I wrote thousands of words about this. it was a post that went out of control. I have cut, pruned and there is a possibility it doesn’t mean anything at all now. Like all of these, this is not journalism, but a tattily glued scrapbook of my ideas.
if you can’t be bothered to read all of this, the footnote might sum up what I think I meant to say.
We are keenly aware of our own oppression yet, more often than not, unable to make the slightest imaginative leap when it comes to other’s oppression.
There is a hurry in every conversation to ensure that others know you too have felt the jackboot, “oh, you may say that, but it’s not been all cakes and daffodils for me either”.
At one moment we are overly cautious about what we might say for fear of offending and at others we are battering rams of insensitivity and abuse masked as rebellion.
Everyone can find a way of being offended by something and banging on about it now. Offence is so common that we think all offence has the same worth.
Stand up comedy is currently so popular that being outraged by it is a regular news story; it’s big enough to sell papers and ensure that the newspaper’s website will get vibrant traffic when we all retweet the article.
This is nothing new. The low arts of pop music and comedy have a history when it comes to people displaying their moral cleanliness by being openly disgusted. The great thing about lyrics or gags is that can be removed from all context and, with the yolk of your breakfast boiled egg still congealing on your chin, incendiary on the inky page. For the TV commissioning editors, bad boy comics (and it is more often than not boys) generate the sort of publicity that allows them to enjoy the delusion that they are creating a thing of artistic worth because the stiff collared and suburban are tetchy – isn’t Stand up for The Week the new Last Exit to Brooklyn or Piss Christ?
A lot of comedians who are declared by TV PR gurus as being edgy guys “saying the unsayable” are really saying what the audience wants to hear but pretends they don’t. It is mainstream opinion dressed in outlaw garb.
“Look at me posturing with a beer bottle, YEAH, I drink beer”, he says in front of his beer drinking audience in the beer drinking town, where the beer soaked outside are shouting at bouncers and flailing at neon. He is the Che Guevara of Grolsch.
On the occasions when an audience member does take offence, the retort is often, “come on, it’s only a joke”. We forget how quickly we hate being laughed at. Who is so strong in themselves that they are blasé when laughed at? Why do dictatorships crack down on artists? When someone takes the piss out of me, that’s just the way it is, you hope you’ll find a way later of creating the same laughter directed back at them, or rise above it by showing your magnificence on a quiz machine. A joke about me is just about me or the presumptions of who I am, it’s not another generic joke about my background, race, gender or sexuality. I come from a group that has not faced lengthy and frequent derision. Nice middle class boys like Jimmy Carr and me have not experienced the same battle as many others. When we came from the tough avenues of the home counties what we had stacked against is could be kept in a potting shed.
Most of the comedians who trade on offence are from groups who have not had to put up with much in the way of being demeaned. They haven’t spent too much of their life being the butt of the joke, so fuck it, a joke’s a joke.
If you are going to see a joke is just a joke, that’s fine, you are saying your material has no intention, no aims, no meaning except for being a series of words that will make people laugh. That is good, there is no shame in being an entertainer.
Don’t then do an interview saying that you’re “a taboo buster pricking pomposity etc etc blah bah” because you’ve already told your public you are solely a machine for making laughter.
I don’t think there is anything you can’t joke about, but there are some things that you might want to think twice about why you want to joke about it.
This year, one of the debated topics of the Edinburgh fringe was the rape joke. Personally, I can’t remember performing any jokes about rape , though I might be using my “me? I’m a feminist” selective memory. (also, as this has been queried already, the definition for rape joke here is a joke about the act itself, not attitudes to it, media portrayal etc)
(The nearest I can think of involves a joke about me having sex with someone who bullied me at school after having extensive plastic surgery and a sex change, but the sex in that is consensual if unnerving for the fictional bully once I reveal my identity)
The person I currently am would think carefully before performing a rape joke.
I worry that light banter on sex crime starts to normalize such things.
