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on Tue, 20 Dec 2016
Interview by Heather Kincaid
Following a tour around Ireland over the summer, TV, radio and stand-up comedy star Reginald D Hunter is back on the road with a brand new show for 2017, stopping off in Leamington, Birmingham, Stafford and Shrewsbury in the spring.
Since moving to the UK 20 years ago, the US-born comic has become as familiar as any home-grown talent, with a reputation for thoughtful, politically conscious and often deliberately provocative routines - and his latest offering, Some People vs Reginald D Hunter, looks set to be no different. Having worked the circuit for so long, he's well placed to give a verdict on the state of modern comedy, and as far as he's concerned, current offerings leave something to be desired, though the reasons are more complex than you might imagine...
“At the minute, I am concerned about comedy in general,” Hunter confesses, “there's something about it that seems kind of muted. It seems as if it's become very fractured and politicised, and too self-conscious about trying to be anti-backlash...
“I don't want to come off like I'm blaming comedy. In recent times, it's gotten a little too easy in Western culture to attribute blame. I think comedians just don't quite know what to say at the moment, because so much of comedy is based on having an object of satire or ridicule, and in this day and age, it's so easy to offend people, in a different way to how it has been in the past. I worry that comedy is getting more and more afraid to speak its mind.”
There is evidence to support his point of view. Remarkably, Hunter has himself come under fire for his treatment of race in routines - whether it's his choice of language or, in one notable instance, including jokes on the subject at all. His last tour, The Aluminium Negro, provoked walk-outs (not all that unusual) and he has spoken in the past about those he dubs “Outragists”, those who come along to shows specifically to be offended by what they hear - a relatively recent phenomenon he believes has its roots in discussions around political correctness going back to the ’90s.
“My momma used to say, 'It's one thing to be offended, and it's yet another thing to go out of your way to be offended.' There's something new about this, and I think it's in large part to do with the growth of identity politics, which makes people insistent that their specific group's plight and history be recognised and given its due.”
As a medium that's designed to comment on the society in which it finds itself, it's inevitable that changes in comedy should reflect the wider cultural and political shifts we've been experiencing over the last few years.
“Ever since the ’80s, our media, our leaders and our culture have been repeatedly stressing personal happiness and individualism, and all of those things are fine and well, but they're also the opposite of community. So all those of us who embraced those ideas of individualism, being able to custom design our entertainment and our lives, all of a sudden, one day we went, 'Hey, where's the community?' It's hard to have community when half the room has on headphones and the other half are staring at their phones.”
To an extent, the growth of the internet and increasing globalisation, coupled with a focus on personal freedom over collectivity and solidarity have collapsed the distinctions between nations, resulting in a kind of disconnect and insularity spread across much of Europe and America.
“The greatest problem with having maximum choice is a lack of consensus. I do believe the power to change things resides in us, and that we have the numbers, but we're too busy bickering amongst ourselves. I mean, I love England and everything, but if you go to a town hall meeting and somebody's talking about getting this new park installed so the kids have somewhere to play, somebody's gonna raise their hand and say, 'Well, what colour we gonna paint the slides?' or 'Where’re disabled people gonna park?' And they ain't even finished talking yet! That's what makes me fear for fascism - it's like, out of a supreme lack of consensus, someone will rise and be thrust into a place where they will be involved in creating a new consensus. We forget that, before 1945, fascism was considered a legitimate form of government.”
In a way, it should be comedy's job to criticise and satirise these issues - just as it's the job of a political opposition to tackle them head on. At present, however, both seem to be struggling to present a coherent and effective challenge.
“The problem with the stillness and the stagnation of stand-up comedy is the same as the problem with our politics: there are too many people - often hidden people - invested in the status quo. On the one hand, if you are profiting from a system, even if most people aren't, then why would you want to change it? On the other hand, there are a lot of people opting for the status quo even though they know it's not that great because they're scared the alternative will be worse.”
All of this will doubtless surface in his new show. While his last tour was described as containing some of his most personal material in years, he now feels that “there's a whole lot of things to comment about other than my life right now”. And as long as comedy remains half-asleep, he feels a responsibility to try to “shake it back up”.
“Having written most of this [new show] before Trump got elected, I've been thinking a lot in this material about the OJ Simpson case, which I think directly leads us to the racial moment in America right now,” he offers, tantalisingly, but won't say more. “Movies do trailers...” he laughs.
But for all his keeping an eye on developments back in the motherland, after two decades away, he's getting closer and closer to having lived in Britain for as long as he was in the States.
“It's just surprising,” he says, sounding genuinely bemused. “It feels more like 10 years than 20!”
Asked whether that diminishes his ability to riff on his outsider status and observe us from a distance, he's not so sure.
“I felt like an outsider in America when I was growing up, and I feel like an outsider in Britain now. The difference is that feeling like an outsider in Britain seems... normal. There are people who've lived here all their lives who feel like outsiders, but one of the things I love about Britain is that it makes room for what y'all like to call the eccentric. I mean, hell, Britain makes a warm and comfortable space for mother****ers who just like staring at trains! I think that's very evolved.”
There's reason to be optimistic then, despite the grown sense of division born out of contemporary political discourse, and despite the fact that he's anticipating more walk-outs and “p***ed off people” when he embarks on his tour in April. As he already said, he believes the power to make a change lies within us. And the simplest thing that we can do to start with?
“Start calling things what they are. There's so much euphemistic language - things like 'war on terrorism' or 'perception management' - that's just a fancy way of saying lies. I think when we collectively in Western culture don't call things what they are, added to all the drugs - prescription and otherwise - and all the propaganda nonsense in the system, it's no wonder people are going f***ing crazy! If you eliminate the euphemisms, I think you'll find that a lot of the mental health issues people are suffering will begin to clear up a bit, I really do.”
Some People vs Reginald D Hunter shows at: Royal Spa Centre, Leamington, Saturday 6 May; New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 12 May; Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, Saturday 20 May; and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, Wednesday 24 May