OVER the course of our interview, Karen Dunbar will delve into complex and far-ranging subject matter – from outdated language and offence to the thorny truth about “cancel” culture – but, for now, the Glasgow-born comedian and actor is reflecting candidly on why she craves laughter.
“My raison d’etre is to try and connect to people,” she says. “That is what I want to do. I am not going to connect with everybody, but I don’t want to disconnect from them either. It is about trying to get that balance, not just in comedy, but in my life, where I am trying to connect to people but also trying to be authentic.”
Yet, in recent times, that connection has become stilted. Dunbar has found that the changing world around her – indeed all of us – has made her question what is funny, appropriate and, at times, where she even fits within the comedy world. “I don’t know how to do comedy without offence,” she admits. “I don’t know how to actually speak without offence now.”
When Dunbar turned 50 last year, she found herself at a crossroads. This prompted some soul-searching and saw her embark upon an illuminating journey of self-discovery and learning.
It is an odyssey that sits at the heart of a one-hour documentary #CancelKarenDunbar – due to air on BBC Scotland this week – in which she attempts to hold a mirror up to comedy old and new, educate herself and, hopefully, come away from the whole experience without getting “cancelled”.
When we speak on a Friday morning in early February, Dunbar is feeling nervous. The programme has a transmission date, and she is pondering how it might be received by a viewing audience.
For most Scots, Dunbar needs little introduction. She first burst into the public consciousness in cult comedy favourite Chewin’ The Fat in 1999, tickling the nation’s funny bone alongside Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill. In 2003, she became the eponymous face of Scotland’s first female-fronted sketch series The Karen Dunbar Show.
Dunbar has since gone on to a raft of stage roles, performing in everything from Phyllida Lloyd’s acclaimed trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays to the musical Calendar Girls, as well as singing live in front of millions worldwide as she led the cast of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
However, as she discusses in #CancelKarenDunbar, she has been away from the TV comedy scene for more than a decade and is now returning to find that her generation of comics is “having to apologise for all their wise cracks”.
There has been a recent outcry about characters from Chewin’ The Fat and The Karen Dunbar Show being “cancelled”, but that isn’t strictly true; the characters live on, but decisions have been made to remove specific sketches from repeats.
When making the documentary, Dunbar travelled to London to visit the BBC’s TV and Media Operations – or TMO as it is known – an internal department responsible for the delivery and editorial compliance of more than 12,000 programmes each year.
As part of its remit, TMO views old repeats and flags up offensive clips to BBC executives across the UK, including Scotland. When making the documentary, Dunbar had the opportunity to find out how some of her own sketches fared under this scrutiny.
One of her best-known characters from Chewin’ The Fat was Auld Betty, a lewd pensioner who recounts tales from her younger days punctuated with a string of sex-themed wartime anecdotes.
Dunbar wasn’t surprised to see Auld Betty pop up on the screen at TMO, but it wasn’t for the reason she first envisaged. The sketch involved Betty telling a teatime radio show host – played by Hemphill – about her late husband’s trauma after returning from the war.
It was flagged by TMO for using a derogatory slur in reference to Japanese people. Dunbar admits that when the scene initially popped up on screen, she was momentarily flummoxed.
“The first thing was confusion because I thought the Auld Betty thing was going to be about sex,” she says. “As soon as I saw Betty I thought, ‘Is this because of something sexual she said?’ But what came up was a derogatory term for Japanese people.
“As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s right …’ because 20 years ago, I just wouldn’t have thought about that, especially with it being an old woman, who was young in the war, saying it because she came from that era.”
Dunbar wholeheartedly agrees that the Auld Betty sketch should be deleted for modern audiences. While visiting TMO, she was also given the opportunity to view a controversial clip from the BBC archives: a jarring scene from the sitcom Fawlty Towers.
The episode, which first aired in 1975, shows the character Major Gowen repeatedly using the N-word in reference to members of the West Indies cricket team, while also referring to Indians as “w***”.
When this segment airs in the #CancelKarenDunbar documentary, it will do so unbleeped and accompanied by a viewer discretion warning.
