Sep. 16—LONDON — When news of Queen Elizabeth's death was announced, an elaborate plan for national mourning kicked into place. Pop radio stations played sadder, slower tunes. Newscasters changed into all-black outfits.
Suddenly, comedy didn't seem to fit the national mood. The BBC dropped scheduled comedic programming in favor of somber specials memorializing the queen. And throughout the country, venues canceled planned comedy nights — often to the chagrin of working comedians who rely on gig money to pay their bills.
In times of national crisis, comedians can play an important role. They did in the U.S. after Sept. 11, and they did in London as well during the mass atrocities of World War II. Of course, those were mass-casualty tragedies — far different from the orderly funeral rites proceeding in London lately. But the nationwide "period of mourning" also is unique in its formalized nature — a government-issued proclamation that the nation must now honoring its late queen.
As Brits in the comedy world navigate this once-in-a-lifetime moment of ritualized grief, they're having to consider: Is it okay to laugh? And will audiences laugh, too?
"It's odd here at the moment because so much comedy has been put on hold," said Steve Bennett, the editor of Chortle, a comedy news site in the UK.
Before the events of last week, Mr. Bennett's job consisted mostly of covering the ample goings-on of lively UK comedy scenes. This week, he's reported far more on postponements and cancellations.
For instance: The BBC pushed back the debut date of a comedy series indefinitely. It also pushed back the airtime for a taped stand-up special. The comedy news shows Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You became what Chortle dubbed TV "schedule casualties." And the London-based Sky News censored Last Week Tonight host John Oliver's jokes about the queen.
And then there was the story of the comedian Mark Watson.
Mr. Watson was on tour in the town of Kettering, in Northamptonshire, when he heard the news. He had a sold-out show booked at the Kettering Arts Centre that night ("If you've seen the venue, that's not as big a claim as it sounds," he joked later, to audience laughter). When news broke, the center canceled the show, as it also was a church that would need to serve as a place of consolation for the grieving.
Instead of leaving town, Mr. Watson posted on Twitter that fans could meet him outside, where he'd perform a set in a public square instead: "Venue's decision, rather than mine. I respect it, but it's disappointing, and I already have my train tickets. So I'll be outside the venue at 7.30 for a (free) unofficial gig." He ended up doing a 90-minute set.
...and some anger
Mr. Watson found a silver lining, but other comedians are finding that a much taller order.
"£350 potentially lost because of two jobs being postponed. Cool. God Save The King and my bills I guess," wrote London comedian Alexandra Haddow, on Twitter.
During the nationwide period of mourning, stand-up comedy is still permitted, but it wasn't clear at first if it would be. The BBC's widespread cancellations of comedy programming led some to speculate that comedy writ large would be disallowed.
A post from London club Up The Creek exemplified the uncertainty: "Please keep an eye on our socials & emails for any changes to our schedule over the coming weeks as more guidance emerges." (Later, when it became clear that the comedy cancellations were only mandatory on the BBC, Chortle ran an article with the clarifying title: "Comedy isn't cancelled.")
Still, promoters and venues have been choosing to cancel comedy nights out of respect for the late queen. In Central London in particular, some of the city's biggest venues have cut programming for Sept. 19, the day of Queen Elizabeth's funeral.
Later in the week, Ms. Haddow was still waiting to hear back about the gig's rescheduling. The matter was out of her hands, which was frustrating — it was a promoter who'd decided to cancel, not her.
"People can choose whether or not they want to come. The onus should be on them, not promoters, to decide," she told the Post-Gazette. Otherwise, she said, it's oddly like "forced mourning."
After all, a nationwide "period of mourning" implies that everyone in the nation is in mourning — but that's simply not true. Ms. Haddow has found that, for all the messages of grief online and in venues' windows, comedy fans are surprisingly ready to laugh at the whole thing.
When asked if she feels comfortable making jokes about what's happening in the UK, she said she has, and that "people are loving it." ("I mean they've loved it at my gigs," she clarified — every audience is different.)
In a way, Ms. Haddow's sentiment is just one form of the age-old entertainer's mantra: The show must go on.
And plenty of Central London venues feel the same.
In their Facebook post, it was hard to tell whether Downstairs at the King's Head was entirely serious — but they're a comedy venue, so it's likely safe to assume the following was written with a wink: "Elizabeth II. Sad News. RIP. We have decided to celebrate her life with communal fun and laughter, so all shows are going ahead. She was a fun woman. Hopefully, see you there. God Save The King!"
Noelle Mateer: email@example.com
(c)2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.