Jonny Pelham: The comedian telling jokes about his childhood sexual abuse

When UK comedian Jonny Pelham told his therapist he was considering trying out some new material about how he was sexually abused as an eight-year-old by a former friend of his parents, the professional advised against it.

"Why?" asked Pelham, then in his mid-twenties. "Do you think it will be too traumatic, will it mess me up?"

"No," came the reply. "It just doesn't sound very funny."

Viewing this as a challenge, the entertainer began to open up to his audiences (and his parents) for the first time about his traumatic childhood experiences, which occurred over a two-year period.

His story provided the backdrop to his acclaimed 2019 Edinburgh Fringe stand-up show, Off Limits. Soon after, he found himself delivering it into living rooms around the country on Live at the Apollo.

He joked on the BBC TV comedy show that watching would have been one hell of a way for his parents to find out.

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'Trying to be more present'

Speaking ahead of the start of his Covid-delayed debut UK headline tour, Pelham tells BBC News there is "so much shame and revulsion and fear" around the subject of child sex abuse that we "really do not know how to talk about it". Like academics at Bristol University, he believes comedy can be used as a method to help people heal.

"I naturally write autobiographical stuff and I think that was just what was going on in my life really," the 30-year-old explains.

"It wasn't [that I] particularly set out to write a political show, I was trying to do a lot of things – I was trying to get into my first relationship, I was trying to be more present in my life, I was going to therapy.

"Those felt like things I was talking about, and the only way for the audience to understand them really was to talk about the reason why all that was happening."

Johnny Pelham

Whereas in years gone by his stand-up routines focused on his hapless love life, Off Limits finds Pelham tackling the taboo topic of his abuse in an irreverent way.

In its review at the time, The Guardian gave his Edinburgh show four stars, saying: "The comic turns his childhood trauma into a warm and deeply reflective show laced with jet-back humour." The Times offered the same score, calling it "a jaunty take on a dark topic".

The response from TV viewers, Pelham says, was overwhelmingly positive. "I got a lot of messages from other people who have also had it, who said, 'Thank you for talking about it'," he says. But some suggested he "shouldn't joke about this topic".

He thinks the latter is a "totally legitimate opinion", but just not one that he shares. "I personally think that if we don't talk about it, we just keep [seeing] what's happening, which is an epidemic of child abuse that everyone's too freaked out to talk about."

Jonny PelhamPiers-Allardyce

It's not possible to know how many children experience abuse because it often goes unreported, according to the NSPCC. But the Office for National Statistics estimates 3.1 million adults were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16.

This week, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published 50 accounts that victims and survivors have shared with its The Truth Project. A spokeswoman said "those who came forward described their hopes for a society where they are not afraid to talk about their experiences, and emphasised the importance of encouraging a more open conversation on sexual abuse".

Is joking about abuse OK?

Duncan Craig, founder of Survivors Manchester, an organisation supporting boys and men affected by sexual abuse, stresses that "no-one has the right to decide how someone else breaks their silence" – whether that's "in a counselling room, in a court room, in an art gallery through creative expression, or on stage as an actor or stand-up".

He adds: "Like every other survivor, Jonny has carried the secret with him for years and it's not a burden for him to carry, so how he rids himself of it is entirely up to him."

But Tania Woodgate, chief executive of The Male Survivors Partnership, says that while her organisation "recognises that each person will have their own individual way of talking about their experience, and Jonny is no different", she doesn't see the funny side of his set.

"We do very much agree with Jonny's comment that we need to find new ways to talk about it and that being serious should not be the only way forward," she says. "However, I am not convinced that joking about child sexual abuse is the way forward. Having worked with victims of abuse for many years, I really struggled to find Jonny's jokes amusing."

This all comes amid a much wider debate about what is acceptable to joke about (which has recently seen the likes of Jimmy Carr and Dave Chappelle controversially test the boundaries of comedy, in very different directions and circumstances to Pelham).

Jonny Pelham alongside fellow Live at the Apollo comics Desiree Burch and Paul McCaffrey

Last year, Channel 4 asked Pelham to delve a little deeper into the subject of child sex abuse.

In a documentary, the comedian spoke to a man who was having therapy as a "non-offending paedophile" – someone who is sexually attracted to children but has vowed never to act on it – and a woman who was committed to catching potential child abusers online. He also met Ian Ackley, who has spoken about his abuser, the notorious paedophile and football coach Barry Bennell.

Ackley praised Pelham on the programme, noting how his brand of comedy enabled people to hear things they ordinarily wouldn't want to hear. "By allowing people to laugh and see the funny side – the jokes or the ridiculousness in this stuff – it gives people permission not to be awkward," Ackley said.

The pair agreed that part of the problem for people opening up to others is that "you have to manage their response". Pelham says: "They're often freaked out or feel sorry for you, and whatever they feel is completely legitimate.

"So sometimes you think, I'd rather just chat about football or whatever, rather than delving into the deepness of it."

'Doesn't have to be life-defining'

Pelham, who started performing stand-up while at university in Newcastle, now lives with his girlfriend in Manchester.

During the lockdowns, he tried a few online gigs, but "they weren't for me", he says, noting the lack of "adrenaline and the excitement". So instead, he's been largely focusing on writing TV comedy scripts for several new projects.

Late Bloomer, the 2018 Sky Comedy show he wrote and starred in, told the semi-autobiographical story of a 28-year-old virgin "with more nipples than is necessary, webbed toes, a cleft palate, a cleft lip and hole in the roof of his mouth". That was followed by Channel 4 sitcom Brad Boyz, which explored his experience of growing up in Bradford as the only white kid in his gang.

He says he's in a good place in his life now and hopes his tour can help to change the "relentlessly bleak" narratives around victims of child sex abuse. "The only time we talk about it in the mainstream media is when someone has murdered their family and it's like, actually he was abused as a kid," Pelham says.

"And I never want to be flippant about abuse – because it's such a serious thing – but I also want to say there are different ways to discuss this.

"My way of talking about it is just saying, this could happen to you and it's obviously an incredibly damaging thing, but it doesn't have to be life-defining completely."

Jonny Pelham's show Off Limits will tour the UK from 12 February to 30 April.

Artmotion Spain

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