Dunbar, who grew up watching Fawlty Towers as a youngster in Ayr, says she had a strong, visceral reaction to watching the scene. “It is well beyond discomfort that I felt,” she says. “To see that clip for the first time, my stomach lurched.
“I had a real reaction to it. If that is the reaction I am having, then think about people who would be directly affected by it.”
A clue to one of the main threads of her documentary is the word “cancel” in the title. When making #CancelKarenDunbar, she met up with old friends, producers, comics, TV commissioners and “new-fangled” young people in a bid to find out what comedy now offends.
The idea of “cancel” culture (or “call-out” culture as it is sometimes known) is a modern-day form of ostracism in which someone is banished from social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person – and are therefore deemed to have been “cancelled”.
One of the earliest pop culture references to someone being “cancelled” is credited to a VH1 reality show that aired in late 2014, with the phenomenon gaining traction in 2017 with the advent of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
In more recent times, “cancel” culture has been directed towards organisations or individuals – often those in the public eye – who are deemed to have acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner. Comedy is one such area to have come under close scrutiny.
What is striking in the documentary is the stark juxtaposition between Dunbar, as we knew her in the late 1990s and early 2000s – a fearless pioneer pushing comedy boundaries – and the woman in the present day, one who is seemingly walking on eggshells to avoid saying the wrong thing.
There is no denying that “cancel” culture is a scary prospect. What was it like for her to go into the belly of the beast, so to speak, and confront those fears head-on?
“Cancel culture is just a new name for public shaming,” says Dunbar. “Public shaming has been there as long as [the concept of] public has been around. I am sure there was a couple of cave people pointing at another cave person and laughing at them. Cancel culture is the new name for that.
“My motive in making this show is to learn, understand and consider what I change in what I do. Not to blanket change what I do and say, but to consider the wider picture and take that into account. Not only when I am next doing comedy, but in my life, because my comedy is a reflection of my life.”
Dunbar is keen to open up conversations on the subject. One of the things she wanted to find out is whether her old sketches would “still be funny for those born this side of the millennium”.
In #CancelKarenDunbar we see her meet with a focus group of young people at Sanctuary Arts – “an LGBTQIA+ identifying group that sits across different intersections including neurodiversity and disability” – to show them some of her old material and find out what they think of it.
Later in the programme, Dunbar undertakes diversity and inclusion training to learn about using the correct gender pronouns. She attends The Diversity Quota comedy night at Glasgow University and speaks with some of the acts performing there.
What comes across is a powerful sense of the people Dunbar meets wanting her to acknowledge their journeys. Yet, by the same token, did she feel that her own journey as a gay woman, born in the early 1970s and growing up in the west of Scotland, was acknowledged?
“That’s a great question and what is interesting is this feels like more of a generational thing,” she says. “Not always, not all of it, but there is an angle, an inference, on it being a generational thing.”
This is something Dunbar and I discuss at the outset of our conversation. As we start, she politely enquires how old I am – perhaps taking a straw poll as she gauges reaction to the programme – and discovers we are both children of the 1970s and proud Gen-Xers.
While that doesn’t mean we will agree on everything, it does mean that we share many similar cultural references and touchstones when it comes to music, fashion, TV, film and comedy.
For those of a certain age group – chiefly Gen X and Baby Boomers born prior to the early 1980s – some of #CancelKarenDunbar will be a tough watch.
Yet, similarly for younger viewers (Millennials and Gen Z born from the 1980s onwards), there is the hope that they can see the value in the experience and wealth of knowledge that someone like Dunbar, having spanned the then and the now, could offer.
It is a theory she explores in the documentary with Dunbar saying: “I think it is interesting that the older generation … it just feels like we are wrong, and they are right, and there is something in me that resents being schooled.”
When I ask about it, Dunbar is still unsure whether she should have expressed that particular sentiment out loud. “Do you know what? I was even hesitant to say it on camera,” she says. “But then I thought, ‘This is what I am feeling in this moment.’
