Comedy and Controversy: Interview with Konstantin Kisin

Alex Manzoor 2 February 2020

In terms of influencing contemporary cultural debates, Konstantin Kisin may be the most important comedian in Britain that many people have never heard of. While not a regular on traditional British comedy staples like Mock the Week and The News Quiz, Kisin is best known for his podcast TRIGGERnometry, which he co-hosts with fellow comedian Francis Foster. They regularly upload one-hour interviews with a range of guests who provide expertise on a variety of subjects from the world of politics to evolutionary psychology.

Kisin shot to fame after he shared on twitter a behavioural agreement contract SOAS University asked him to sign when offering him a gig, mandating that his act refrain from “racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism”. Since he refused to comply, he has become an outspoken advocate of free speech and critic of woke culture.

The line used at the beginning of Kisin and Forster’s podcasts that “we don’t pretend to be experts; we ask the experts” is soon belied by his incredibly wide range of knowledge over many subjects. Starting with his profession, comedy, he replied nonchalantly to my question as to why comedians like himself and Ricky Gervais seem to be at the forefront of cultural criticism, arguing ‘It’s kind of our job isn’t it?’ because ‘it’s natural for comedians to push back against’ the dominant cultures because most comedians are ‘natural contrarians’. This kind of backlash in the comic world was a regular feature of the 1980s with comedians like George Carlin who fought the conservative ‘religious right’ of his own day precisely because ‘they were the puritans of that time’. Kisin suggests that now that we have a ‘new bunch of puritans running around’. Despite the presence of Conservative government for ten years ‘the cultural power rests so squarely and solely with the woke mentality it is only natural that we would push back against it’. Many of the celebrity comics have avoided taking such firm and controversial stances because ‘if you want to progress… it’s through the mainstream of comedy but the only way you can do that is to not upset the apple cart’. He points out that comedian Geoff Norcott has made a career out of being ‘the conservative comic’, which ‘is of course a ridiculous state of affairs’, simply because it is a market that is being completely unserved by mainstream comics. His analysis of the industry is refreshingly honest but tinged with an unconcealed enthusiasm for his chosen career path.

When responding to whether he believes in the importance of “punching up” in comedy, he heartily concurs stating that ‘comedians should be making fun and ridiculing and satirising the powerful’ but the problem now is that ‘what we consider powerful has become very perverted’. He gives the example of Jeremy Corbyn and specifically that ‘when I make jokes about Jeremy Corbyn people freak out as if I am punching down’ and yet ‘he is the leader of a major political party… and has quite a lot of power’. When it comes to the issue of white privilege, which the actor Laurence Fox recently criticised, Kisin argues ‘it’s not that there isn’t a truth at the heart of it’ that ‘in certain situations people with ethnic minority backgrounds like me would have been disadvantaged in the past and may still be disadvantaged now but to say that automatically you can look at someone and assume what their level of privilege is: that’s racist’. The fact that Laurence Fox had already made his views on certain subjects clear when he was interviewed on TRIGGERnometry around two months before his infamous Question Time appearance perhaps demonstrates how mainstream outlets feel the need to catchup to the kinds of discussions happening through the new media. Although some of Kisin’s views cut against the received wisdom amongst cultural and entertainment circles, he remains confident that ‘history will look very kindly’ on people who push back against many of the new cultural norms.

‘Comedians should be making fun and ridiculing and satirising the powerful’

Kisin provides an incredibly unique perspective as he is a Russian immigrant of Jewish heritage who was raised in the former Soviet Union. It is no wonder, in the current climate, that he frequently uses this background in his comic routines. This perspective clearly informs his commentary, for instance his view that ‘wokeness is like gout, a disease of prosperity’. As ‘if a society does very well, people start to look for things to be upset about… people who actually have things to be upset about tend to be a lot more grateful’ whereas ‘if you have never been anywhere and people keep talking about how bigoted this country is’ then you are likely to believe it. Despite the fact that many people online and in the media have argued that, particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Britain is an intolerant place for migrants, Kisin pushes back on this narrative vociferously saying that he always tells people that ‘this is the most welcoming country in the world because I have the experience of other places’. His frustration about what is going on in society and passion about changing it is clear when he discusses where he believes people are going wrong. For instance in the school system where his co-host, and former teacher, Francis Foster once related a story when he was at a training session for teachers in which it was argued that ‘you can’t teach black boys the way you treat white boys’ which he describes as a prime example of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ where you embrace an idea that is clearly racist. He emphasises the importance of teaching ‘critical thinking’ in order to prevent people falling into lazy thinking created by ‘indoctrination’.

His podcast is certainly not a place where only a single perspective is advanced as his guests have ranged across the political spectrum from the left-wing journalist and author James Bloodworth to the former Conservative MP and journalist Matthew Parris who was a prominent advocate for a second referendum. Despite the, often, detailed discussions about politics and policy that happen on the podcast, it is a popular show with over 88,000 subscribers on YouTube. Kisin suggests that ‘there is a lot of evidence that the attention span of people has dropped, and I don’t think that has happened by itself’ and that the mainstream media is partly culpable. ‘This is because their audiences are shrinking so they are clinging desperately to what they can, and they think that the way to capture that [audience] is to cling to increasingly outrageous’ or shocking content. However, ‘although they might get momentary impact’, this kind of broadcasting is also one of the reasons why ‘so many people have switched off’ and why shows like TRIGGERnometry are so popular. Although Kisin does think there are lots of people who only want to watch something like Love Island, large swathes of the media have ignored the desire ‘for the long-form interview’. He is sanguine about the fact that many mainstream shows and channels are developing their own podcasts as these kinds of podcasts ‘will never be able to do what we do because they can’t have an honest conversation’, instead ‘they have to jump in and interrupt and misrepresent people’.

On the state of politics Kisin believes that ‘the whole left and right thing is pointless now because it is an economic labelling system that is being increasingly used to describe cultural matters’. He is particularly adamant on emphasising that issues like Brexit do not fall into the simple binary of left and right that many have lazily assumed. For Kisin class is ‘connected but also independent’ from economics. Class is also ‘a cultural issue because ‘working class people tend to have a very different set of values to middle class people in university towns like this one’, for instance about things like ‘community, family and patriotism’. Therefore, the main reason why Boris Johnson won in 2019 was because ‘it was also quite easy for him to speak about the cultural issues that they [the working class] really care about’. This argument about the importance of culture in allowing the Conservative Party to gain Labour safe seats reflects the arguments of academics like Matthew Goodwin and some more culturally conservative Labour members like the trade unionist Paul Embery, both of whom have appeared on TRIGGERnometry. Kisin’s use of the arguments of many of his guests should not lead one to believe that the only guests on the podcast are those who agree with him as many of his interviews, though always cordial, involve serious disagreements and debate.

‘The whole left and right thing is pointless now because it is an economic labelling system that is being increasingly used to describe cultural matters’

In response to how we can prevent the intense polarisation and tendency to catastrophise, which has become commonplace in modern political and cultural discussions, Kisin placed a fair share of the blame at the door of social media. ‘Social media has a role to play because it feeds the narcissism that is in every human being and promotes and encourages it, so as long as we have social media, I think it will be difficult to turn it around’. He ends however on the optimistic note that solving this problem ‘is what we are trying to do’ through his podcast as ‘we are trying to create a space for sensible conversations where people can listen to at length and be and entertained’. Although facilitating sensible discussions on issues like Brexit may seem like a daunting prospect, Kisin’s confidence, and TRIGGERnometry’s popularity, seem to suggest that there is certainly an underserved market of people who want more than just conflict and clickbait.