Comedian Chris Stokes on the cut and thrust of stand up and being a vegan – words Elena Orde
Comedian Chris Stokes speaks to The Vegan Society’s Elena Orde about subverting vegan stereotypes and using humour to create change.
Tell me about your experience going vegan.
“I went vegan about nine years ago and it was very much, “That’s it.” That isn’t to claim some outstanding amount of will power on my part, it’s just that I’d been thinking about it for a long time and made the decision to do it.
Had I decided to go vegan straight away, I daresay it would have been a lot harder, so I’m not saying I have an Iron Will or anything like that.
As for what inspired it, I assume that it must be the same for all vegans – the cruelty to animals, and the inherent guilt implicit in contributing to it.”
How did you get into stand-up, and how would you describe your comedy? (That last is a bit of a naff question – feel free to ignore it!)
“I’ve always wanted to work in comedy but not necessarily as a comedian. When I was in my teens, I discovered that stand-up comedy was a thing. What appealed instantly was that it seemed a really streamlined, immediate way of getting what you’ve written in front of an audience while retaining complete control over it.
But I never really wanted to perform stand-up. I didn’t see myself as a performer. It just stayed lodged in my brain as the most autonomous art form around. But I kept watching it, and discovered so many brilliant comics that naturally I started feeling the urge to give it a try. I figured I’d always regret it if I didn’t.
“As for what kind of comedy I do – I suppose the short answer would be – funny stories from what looks like an ineffectual, introverted vegan schoolboy that dismantle social misconceptions while you’re not looking… or something.”
Vegan stereotypes are often the butt of jokes. Do you prefer to acknowledge or refute these?
“I find it best to acknowledge their existence, if not their validity. Once you tell someone you are a vegan, especially audiences, it instantly paints a picture because it’s come to be such a loaded word. If you can acknowledge the stereotypes, maybe even play up to them initially, then it puts you in a much stronger position to then subvert or refute them, which I think is important to do.
More important is to refute or subvert them in a humorous and engaging manner. There really is little reward in simply tearing apart the stereotypes in a charmless way. By playing up to the stereotypes initially (weak, thin, wasting away, horrible food), it takes ownership of them in a way that you can then play around with. Then you’re in a position to point out how ridiculous a lot of them are.”
What’s the strangest or funniest way someone has reacted to you being vegan?
“I once got asked if that meant I could sleep on carpet.
The funniest one I saw, though, was online. I had gone looking for a recipe for vegan haggis and I found quite a good one on the Guardian website. In the comments someone had written, “Cayenne!? Nutmeg!? Cinnamon!? What IS it with you lefty spice freaks!?””
Would you agree that there are a high proportion of vegan comedians?
“As a proportion it’s still very small. That said, there are definitely more vegan comedians around than there were a few years ago. Whether there are more vegans getting into comedy or some comedians who decide to go vegan I don’t know, but I’m glad there are more of us. It’s nice that there seems to be a kind of ‘subcategory’ of comedian. ‘Comvegian’.
Can you think of another comic who has a great routine about veganism?
“With deference to everyone else, I’d have to go for Lou Sanders, Carl Donnelly and Sara Pascoe. They all weave veganism into their stand-up in a way that is really funny and that doesn’t alienate audience members who may not be vegan.
As for a great routine about veganism specifically, Lou has a fantastic joke about the guilt vs the lack of willpower of somebody trying to go vegan.”
Comedy obviously serves to make people laugh – but how important is it to you to also use it to draw attention to important issues?
“Being funny is the most important thing because people are there to laugh first and foremost. But personally, I like to use comedy to highlight things I care about, or to challenge received wisdom. But I don’t think comedy has to do that per se.
Some of my favourite comics don’t go near anything like that. Likewise, not all of my own material tackles important issues, but I do have a personal preference for comedy that does.
Comedians have a platform from which we offer our own view of the world, its people and their lives, so our own passions and opinions are going to run through whatever we say. Not only do I see no harm in sprinkling in a little ‘polemic’ where it fits, I also see it as our duty to not waste that opportunity. If there’s a routine where I can highlight something important alongside the jokes but I choose not to do that, then that can’t be anything but a waste.”
What do you think are the merits of using comedy as a vegan outreach tool – either in a professional or personal capacity?
“Humour is a great communication tool. Unfortunately, a lot of people make the same big mistake, which is thinking that if something is spoken about humorously then it isn’t being spoken about seriously. That is absolute rubbish. It’s why comedians get in trouble sometimes for causing offence. A lot of the time, they are using comedy as a conduit for communicating ideas and thoughts about very serious issues.
The merits of using humour for outreach are huge, both in the context of being a comedian on stage as well as in everyday situations. People respond very well to humour. That’s one of the reasons friendship groups thrive on in-jokes.
Another reason using humour is great is because it totally destroys the assumption of vegans as being aggressive, defensive or humourless. Because it’s such a disarming and unexpected way to talk about it, it can do more for promoting veganism than, in my opinion, is often done.”
How do you react to people making jokes at the expense of vegans/veganism?
“As a comedian, I would be a massive hypocrite if I told people what they could and couldn’t joke about. If I wanted to get serious about it, I think there are worthier targets for ridicule out there than a group of people who want to treat animals nicely, but I’m not going to kick up a fuss about it to the extent that I think people should stop joking about vegans.
Truth is, we’re an easy target to a lot of people and if it invites debate then we get to talk about what we want to talk about, gifting us an opportunity to educate others about our beliefs. Or to have a joke back and dispel some preconceived ideas about how vegans are such miserable do-gooders. No, we’re FUN do-gooders.”
Do you plan on talking about veganism more in your shows in the future?
“Yes, as it’s such a part of who I am. I write a new hour of stand-up every year and take it to the Edinburgh Fringe. I was very close to calling my current show ‘6½ Stone of Vegan Fury’ but it’s come to include a myriad of other topics. So it’s now called ‘The Man Delusion’.”
You can see the show the Edinburgh Fringe throughout August (find tickets at www.tickets.edfringe.com. You can also find inofrmation on Chris’s other tour dates on his website: www.chrisstokes.comedy.com.