Time Out Interview – Cruel and Unusual

Comedian Keith Farnan on the death penalty

Is having a laugh really the best way to raise awareness of the inequities of the US death penalty? Comedian Keith Farnan thinks so, and pleads his case (being Irish helps apparently…)

I recently became quite adept at causing abrupt changes in people’s facial expressions. I can cause a multitude of tics and twitches with one simple sentence: I’m an Irish stand-up doing a comedy show about the death penalty in America. Now read that back, record yourself on a video camera and watch what happens. The first part causes a gentle ripple of assuredness. ‘Irish’ and ‘stand-up’ are words that can often go together, ‘comedy show’ initiates further interest, and perhaps a slight expectant raising of the eyebrows. But it’s the explosion of confusion and disbelief that comes with the words at the end of the sentence that will make the recording a YouTube classic. That’s right, I said ‘death penalty’.

Let me explain. A few years ago, before becoming a comedian, I studied law in Cork, and had the good fortune to meet Sister Helen Prejean of ‘Dead Man Walking’ fame, as well as an incredible anti-death penalty lawyer by the name of Mike Mears. And these two people had a profound effect on me. Passionate about the cause, they fired my enthusiasm and idealism as they described the desperate life-and-death cases they worked on. Before I knew it, I’d packed my bags and found myself working with some of the finest law students in the US, interning for Mike in Georgia and for the ‘Innocence Project’ in New York.

I was taken on not simply because I was a law student, willing and able to help out with some of the more banal research, but also because I was an Irish law student. The Americans love the Irish. Can’t get enough of us. Fifty-five million Americans claim they’re Irish. We only sent them three million. You do the maths.

It took me a long time to process all of the experiences I had in America. It was shocking to witness first hand, the inequities of what should have been the most advanced legal system in the Western world. Instead, I found myself confronted with a criminal justice system that was itself criminal. Thirty-six states still use the antiquated and, to me, barbaric threat of execution as a method of justice. The system is geared by its very nature to punish the poor, the defenceless and minorities (more often than not both poor and defenceless). Many US politicians even go so far as to send out press releases of successful capital punishment prosecutions, to outdo their opponents’ claims of being tough on crime – like some sort of macabre Top Trumps.

The people I worked with were an inspiration. They never complained or waivered in their commitment to human rights and the pursuit of justice in spite of working in hugely constrained and under-resourced circumstances and despite losing appeals every day. On my return to Ireland I was determined to send other students over to fight the cause – an army of them to help with the massive number of equally pressing cases. In the end, I only managed to send five. That’s not an army, unless you’re from Liechtenstein…

I finished my legal training but having been a comedy fan for years, it wasn’t long before I was to be seen at open mic nights, and what some might have said was a distraction from my original career suddenly became my career. In the words of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh: ‘How strange a thing like that happens to a man. He dabbles in something and does not realise that it is his life.’

However, I never forgot the people I’d met or their plight. So when the Underbelly – one of the main venues in Edinburgh – offered me my own slot at last year’s Festival I found myself writing a piece retelling and reliving my journey through the darkest parts of America’s legal system. But how do you start to tackle a subject of this magnitude? Even though I’m an ardent opponent of the death penalty, I often find it hard to engage with many of the appeals human rights organisations send out.

Too much suffering and we all switch off. So I knew that first and foremost, the show had to be funny. One of the hardest things to do in the world is make people laugh and think at the same time. You can’t set out to do that – you simply have to make them laugh and hope they think. Keeping all that in mind, I ended up with a solid hour of jokes and stories, ‘Cruel and Unusual’.

I deliberately offer very few answers in the piece because it’s important that people feel free to come to their own conclusions. It’s an emotive topic and some have not been afraid to come up to me after the show and tell me – clearly, explicitly, graphically, physically – where they stand. But others simply come up quietly and say that they learnt things they didn’t know before. I’ve started doing it in colleges because they’re the perfect audience for it – young, full of idealism and graduating into the worst economic crisis in recent history, so may have plenty of time on their hands to take up the cause.

It was never my intention to become an issue-based comedian (although I’m not sure what that really means) but when I look at some of the comedians I admire most, like Lenny Bruce, Dermot Morgan, Lewis Black – none of them were afraid to give their audience credit for being intelligent and there was real passion behind their work. They all had something to say, whether it was ‘Political’ with a capital ‘P’ or otherwise. And that’s really where I’m coming from; I want to talk about things I feel passionate about. So, I doubt my next show will be about kittens.

But can things ever change? Can people ever make a difference? Of the five students I’ve sent over so far, one of them found evidence that helped exonerate a man by the name of Walter Swift, who had been wrongfully imprisoned for 24 years. Like I said, I’ve developed a knack for transforming facial expressions. If nothing else, I try to end on a smile.

  • Time Out Interview – Cruel and Unusual