CQAF: Sex, Lies and the KKK

Comedian Abie Philbin Bowman - set for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - takes his comedy seriously

Any number of mainstream comics would happily describe themselves as provocative, but how many would go out of their way to build a set around a series of interviews with members of the Klu Klux Klan? Abie Philbin Bowman has. Now that's dedication.

Certainly, performers like Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr are no strangers to controversial material - only this month the latter caused a talk radio thunderstorm having 'offended' a disabled member of his Waterfront Hall audience.

But a recurring flaw of comedians of Carr's ilk is that they seem to deliver deliberately shocking, throw away gags for the heck of it - getting a laugh is the be all and end all. The result can be a set that does not push boundaries, rather it constrains a comic's potential. 'Controversy just for the sake of it is boring,' Bowman muses. 'Intention is crucial.'

One thing that cannot be questioned is Bowman's intention: he wants to make us think. The Dublin comic's choice of material may shock some - a recent show in Pakistan saw him appear in the guise of Jesus Christ, returned to earth for a 'comeback tour' but arrested by US immigration. As could be expected the title, Jesus: The Guantanamo Years, ruffled a few feathers, but Bowman defends his approach to stand-up.

'Comedy should be provocative,' he argues. 'I could just preach about my views, but it would be boring and most of the people who would come to hear me would already agree with me. What would be the point in that? But if I can make people laugh, they might realise I have a point they wouldn't have agreed with before.'

It is his commitment to asking uncomfortable yet necessary questions that makes Bowman so enthralling. This is a man who interviewed the Klu Klux Klan for a Galway radio station on their thoughts the night Barak Obama was elected US President.

'This election was the biggest story in the world at the time,' he explains, 'but while it was a wonderful victory for civil rights, it was conversely an incredible defeat for the other side, and I wanted to hear their story. We shouldn't be afraid to ask questions like this, and if you listen to the interview you will realise that I gave them so much rope they lynched their own argument.'

The controversial comic's current show, Sex, Lies and the KKK is based around the notion that we should explore and question uncomfortable mindsets, rather than ignore them. 'I'm the kind of guy who would have loved to have interviewed Hitler as the tanks rolled into Berlin,' Bowman admits, mischievously. 'I hate the Nazis, but would have loved to ask Hitler what he was feeling as soon as he realised it was all over.

'Another example, I was watching a football match between England and USA when I started asking myself, "I wonder who the Taliban would be rooting for?" My shows are not just for cosy left-wing people laughing at the other side. While that can be fun, I want more. I want to interrogate our own inconsistencies.'

Throughout our interview, I get the impression that Bowman really cares. Not just about his audience's reaction, but about genuinely righting wrongs. This distinctly humanist approach, like Bill Hicks before him, is Bowman's real appeal and goes a long way to explaining his eclectic audiences.

'I have lots of Christian fans,' he informs me, perhaps surprisingly. 'I've been asked to perform in various churches in the USA, and have been congratulated by ministers on what they see as a "profoundly Christian message".

'Most religious thinkers encourage us to ask questions, and I think Jesus definitely had a sense of humour. While I am an atheist, I'm a moderate one. I find "atheist fundamentalism" preached by the likes of Richard Dawkins a little sad. I think it would be fair to consider humour a gift from God in order to make sense of the world. It is a way to find joy and pleasure in the world and, from a Christian perspective, a celebration of God's creation.'

Of course, not everybody agrees. Bowman's shows have been picketed and their provocative nature criticised by some. A high profile example of this was a clash with a DUP elected official, who deemed Bowman's shows blasphemous. His response was instantaneous: 'If what I'm doing is blasphemous, you believe in a god who finds jokes more offensive than the existence of Guantanamo.'

Bowman followed this up with a quip about how it felt strange for this man to criticise him for 'dressing up in Orange and talking about Jesus'. Touche.

Bowman brings Sex, Lies and the KKK to the Black Box on April 28. Check out the CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Guide for Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival events.