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Andy Parsons: ‘Slacktivist Action Group’ Live

| Comedy, Things to do | 11/03/2016

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By Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Last year, comedian Andy Parsons ended his ten-year association with Mock The Week to launch the Slacktivist Action Group.  The show aims to debate the issues affecting us all and explore whether significant change can be made by well-meaning but – in essence – slacker activists.

What’s On London attended the recording of February’s episode – the fourth in the series – to see Parsons and his panel in action.  Ian Cater then spoke to him to find out what prompted this move into more important, but less mainstream, matters.

A new direction?

For casual viewers of Mock The Week, Andy Parsons became the epitome of likeable, everyman comedy.  During 135 appearances, he was the voice of reason: less searing than Frankie Boyle but more observant than Hugh Dennis, even if his satire was often hand-delivered in a velvet glove.

FullSizeRenderParsons’ new project, the Slacktivist Action Group (SLAG) – recorded live on the last Monday of each month and released as a podcast – could be viewed as a change of direction.  In his words, it allows him to “concentrate on the things that seem to matter, rather than a few peripheral stories which everybody will have forgotten about the next week and no one really gave a shit about.”

But for those who’ve seen him on tour, including last year’s Live and Unleashed – But Naturally Cautious, Parsons’ move into politics has been a long time in the making.  “I’ve been edging more towards it,” he says, after starting out writing for BBC Radio 4’s Week Ending, a satirical training ground for many comedians including Stewart Lee, David Baddiel and Al Murray.

“There was a whole chunk in my last show basically confessing that comedy wasn’t going to change the world.  You can laugh or you can think, or you can do a bit of both and try to find where the apex of that wins.  But you’ve got to admit that however good a joke is, if you want to reverse the tax credits policy, a knock-knock joke isn’t going to be the way forward.”

Panellist to presenter

As he turns 50 next year, Parsons realised that “sooner or later you’ve got to get up and do something to influence the people that make the decisions.”  So he formed the SLAG: a revolving panel of prominent figures – mostly politicians, journalists and comedians – discussing big issues before a live audience.  Last week, the panel comprised Margaret Hodge MP, Times columnist and former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins and comedian Shappi Khorsandi.  Although guests are booked well in advance – those for 27th June have already been announced – Parsons skilfully moderates discussion towards the sort of issues that are always relevant.

In February, these were corporate tax avoidance (allowing Hodge to share anecdotes from her time on the Public Accounts Committee), the Labour Party’s struggles (on which Collins let rip) and religion (where Khorsandi, new President of the British Humanist Association, came to the fore).  Upcoming topics include the environment, trade unionism and the US election, when US comic Rich Hall is expected to hold court.

At the end of each debate, Parsons decides on some direct action, acknowledging that Slactivists are disinclined to do anything too dramatic.  This has seen the host join the Junior Doctors’ March (“because it’s very difficult to see a doctor these days”) and, on 19th March, Parsons will attend the Anti-racism Demonstration – an event What’s On London will preview next week.

If this all sounds incredibly serious, it is.  But it’s also funny.  Parsons warms up the audience with a burst of stand-up and prompts the panel to deliver a lot of laughs.  And he sees this as crucial: “It’s bullshit that people aren’t interested in politics.  People are, but they want to be entertained at the same time as finding stuff out.”  Parsons manages both, aided by the informal setting at the Soho Theatre and encouraging the audience to join him at the bar afterwards.  It’s no wonder tickets are selling well for the next Slacktivist show on 28th March.

Knock The Week

Parsons has no plan to switch the SLAG to television, partly due to OFCOM requirements for political balance.  But the question lingers: why surrender your slot on a widely watched show for something which – no matter how good – will only attract a minority following?

Andy Parsons picHe says it was time for a change after 10 years  “doing jokes on the same subjects over and over again”.  And although Mock The Week made Parsons a household name, there were drawbacks: he grew frustrated by the narrow range of subjects he could address and the panel show format – although hugely successful – can become wearing.

“It was exciting to go out and do something different, and move away from that slightly combative seven comics on a panel.  I mean you don’t get a chance to really build too much.

“So the nice thing about the Slacktivist Action Group is that it’s not dog eat dog.  It’s everybody trying to put forward their case as well as they can and having sufficient time to do it.  And hopefully having some fun along the way.”

Standing up for his material

This isn’t the first time Parsons has rebelled against television producer restraints: it’s the reason he got  into stand-up in the first place.  After Week Ending, Parsons became a writer for Spitting Image and started performing live to air the jokes his bosses had rejected.

“I wrote a lot of material and most of the time the producers would go: ‘that’s good, let’s do that’.  And at other times they’d go: ‘nah’.  But it was just their opinion,” he says.  “So stand-up was a good way to go out and do some of the jokes you’d written, prove to yourself whether they were any good and then come back the next day and go: ‘I did this at The Comedy Store and this works, this is good stuff.'”

Over time, Parsons came to love stand-up for itself and fans can expect another tour in the future.  “It is a privilege – ever since I started doing it – to be able to get people to come and see you in your name, doing a show that you’ve written, a show that you’re proud of in a venue that’s gorgeous.  It’s a feeling that hasn’t left me in ten years and I don’t think it ever will.”  This is partly because comedy gave him an escape from a life stuck behind a desk.  After studying Law at Cambridge, Parsons’ first job as a legal clerk terrified him with tedium.  Although his subsequent career path raised eyebrows – not least his parents’ – he’s pleased to see it becoming a more acceptable option.

“When I started doing comedy, it was a stupid thing to do.  There was no job security.  You did it to avoid getting a proper job.  It was viewed as irresponsible, which is why it was great fun.  Whereas now, longevity of job is not something people have.  Everyone’s virtually on a short-term contract.  So comedy no longer seems the idiotic choice that it was when I started doing it.”

One thing’s for certain: law’s loss was comedy’s gain – and perhaps, in time, society’s too.

What’s On London wishes Andy Parsons the best of luck with the Slacktivist Action Group.  Each episode is downloadable on iTunes or to book tickets for the shows on 28th March, 25th April, 30th May, 27th June and 25th July, click here.  For more information see Andy Parsons’ website and follow him on Twitter @MrAndyParsons.

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