Adrienne Truscott’s debut comedy show was one of the big hits of 2013’s Edinburgh Fringe, and was one of several award-winning shows (Truscott took the Malcolm Hardee award for Comic Originality), like Bridget Christie’s A Bic for Her which has come on the back on a few huge years for popular feminist discourse. Although Truscott has said that the show’s conception predates it, the primary inspiration and central reference for the show is the furore following Daniel Tosh’s response to a heckler at the Laugh Factory in 2012 who said that rape jokes are never funny, and the mainstream US and UK comics that defended Tosh and their own freedom to perform such material.
By mid-2014 it is fair to say that some of Truscott’s response is now fairly well-trodden: sarcastic refashioning of the typical male comic’s joke on rape which belittles women into observational humour from a female standpoint. This article that came out days after the event showcases performers that have shown that this ‘edgy’ area of comedy can be not only feminist, but truly funny.
She also somewhat shies away from her best jokes by excusing her performance: she makes the piece a self-conscious debut show, playing up to the notion that she is just getting to grips with the idea of call-backs and audience interaction, even after nearly a year of the show’s developing performance, and her comedy/performance art background as one-half of The Wau-Wau Sisters. It’s a strange refrain that doesn’t sit neatly with the accomplished work that is going on elsewhere in the show.
These niggles account for my personal reticence following a show that I was, to be fair, eagerly anticipating, and they could have completely destroyed a lesser show and a lesser performer. Luckily Truscott’s performance background has inspired her to wrap the show in several simply brilliant conceits which raise the show above the immediacy of the online response to Tosh et al. Truscott performs semi-nude throughout, as has been widely publicised. She projects the faces of those comics she mocks on her torso as she relates what they said, did and wrote. While this complex canvas pushes the piece towards performance, she keeps it rooted in comedy – she points out that her pubic hair neatly enriches their omnipresent facial hair. “How come they all have goatees?”
Her various states of undress and layers of clothing removed and replaced during the show (a Wau-Wau staple) are not only the source of some of the biggest laughs, but a running dialogue with the idea of a rape victim’s clothing being of any relevance to the crime. Add to this the fact that Trucott near-downs three canned G&Ts at the top of the show, and draws attention to the fact that statistically not only have several women in the audience probably been (in responsible broadcaster fashion) ‘affected by issues raised in this programme’, but that several men in the audience are likely to be rapists. It’s a sobering thought, and most of us haven’t had as much to drink as Truscott. “Does the show end in a rape up here tonight?” she asks. “Wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened in a roomful of people and no one did anything.”
It’s with moments like these that the show really begins to bite. I have been reminded since seeing the show of Marina Abramovic’s 1974 piece Rhythm 0 where the performance artist placed herself at the mercy of her audience, allowing them 72 objects to use on her ‘for pleasure or for pain’, including a scalpel, a gun and a bullet. Truscott is indeed ‘asking for it’ in some fashion also, but she complicates the notion of agency implicit in the phrase. She explores trust with her audience rather that giving it to them unreservedly as Abramovic did (and ultimately found them wanting, cutting her clothes from her, wounding her neck and threatening her with the loaded gun).
Truscott suggests that the slew of rape jokes is akin to assaulting her audience, but she also empowers them: she places a rape whistle prominently onstage “just in case anyone feels uncomfortable”. When we don’t respond as she expects to one joke, she reminds us that we have the opportunity to blow the whistle on it. The audience is placed in some degree of discomfort by the material, but she also reminds us of our power: comedy is a bastion of free speech only while it’s funny, and while we’re laughing. The real offence of Daniel Tosh, as Truscott and others have identified, was that his put-down to his incensed heckler just wasn’t funny.