand it. And I didn't, at the time, really care. Whereas now, I'm like, if I can create a way to educate my male fans, maybe some of the people who really hated me before will be able to look at it and think, 'OK, he's made some mistakes, but he's back on the right path.'"

Dapper Laughs didn't tell me he was a feminist: He didn't utter the magic words "I am a feminist now," as though it was an incantation that can reverse all prior wrongs, as he did with Criado-Perez. But he did tell me he was interested in working with a charity; he's had preliminary conversations with the Self Esteem Team, a body image and mental health charity who work with schools (although a SET representative confirmed it's not gone much further than an earnest chat at a book launch party). And he seems to have a more nuanced than expected idea of how he can educate his legion of (diverse, but largely male) fans without the cod charitable-gesture-towards-the-homeless thing that YouTubers always do when they fuck up.

"You see a lot of people online, and they're like, 'Why don't you go and buy a McDonald's?' [They post a] fucking outrageous video, and then the next video they go and buy a McDonald's and give it to a homeless person. I'm like: I treat my fans as my mates. So they know I'm not going to do something I'm not invested in and I don't believe in," he says.

"So now I've gone out of my way to work with people where I can help [generate a better understanding of] everyday sexual harassment and sexual consent—the grey lines between them. Because all my fanbase is uni lads, and it's not only women that are struggling with sexual consent—you know, if they're drunk and they don't know if they should do it—but some lads are struggling, too. They're thinking, 'Fucking hell, I don't want to fuck her, I don't want to try and pull her,'" he explains, inadvertently making an excellent case for the mass rolling-out of consent classes.

"What I'm working on doing at the moment is saying: 'Where's the line? Is it OK to flirt the same way in a supermarket as it is to flirt in a nightclub?' You know, I'd love to work with that, because I think that if I'd realized that I should've [taken] a bit more responsibility with the message I'd put out this time last year, maybe so much of this wouldn't have happened. But, you know: I was a bit immature."

If you're wondering how sincere this is—as though the new Dapper is some tightly rehearsed PR ruse, a dog taught how to bark "CONSENT CULTURE" by an incredibly expensive ad agency—then the only opinion I can offer you is my own, and my opinion is: Yeah, this seemed pretty sincere. Dapper Laughs is fundamentally a man who wants his career back, wants to shout "OI OI!" to the fans who want it. His only struggle is occupying the right space—somewhere floating a little bit below the full media glare, less flirting with ITV2 mainstream-ism and more speaking directly to his fans on Snapchat—where he can get on. It's a struggle he's sort of been through before.

There were shades of history repeating itself in last year's media pile-on. The original Dapper Laughs character came from O'Reilly—a successful family-friendly cruise liner comedian in a former life, before he could grow a little beard—trying to find a place for himself in an intellectual comedy circuit once he made it back to land.

"I was very family-friendly, entertaining kids and families and elderly people," he says. "When I came back to the UK and started doing the comedy clubs, you can't do that type of humor. It needs to be current affairs, it needs to be gritty. And I don't mind saying it, but I didn't feel like I was intelligent enough—or maybe it was my class—to do that. I struggled to create political satire or current affair-orientated stuff. I was struggling to hit with the audience."

"Jeremy Corbyn is proper moist over this cenotaph" isn't going to get a laugh, so he went lowbrow—dick jokes, basically; some tits jokes—and it worked, right up to when it didn't. But a post-cruise Daniel O'Reilly lost in a world of Jongleurs is similar to Dapper against the media: both times he was trying to appease a left wing intelligentsia who didn't really want him, both times he resorted to saying stuff about his dick a lot to get easy laughs.

Dapper and some fans

One of the criticisms that seems to have stung O'Reilly the most is a petition from 44 comedians branding his comedy sexist and degrading—"An open letter denouncing me from the comedy industry, saying I haven't earned my comedy stripes, even though I did the cruise ships"—which almost doubles as a slur on his fans. The core of Dapper's audience don't read think-pieces, and so were baffled when he turned up on Newsnight, half-sobbing and announcing the ride was over.

"They thought it was a joke," he says. "They thought at some point I was going to go 'OI OI, SHE KNOWS!' They were devastated. A lot of people were like, 'What the fuck are you doing, man—you're our idol.' Every time I do my stand-up shows there are people going, 'There's no comedy for us'—dick jokes, sex jokes, stupid stuff, banging birds. I know a lot of Guardian readers and people like that will go, 'It's not intelligent humor.' But, you know: my fans don't watch 8 Out of 10 Cats."

And he's right: there isn't much mainstream comedy for the young lager-in-a-plastic-glass audience. An audience that, if you tell them a joke, are just as likely to say the word "Woo!" as they are to actually laugh.

But having a loyal-if-dumb fanbase can come with a darker edge; at the height of Moistageddon, Dapper told his army of fans to take journalist Abi Wilkinson to task for criticizing his more problematic, more pro-street harassment material, and they did so in the language of the typical Twitter idiot: the rape- and death-threat. Dapper has since, finally, apologized for this. For her part, Abi says, "I'm happy to publicly say I support him getting rid of the dodgy bits and moving on with his career, if you want a quote like that or anything, particularly now he's finally fucking apologized to me."

And he has been getting rid of the dodgy bits and getting on with his career: his last tour sold 80 percent of the tickets on the day of release, and O'Reilly says he's played to 20,000 people live without a single complaint.

Here's my theory—and strap in, son, because it's a hot one: Dapper Laughs was a very curious victim of timing. If he broke into the mainstream five years ago he would have been clumped in with the Keith Lemon crowd, a sort of harmless nod-nod, wink-wink "ooh-me-gooch-hurts" ITV2 panel show staple. If he ascended now—as in right now—the think-piece 'n' backlash culture has cooled just slightly enough for him to safely paddle in. He would be allowed to be Dapper—albeit the new, caveated Dapper, Dapper back from his exile in the desert, Dapper Having Learned—in an unchallenged space.

However, the precise nature of November, 2014 meant he couldn't exist in it. It was a winter month coming back off a summer of reloaded laddism—university rugby clubs being banned and chastized; Magaluf girl; banter as a mantra—and suddenly, from nowhere, Dapper Laughs was the poster boy. He had to go away and change. All lads had to go away and change.

Dapper on stage

I thought meeting Dapper would be straightforward: a case of, "Oh, he has sufficiently changed," or, "No, actually he has not sufficiently changed, but he's still got a fanbase so what can you do?"—back to the office past the torn-up posters, fun little write-up, pub by lunch. Instead, it's more fine-grained than that. Dapper Laughs isn't reformed in a way his critics are exactly going to like, but he's altered his act to just creak under the limbo bar of censorship and he's making an effort to demonstrate learning and growth; he's aware of and respects his target audience, and (tentatively) wants to use his platform for good.

This might all be academic, anyway; Dapper might not even exist for much longer: O'Reilly is working on a comedy feature film, Fanged Up, that will introduce him to the world as a comic actor rather than a sad turtleneck wearer—set to be released next year.

But that, fundamentally, is it: is there anything so wrong with people laughing at a man saying how big his dick is and how much your girlfriend fancies him and his big dick? Is there anything so different between Dapper Laughs' primitive 15-year-old dickhead banter and a Keith Lemon, an Inbetweeners movie, your younger brother when he's being a prick? Is he, really, all that evil?

Ask your missus, mate. She knows.

Follow Joel on Twitter.

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