Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Ethical living: finding a laugh in the midst of climate change

A growing number of comedians are trying to turn their focus to the humorous side of global warming. But it's not always easy - and things can even turn nasty

By James Russell  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Greens have brought much laughter to the world, but most of it has been at their expense. The British comedian Marcus Brigstocke says he struggles with this problem on a daily basis, more so since he increased his riffs on global warming in his routines following his Arctic voyage last year with Cape Farewell, an organization that brings together artists and scientists to raise awareness of climate change.

"It's far and away the most difficult comedy subject I've ever dealt with," he says. "It's tested me to the outer reaches of my ability as a writer."

Brigstocke is one of a small, but growing number of comedians trying to wrestle some humor from climate change. Fellow British comic Rob Newman has been a committed environmental and political campaigner for many years. Recently he was at Hebden Bridge, northern England, doing stand-up at the town's monthly Climate Chaos Kitchen on the subjects of peak oil and climate change.

Briton Mark Watson has gone one further. Last September he was the only stand-up comedian among a group of 150 volunteers in Melbourne who attended former US vice president Al Gore's workshop in which the Nobel peace laureate teaches others how to present his An Inconvenient Truth lecture. The result was Mark Watson's Earth Summit - Gore's famous slide show, but with jokes delivered in Watson's trademark rambling style.

The idea of education through entertainment is not new, and the environmental movement - in the US at least - has had its share of satirists, from Henry David Thoreau to Edward Abbey. The latter's furious but funny novel The Monkey Wrench Gang encouraged direct action groups such as Earth First!, which in turn inspired the UK roads protests of the early 1990s. But this was a single issue, a relatively simple conflict. Climate change is different.

"It's such a massive subject," says Tim Britton, director of the multi-disciplinary comedy troupe Forkbeard Fantasy. "The potential disaster we face is so huge and there is such an enormous amount of information."

Britton and his team had more than three decades of success behind them when, in 2006, they entered and won the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Climate Challenge, an award aimed at changing public attitudes to tackling climate change. With this funding in place, Forkbeard Fantasy worked with corporate consciousness-raisers CarbonSense to create Invisible Bonfires, a multimedia cabaret night presented as a parody of the Gore-style climate change conference.

At first, though, audiences were skeptical.

"When we opened," Britton says, "there was a lot of cynicism, with people saying, 'Oh, global warming's all a government scam. You're just jumping on the bandwagon.' A year later there was total acceptance of the basic ideas."

Brigstocke tells a slightly different story. A comic who thrives on confrontation, he took on all three Abrahamic religions in a seven-minute rant for BBC radio's The Now Show last year, bracing himself for a violent reaction that never came.

"I had one or two e-mails saying: 'You're an idiot, you don't know what you're talking about,' but when I did the piece on climate change I received lots of very, very angry e-mails protesting that the whole thing is a lie and a conspiracy. Now that I'm known as an environmentalist, the attacks are, if anything, getting angrier and more personal."

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