“I could feel, not anger, but an energy in me that was going, ‘Wait a minute, this is not all one-way.’ That is important, it is not all one-way, and there is much to learn from each [other].”
Dunbar is up for a healthy debate. “I don’t want to be saying ‘aye, aye, aye’ where I don’t agree with somebody,” she says. “But, at the same time, I want to be able to have conversations about why I don’t agree, to be open-minded and to be educated.
“I want to be able to ask the person who is educating me if they would be open-minded to being educated as well. It is a two-way thing. And that means being educated about who I am, where I am coming from and what’s going on in me.
“I want to be able to talk to people and discuss it, rather than shouting at each other. There is an awful lot of shouting just now.”
The programme sees Dunbar explore a branch of comedy that advocates for free speech and rails against censorship. She joins self-styled “anti-woke” comedians Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster as a guest on their Triggernometry podcast to discuss “cancel” culture.
Afterwards she reflects on her darkest fears, including being “ostracised, not being able to get any work, people spitting at you in the street, bricks through your window.” Her choice of words echoes a deep-rooted and unsettling memory from Dunbar’s own past.
“Those fears come from my experience of having had that done to me through homophobia,” she tells me. “The majority of people will have their own version of that – things that have happened in their lives that have seen them judged or ostracised. It’s not only that I don’t want that; I don’t want that repeated.”
Much of our interview centres on social anthropology and human behaviours. Dunbar steers the conversation back to her earlier point about public shaming. “It used to be being stuck in the stocks in the middle of the village square,” she says. “But now that has moved onto a global scale.
“With the movement of a thumb, instant global shaming is available. It is not just in your village anymore. I don’t know how different that is because I don’t suppose it matters how many folk are shaming you. It is the fact that you are being shamed.”
Dunbar laughs when I ask whether the name “Karen” being highjacked as a pejorative term to describe angry, middle-aged white women has only added insult to injury. Indeed, “Karen” has joined “gammon” and “snowflake” on a list of “offensive” words issued by TV watchdog Ofcom.
“I like the name Karen,” she insists. “When all the ‘Karen’ stuff came out, it felt more funny than anything else, simply because I didn’t identify with that at all. It would be different if I was ‘a Karen’ rather than called Karen.”
Making #CancelKarenDunbar brought other surprising moments too. The documentary sees the comedian reunited with some members of the “Fat Pack” – the old Chewin’ The Fat gang – to do a throwback table-read of a now infamous and somewhat controversial sketch.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, Dunbar played an ice cream van vendor serving two young customers, one of whom requests “a swatch” of her private parts. She duly obliges and raises her skirt. As the van drives off, the camera pans back to the two boys standing, mouths agape, holding their rapidly melting ice creams.
As she notes in #CancelKarenDunbar the “choice mix of language, children and innuendo means that there is no way you could make that sketch now”.
But the segment hasn’t been cut from the repeats and that is because the BBC “high heid yins” – as Dunbar describes them – feel that the audience’s affection for the sketch “outweighs it all” and has seen it elevated to the status of “a national treasure”.
Speaking in the documentary Ewan Angus, who was an executive producer on Chewin’ The Fat, says that in BBC terms the content was “more out there” than anything else on TV at that time and there is “no doubt the Scottish audience is more forgiving”.
Angus adds that the material has “a historical and social significance”, while the show’s co-creator Greg Hemphill discusses how the ice cream van sketch became a “line in the sand”.
Was Dunbar surprised it hasn’t ended up in the deleted bin? “Well, to be fair, nothing would surprise me now in terms of what gets cut and what is attempted to be censored,” she asserts. “That was a TMO quote about it being ‘a national treasure’.
“Nothing would surprise me, but I am glad it is not cut. Because as Greg says, it was a line in the sand. I don’t know if it is too much hubris to say it was a defining moment, but I think in some ways it was, because it was a huge talking point.
“So, aye, I am glad it is still there. I don’t know if I have shot myself in the foot now by saying that, but it’s the truth.”
#CancelKarenDunbar is on BBC Scotland, Thursday, 10pm