Stand up speaks out

Bradford-born comedian Jonny Pelham tells Jack Walton why going in at the start with his childhood sexual abuse is how he’s unapologetically getting his laughs

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Live at the Apollo was everything Jonny Pelham dreamed it would be. First of all, people laughed a lot, which is never a bad thing in the world of stand-up. And Pelham’s major theme – how his childhood experience of sexual abuse had led to maladapted behaviour and oddities in adulthood – was a success, both on stage and afterwards, when many other survivors thanked him for finding a new way of speaking openly about abuse.

“I’m not saying that this is the way everyone should go about addressing it. But it has worked for me.”

The segment he performed was taken from his show Off Limits, which Bradford-born Pelham is touring around the country this spring. But his breakthrough left mixed emotions. “I felt a bit weird about it actually,” he says via Zoom.

He now wonders if he truly understood what he was doing. Opening up to comedy clubs of 60-odd people was one thing. Projecting it into living rooms across the country – into the ears of half-interested channel-flickers – was quite another. “I hadn’t quite appreciated it, if I’m honest.”

It all became quite disorientating and took a while to process thereafter. In the end though, Pelham’s choice to confront his trauma through comedy is not something he regrets at all.

When he first does so in the Apollo show, the audience “oohs” in shock. The joke – Pelham engaging in teenage sexual bravado, with an unbeatable piece of oneupmanship, that he lost his virginity when he was eight – is like something you might get from Frankie Boyle or other comics trading on darkness as a USP. Except of course it’s true. And although he does offer a brief disclaimer (he’s okay now, he’s been through therapy), it’s still laughs he gets rather than sympathetic applause.

Off Limits has been a hit. Live at the Apollo was just one of many national TV appearances that came off the back of it, reviews bounced almost exclusively between four and five stars and Pelham was awarded 2019’s Beyond The Fringe Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Something that was highlighted was the groundbreaking way that Pelham tackles his subject matter.

In comedy, taboo topics are often navigated by at least punching at the bad guy – if you want to make a joke about the Holocaust then at least make sure you’re mocking a Nazi. But Pelham eschews this.

“I wanted to make it my story rather than the abuser’s story,” he says. He compares this to true crime documentaries that linger obsessively on deranged killers with barely a passing reference to their victims. Many reviews of the show have picked up how unusual it is for a comic to come straight out with their trauma at the top of the show, but Pelham does this in the opening minutes.

Perhaps he felt he’d waited long enough. Previous shows concentrated on Pelham’s oddities but danced around their roots. In 2017’s Just Shout Louder, he talked about dating for the first time in his mid-twenties and trod the well-trodden path of beta-male, middle class, awkward shtick. “Something was missing – it didn’t feel completely truthful,” he says. It wasn’t a bad show by any means, audiences responded quite well and reviews were passable, but it did leave Pelham grouped in with a plethora of other, similar stand-ups. Comedy has no shortage of sexually misperforming men.

At that time, he was still coming to terms with the reality of what had occurred in his childhood. He says it takes on average 17 years or longer for victims of child sex abuse to speak up. When he did start to though, off and on stage, the process offered him a catharsis.

Tania Woodgate of the Male Survivors Partnership told the BBC that she “struggled to find Pelham’s jokes amusing” given her years experience of talking to sexually abused men. He says a few people have made similar comments but the overwhelming response has been positive, and besides, his story is his alone to tell. “I’m not saying that this is the way everyone should go about addressing it,” he says. “But it has worked for me.

“The number of children who are sexually abused in this country is insane. We have a crisis, and a lot of that crisis is driven by people’s fear and anxiety about talking about it.”

Pelham, who lived in Manchester, is now finding new ways to do this, including a Channel 4 documentary entitled Lets Talk: Child Sex Abuse, in which he confronts the issue in a series of conversations, including with a non-offending paedophile. “I know my life got immeasurably better after I started talking about it so I think there is a need to find new ways to talk about it. It shouldn’t be something you can only say to your therapist,” Pelham says.

“People keep trying to drag me into a whole thing about what you can and can’t say and cancel culture and that sort of thing.” But he finds the matter of what is funny or offensive to be too contextual, too based on personal tastes to bother applying generalisations. “But I would never in a million years think I’m just going to write a shocking joke,” he adds.

Pelham believes he was “very much a writer before a performer”. When he started out in student comedy at Newcastle University he would learn a script and perform it verbatim, too nervy to risk going off piste. Writing remains a strength. He wrote a Channel 4 sitcom called Brad Boyz and a Sky Comedy short, Late Bloomer. Once this tour is completed, he plans his next show to be exploring the fallout of his Apollo performance and the confusing mix of emotions that resulted.

He describes his childhood as “mostly positive,” which seems surprising. As well as his abuse, he suffered from popliteal pterygium syndrome – a disorder affecting facial development (his 2015 Before and After focuses on the facial reconstructive surgery he was offered by the NHS aged 16). His overly rose-tinted nostalgia was indeed a theme of his therapy sessions, but in some ways it shows why he is thriving. Here is a man who can spin light, and indeed laughter, out of darkness.

Jonny Pelham’s UK tour includes Bradford Alhambra, 18 March; the Lowry, Salford, 26 March; and the Ferret, Preston, 31 March

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