UK comedians join forces with an anti-war charity to promote the strategy of peace-building.
A funny way to fight: comedians battling for peace
War and humour do not mix easily. There is nothing funny about suffering, but comedy and conflict formed a unique partnership at a special fundraising event held in London last week to raise crucial awareness of international peace-building. While election fever swept through the UK and millions of people took to the polls, a 600-strong crowd poured into London's Bloomsbury Theatre for Are You Taking the Peace?, a sell-out evening of light-hearted and irreverent live performances with a serious agenda. Featuring the Bafta winner Will Andrews, the stand-up Stewart Lee, Adam Buxton, who is a BBC radio presenter and half of The Adam and Joe Show, and Tim Key, the winner of a 2009 Edinburgh Comedy Award, this was comedy with a difference - not least because none of the comedians were paid for their time.
"We live in a manifestly unfair world, riven by war, famine, disease and monstrous inequality," says Alistair Barrie, the show's compère and a rising comedy star. "The one way humanity has always coped with the horrors it surrounds itself with is by laughing at them, and that's at least something we all have in common. Does comedy change anything? Probably not, but it's a great way to raise money and awareness, and that is what changes things."
Organised by International Alert, an independent "peace-building" group, the event was designed to promote understanding of conflict and make the idea of peace-building more accessible. Arguing that peace needs to precede other aid efforts to lift people out of poverty and that saving a peace agreement is the first step on the path of a peace process, International Alert operates in more than 20 war-affected countries, including Rwanda, Nepal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Georgia.
"Communities need extended peace-building to stop the peace process from breaking down," says Dan Smith, International Alert's secretary general. "For a peace process to work, it needs to engage with ordinary people." Are You Taking the Peace? is one of many events that Alert organises, including presenting the European premiere of the documentary War Don Don as part of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Not In Our Name, a benefit concert given by the singer and composer Barb Jungr in which she sang about conflict and the desire for peace, was preceded by a reception to underline the complex relationship between armed conflict and climate change.
"We need public support for our work," says Smith, "and reach out in many ways. Comedy attracts an audience that we would otherwise find it hard to access." For some of the performers at the Bloomsbury, the challenge was to improvise ways to connect their brands of humour with the idea of peace. "English humour can be quite sharp, almost violent," says Smith. "Comedians with self-awareness reflect on the interesting tension this produces."
Nowhere was this more evident than in Lee's routine, If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One. In between shouting, ranting, and even singing, Lee made the audience laugh with his characteristic hostility directed at sometimes surprisingly inoffensive targets, such as a coffee shop barista, berated for failing to accept Lee's "loyalty" card. The BBC's Top Gear presenters were branded hate figures and people who move to rural areas for a better quality of life were taken down with vitriol.
"War is a grave issue and peace a commendable goal," says Lee, "but nothing is sacrosanct in terms of humour and we hope a light night will still produce some serious results and recognition of Alert's work." Barrie agrees. "Having seen the fantastic work International Alert does, I was very pleased to be able to help - although I have drawn the line at running a marathon for them." He adds: "The downside for me was going on after the brilliant Dan Smith, who invariably addresses some terrible issue that the charity is working to alleviate."
For the audience, the mix of social commentary and social conscience proved irresistible. "If I'm honest, I wouldn't have come to an event supporting peace unless I'd been familiar with the names of the bill," says Keira Finch, who was in the audience. "But I'm glad I came. The comics were in top form and I felt good knowing that I was supporting something worthwhile." Balancing the audience's concern with genocide in Rwanda and its excitement at seeing Lee doing his routine "is a pretty inexact science", according to Barrie. "But the quality of the comedians involved can only be good for the charity. The fact that the show sold out means that more money is raised, more email addresses are collected and people are made more aware of the issues."
The change that International Alert is striving for involves working with governments, world leaders, the EU and the UN to shape policy. "Decision-makers need to fully understand the practical consequences of their decisions and agendas in conflict regions," says Smith. Alert's projects include an outreach programme in Lebanon, which began last year. Focusing on young and emerging leaders in Lebanese politics and society, the organisers hope to achieve peace by promoting dialogue and increasing co-operation between individuals with diverse political standpoints.
Elsewhere, the organisation is working to engage the private sector in support of improved public security. In Nepal, for example, equitable economic recovery is seen as fundamental to consolidating peace. "Most people have a gloomy view of the world," says Smith. "In the polls that we have commissioned, many of those questioned believe that there are more wars going on around the world than there are in reality.
"When you are subjected to a bombardment of images, you forget about places that have been torn apart and have repaired themselves. We see and deal with some of the worst aspects of the world and yet we remain optimistic as we know progress is being made."