Opinion: Will Franken Explains His Defining The Norm Awards

A few years ago, following a performance in Edinburgh, someone said of my shows that they were all about freedom. Only on rare occasions throughout my nearly twenty-year career (if you can call it that) have I ever flirted with the possibility that any of my shows had a theme. Usually, when queried about theme by an interviewer or prospective punter, I opt for the convenient catch-all terms of “dreamlike” or “nightmare-esque” or even “LSD trip”. 

All monikers which could be applied to my latest opus: Little Joe. (playing 30 September and 1-2 October at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn) 

But yet, when this woman revealed to me her analysis of my work, I instantaneously and appreciatively agreed. Freedom is exactly what my shows are about. Freedom from political correctness, freedom from industry approval. Freedom to say what I want, think what I want, and be what I want. Freedom to embrace and expose the subconscious in all its truthful beauty and not-so-beautiful truth. And perhaps I have likewise been hoping, all these years, to impart that liberating freedom to others who may suffer from groupthink, peer pressure, political correctness, and fears of cultural stigmatisation and social banishment. To simultaneously reap the rewards and suffer the blows that are part and parcel of steadfastly remaining an individual in the midst of an ever-expanding and increasingly authoritarian larger community. To live the life authentic. Yes, indeed - my shows, my work, my life, are all precisely about freedom. And so were the Defining the Norm Awards

And Little Joe may be the freest show I’ve ever written. (playing 30 September and 1-2 October at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn) 

Many theories were circulating on social media and throughout Fringe pop-up bars in the wake of my publication of the nominees for the Defining the Norm Awards. Chief among them, undoubtedly, was that I had conceived of the awards as a way to get attention. This theory is promptly debunked if one takes into account two very obvious factors: 1) The nominees were published, in synch with the Lastminute.com Awards, at the end of the festival - a time precluding any effective public relations coup. But more importantly, 2) Everything about the Fringe is an attempt to get attention. Hypocrisy? Yes, it just follows me around like a lost puppy dog. 

Another theory was sugar-coated in the sort of faux compassion that is the hallmark of today’s aesthetic wasteland. There was concern expressed over my mental well-being and even armchair diagnoses that perhaps I was having a bi-polar breakdown of some sort, the awards being a manifestation of psychological illness. The implication here is that the glut of mundane, predictable, overly safe, non-challenging, politically-correct comedy must be an hallucination. If we don’t talk about it, it must not exist, right? See no evil, hear no evil, and – most definitely – speak no evil. Not to mention, with all the sycophantic fawning this year about shows dealing “bravely” with mental health issues, how come I didn’t receive more applause and acclaim for what some were characterising as an act of sheer madness? As fellow lunatic Craig Campbell insightfully reminded me backstage at The Stand one night, artists are supposed to be insane. Yes, indeed, Craig, once upon a time before good business sense prevailed over mad artistic inspiration. Good dog, Hypocrisy, have another bone. 

Within a mere ten minutes of the nominees being published, the issue of me being Sarah last year was raised, with a few outraged comedians desperately asserting – despite never having been to one of my shows – that my 2015 performance would itself have been a nominee. It’s near impossible for regular practitioners of hypocrisy to accuse another of the same, for they were, unsurprisingly, wrong. As is anyone who assumes that a male comedian wearing a dress will spend an hour talking about being a male comedian wearing a dress. Or a black comedian will spend an hour talking about being black, or a female comedian will spend an hour talking about being female. (And to think that once, long ago, surprise was considered the most important element in comedy!) Unquestionably, these are the very bigots the real anti-bigots need to confront. They’ve got all their boxes ready and waiting, so either hop inside of your own volition or feel their communal wrath. 

In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what flummoxed the comedy community more – this year’s awards or last year’s decision to live as Sarah and then become Will again. To this day, I see and hear comics I’ve never met speak authoritatively about both topics, after first cautiously prefacing their diatribes with wishy-washy wording like My suspicion is. . .or I’ve not met the man, but my feeling is. . . “Feeling”, of course, being the vital linchpin term that can transform novice into expert, for anyone may speak in terms of feelings when so few converse in facts. How symptomatic of our diseased culture that people barely clever enough to be comedians deign to fashion themselves psychologists as well. Attaboy, Hypocrisy, come here and let me scratch yer head! 

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