As I stood in line yesterday for tickets to comedian and comic book writer Frankie Boyle's current London show, it was slightly peculiar when I realised that the man two places in front of me in the socially distanced line was… Frankie Boyle. Trying to get back into the theatre, to prepare for that night's show, clearly having lost whatever usual access or pass he needed. I grabbed a front-row seat for an evening where it seems social distancing wasn't top of everyone's agenda.
Frankie Boyle began his Work In Progress set at the Soho Theatre in London yesterday commenting on how his last gig has been at this very theatre over a year ago and how at the time, his jokes about the coronavirus were around how silly it all was. Things have changed, clearly and he announced how pleased he was, returning to an unmasked crowd of folk in an unventilated basement theatre in London's West end that he was here to literally kill his audience.
He has just launched a run of Work In Progress material, getting folk to pay a tenth of what they might do at an inevitably later O2 gig, for him to check what does and doesn't work. This becomes part of the fun, testing out what is and is not appropriate, what people will laugh at after 16 months without. And while lesser comedians look to find fun in clapping for carers, zoom calls, or mask-wearing, Frankie Boyle starts with a realisation, who knew it was Jeffrey Epstein who had been holding everything together. He has clearly been waiting a while to make that joke for quite some time, but it still hits hard, as well as a litany of Prince Andrew gags that at one point fly out like bullet points, such as the point of the Duke Of Edinburgh Award being to teach kids how to escape from the Duke of York. His whipping boys include Boris Johnson, as he pointed out how glad he was that Boris hadn't died from COVID as the subsequent street parties would have been superspreader events. And he would probably have included Kier Starmer more, but he seems to find it hard to care enough to care. Boris Johnson makes for a much more entertaining foil for Frankie.
He also talked through material he has been preparing for a new series of lectures on Dave, hosted by Sarah Pascoe, called Comedians Giving Lectures. Though he points out he is just taking a bunch of jokes about politicians, mashing them together and calling it a lecture on "Leadership". But then it's only for Dave, so who cares?
There was a time when Frankie Boyle was an out-and-out bully of a comedian and he got it in the neck for it. Time has tempered him in that respect, he is more self-aware and self introspective, but finds comedy in that, talking about the nature of toxic masculinity in comedy and how the kind of rape jokes comedians used to commonly make may have normalised that attitude in some people's minds – apart from his jokes, of course, because his were funny.
Even his more offensively hilarious jokes which once upon a time he would have just blasted out there into the audience and let them deal with it, he finds ways to contextualise and intensify the build-up, talking about going back to dating women, and how certain jokes he told them ensured he was ghosted immediately. No matter how offended you might potentially be, you want to hear the line that did such a thing, and you become a co-conspirator in that telling. It lubricates the edgier jokes without in any way dulling their sharpness, and is evidence of an increasing skill of widening his appeal without losing his bite, as he approaches fifty.
It's also evident in a little sleight of hand as he prepares to skip over a page of jokes that are just too Scottish for an English crowd, he knows his audience will clamour to hear them anyway, even if the line about how The Matrix offer of a red pill or a blue pill would never have worked in Glasgow as they'd have just taken both, is over a couple of decades out, Frankie recruits us into his coalition of the willing. That is, of course, if we survive the experience.
Frankie Boyle – Work In Progress continues at The Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London, running until August 10th with an additional show in September, £17.