This article was first published on the The Spectator Arts Blog, on 14th October.
A couple of Thursdays ago, The Daily Mail told us, on Prince Charles’s behalf, that modern comedy was offensive, ‘cruel and witless’. However, its front page the very next day was a dire warning that the EU was coming, and the thing it was coming to take away? Our good, honest, cruel British comedy, by which only pansies, Guardian readers, and the deaf could possibly be offended. Confused readers were possibly not helped by the following Wednesday’s article, which was back to bemoaning how offensive British comedy now is.
The Daily Mail is of two minds about how offensive comedy should be. Or would be, if that didn’t imply that it had one fully-functioning mind to begin with.
The columnists in question, of course, may accidentally not have been describing comedy, but themselves. Who, for example, is more ‘impossibly ugly’: comedy or Jan Moir? Is it possible that there was a mirror somewhere in the periphery of Quentin Letts’s vision when he described comedy as ‘smug, scornful and obsessed with sex and flatulence’? What, Prince Charles, is more cruel: knob gags, or, when sitting with your wife-to-be, suggesting that someone who wants to know whether you love your fiancée should define their terms?
The paper’s split personality over comedy doesn’t mean its readers are going slowly, bitterly mad, however. Neither do the front page headlines calling for the abortion of gay foetuses (July 1993). Or the editorials suggesting Hitler should be given large chunks of Africa (March 1934). Or the support for the British Union of Fascists (‘Hurrah For The Blackshirts!’, January 1934). Individually, none of those things reveal you to be squalid and hateful beings, hypocritical, nasty, and prurient – but put them all together…
Of course, I’m being facetious in suggesting that the paper was being in any way inconsistent. The offensive humour that was to be celebrated and cherished and the EU were coming to grab was jokes about women, blacks, and disableds. The sort we should despise is the kind that makes fun of middle-class white men.
That’s not to say that modern comedy isn’t cruel and witless. Just that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The cruel and the scatological are not new elements in British comedy. On the contrary, they are two of the great pillars of British humour. From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Swift and Sterne, from Gillray through Marie Lloyd to The Inbetweeners, great swathes of what the British find funny has been bums and humiliation. Often humiliation because of bums and the things that come out of them.
When Quentin Letts rails against the ‘sex-obsessed’ I can only assume he’s talking about the smutty undergraduates of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue: ‘Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.’ or ‘The archivist says he always loves to watch his little dog as he scampers up to Samantha with her couple of crackers held out and pants around her ankles.’
Those who claim bleakness and cynicism in comedy are new and deplorable traits are, quite frankly, jabbering idiots who would be best served by being put the sort of establishment where they restrict access to pointy objects and have special non-swallowable Scrabble tiles. British comedy has never been darker than during its ‘golden age': Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe And Son, Rising Damp are all utterly pitiless, as isFawlty Towers.
To sanitise and strip British comedy of its rich (and thoroughly offensive) heritage is to do it a disservice. I don’t blame the columnists of The Daily Mail for preferring to live in a Baden-Powell fantasy world, but we should really stop listening to them as if they were talking about, you know, reality.
Two other pillars of British comedy are silliness and satire, at both of which we excel, and which are often combined. From the Big-End and Little-Enders to On The Hour’s train drivers, on strike because they can see the track narrowing as it reaches the horizon and ‘with fixed-guage rolling stock, this could derail our trains’ satire often tends towards the surreal, making the point that the world is often surreal.
However, as satire ages, and its targets become more distant its silliness is what endures. Now, MontyPython’s Flying Circus is usually described as ‘surreal’, but what made the programme unique wasn’t its nonsense, but it’s gimlet-eyed view of the world.
All jokes have a point. No matter how surreal or slapstick, every joke tells a story; it represents a take on the world. Richard Curtis appears to have forgotten that.
In this spectacularly misjudged video for the 10:10 campaign, he appears to be labouring under the impression that people blowing up is funny in and of itself. Even when the people around react with screams of horror. Even when it’s grownups blowing up children.
Franny Armstrong, a founder of the 10:10 campaign said it was: ‘a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python or South Park’. Except no one in the known universe has been able to divine what it was intended to satirise.
Is this meant to warn us about the potentially fatal consequences of inactivity on climate change? If so, surely after a couple of people had refused the teacher should have sighed and blown everyone up. If you don’t act we all die. Probably still a rubbish film, but at least one with a point.
The film’s called No Pressure (and I’m guessing that the people blow up because they are de-pressurised?), so it would seem that it is suggesting that there really is pressure, even when people say there isn’t. Except that there’s actually much less pressure around them so they explode. Unless they’re highly-pressurised from the inside. Or something.
No one seems clear what it was trying to say, and if you’re unclear about what a joke is trying to say then it doesn’t work. That’s the thing about public communications: it helps if you have something you want to communicate. Instead, and I say that as someone who generally supports the aims of the 10:10 campaign, of just producing a bullying piece of proto-psychotic wish-fulfilment.
Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’s worst film. That’s Love, Actually. If you don’t believe me, pause for one second to consider a film that begins with a mawkish voice-over about 9-11 and ends with an 11-year-old child breaking through three levels of airport security, essentially unhindered. Next to that, No Pressure begins to look like a conceptual masterpiece.
The campaign organisers seem to be labouring under the delusion that what people found offensive was the gratuitous gore. Here’s a hint: when adults execute children to the screams of their horrified classmates, those adults are not the good guys. The problem is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s utterly incoherent.
For those who are un-shocked by massive child-violence, however, there’s always rape. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran this piece which bemoaned that making jokes about rape is becoming more acceptable.
I’m so politically correct it hurts. Literally. At the first whiff of a historical imbalance in power relations I come out in hives. I get gastric cramps when I read the word ‘niggardly’. However, not only should comedians have the right to make rape jokes, but they should be encouraged to.
Sexual violence is, unfortunately, part of the world we live in, and, as such, is one of the things we have to deal with as humans. One of the ways humans deal with things is by making jokes about them.
The implication of the article’s sub-heading ‘What makes comedians think rape is something to laugh about?’ is that there are subjects which are off-limits to comedy. You could as easily ask: what makes comedians think mass murder / genocide / paedophilia is something to laugh about? Maybe we shouldn’t touch these issues, but without them we wouldn’t have Gillray’s cartoons about the Terror in France, Mel Brooks’s The Producers, or the Brasseye Special. If we decide that some topics are taboo, the question then becomes who gets to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable subject for comedy.
Not all rape jokes are equal. Every joke takes a position, and not all positions are equally pleasant or unpleasant. There is an obvious difference between a joke or routine that honestly explores a comic’s personal reaction to a difficult subject, and one that trivialises sexual violence.
It’s certainly not unfair to judge a comic by their jokes. If their jokes revel in misogyny and use rape as a means of getting cheap laughs, then that tells you a lot about them. The greater a variety of comedians who feel able to give their personal take on rape and its part in our society, the better. As long as the only people who feel comfortable doing material about rape are those who couldn’t care less about it, the worse for everyone.
The problem is not that too many comics are telling jokes about rape, but that too few are, and many of those who do are doing it simply to shock. We need to have a culture in which comedians of all stripes feel free to discuss any subject that is important to them. More rape gags, please, and from more people.
As a comedian you are responsible for what you say. Like it or not, your jokes are yours. Until Keith Chegwin hears them.
But then I would say that. As a character comic, none of my jokes are mine. I get to espouse the most horrific opinions, tell the foulest, most shocking jokes, and blame them on the character I’m playing. And I do.
One of my characters is a racist, sexist, bigoted freak, and the act consists of watching him slowly have a nervous breakdown, and revealing the reasons for his being such a miserable human being. However, some of the laughs during that act do come simply from the shock value of hearing someone say terrible, terrible things. I did the act once at a rural club, where one of the patrons nodded throughout the whole thing, nodded and pointed and muttered: ‘Yes. Yes. He knows. That’s right.’ I later discovered that the pub the night was being held in was where the local chapter of the BNP hold their meetings.
Even a routine in which a horrible person is shown for the hollow, diseased shell they are will be taken by some people as a positive affirmation of their awful views on minorities, women, and the current underuse of the word ‘poppycock’. Standing on a stage wielding a microphone is a powerful thing.
In the end I decided that, as it had only happened once, and that, for anyone with even a sliver of functioning brain, the point of the act was to discredit those opinions rather than give voice to them, I should continue doing that bit. Although I have to accept that in so doing I am also giving voice to them, and a tiny, stupid minority will take comfort from the very thing I designed to discomfit them.
If one really wishes to find comedy that was ‘cruel and witless’ one doesn’t have to look far beyond Quentin Letts’ ‘golden age’ of comedy. (Incidentally, in his staggeringly ill-informed article, Mr. Letts bemoans that we have no Pixar, no animation company capable of making touching films that garner international success. We’ll assume he’s never heard of Aardman.)
The casual, grinning racism of a lot of the acts on The Comedians in the 1970s reminds us that not all comedy of the ‘golden age’ was gentle silliness with a good heart. It appears, instead, that any joke of any viciousness was acceptable as long as it was aimed at the Irish, blacks, mothers-in-law, Pakis, immigrants, married women, unmarried women, and gays. Those who seem so horrified by today’s comedy seem to have chortled happily through the ethnic mugging of The Two Ronnies.
Comedy has always been cruel and witless. It’s just that we only really notice when it stops being cruel and witless about the people we don’t care if it’s cruel and witless about. We only feel the need to write opinion columns about how cruel and witless it is when it’s cruel and witless about people like us. Or, in Prince Charles’s case, people very specifically like us. You know, us.