Here is one short film’s take on it
And, going back to the seemingly perpetual theme of these post, there is the issue of empathy. How would I feel, as the victim of a sex crime, to be sitting in a room surrounded by people laughing uproariously at a joke that sounds upsettingly like the situation I experienced.
Would I, as a comedian, feel comfortable when confronted by a rape victim, saying to them “listen, it was just a joke”.
Couldn’t I just think of a better joke or at least a different one.
I don’t buy for a second that idea that by doing rape jokes in a comedy club this confronts the issue and the comic is now a brave psychotherapist as well as rebel when on stage.
It all reminds me of the ending of Todd Solondz’s Happiness.
“We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you”
“But I’m not laughing”
(also, I have seen how thin-skinned some of the alpha male rebels can be when they feel they are the ones being picked on or criticised, as is an Omega male like me)
As the sometimes painfully right on comedy clubs of the alternative circuit become the new mainstream, the audience accepted butt of the gags has changed.
The poorly and the different were finally being belittled after oppressing the rest of us for all those years by dint of their existence. It seemed like clammy laughter of relief now the wars were over, “thank heavens, finally we can laugh at the raped/the ill/ the needy again…and if you’re not laughing you are a humourless prig.”
Some jokes on a society’s taboo subjects can be shocking, unsettling and thought provoking, they can give an adrenaline rush like a rusty Coney Island rollercoaster. More often than not, they won’t be like that, they may even reveal that if we’re honest, some taboo subjects aren’t taboo at all, we’re just too lazy to talk about them.
The veil of irony often slips.
The cold cynicism of the careerist is revealed.
An audience is relieved it can laugh at what it hates and fears.
It is time to mock the freaks.
They are not one of us.
Gathered in this amphitheatre, we feel our strength.
We can crush the underlings.
As a performer, I do not have an issue with offending people, but it is not my main aim. I talk about things I believe (or at least think I believe at the time). My loose rule is “would I feel comfortable defending my position to someone who says they are offended or would I have to just say ‘come on man, a joke’s a joke’”. I need to feel strongly about something before I am comfortable being in a position where I am likely to offend.
Most performers aren’t saying things because they mean it, they are saying it because they hope they’ll get money and fame from it. Should you be annoyed with the performer or the audience that is encouraging them with laughter and merchandise sales? Sometimes I feel the audience doesn’t shoulder enough of the blame.
There can also be hypocrisy in the audience of a “shocking” comedian. They laugh along until it gets to the belief they hold sacred and, at that point, the comic has gone too far. much like the off written about “women in comedy”, this is not really a comedy issue, it is a far broader issue about societies and their attitudes. and I have to be careful not to think “oh my, isn’t the modern world terrible” because in the olden days we whooped at hangings, but that doesn’t mean we should now be static because we’re not as bad as we were.
Nothing is sacred when it comes to comedy, until it comes to the box office receipts.
There is a lot of offensive comedy I love – the films of John Waters were an eye opener, the first routines I heard of Lenny Bruce (Hoffman version), the hilarity and then horror and then hilarity then uncertainty of watching Jerry Sadowitz at his best. Personally, I find the best offensive art comes from people who either by choice or circumstance are on the outside. Offence with purpose doesn’t seem to mean much if it gets majority acceptance with an occasional burst of columnist fury in the Daily Express or from a local councillor.
It is very easy to offend without purpose. Drop your trousers and spread your arse cheeks at a gathering of old nuns or openly urinate in a play park for the under 5s, that should do.
To me, the great artists of offence are not doing it to seem hip or marketable, but because they are offended by the ethics and moral within the society they live in or the world they question around them.
what I probably really meant to say – what trades as the comedy of offence and taboo busting, is really just the laughing of the bully
This comic strip is probably far more relevant than the above post – here
come be offended by me on my tour – dates here
a blog from last week was originally the opening of this blog. it is here
Many years ago, I went to a writer’s meeting for long since deceased topical gag show Weekending. That week Sinead O Connor had done something about the Pope that had caused a stir. The producer said, “if anyone’s got any jokes having a go at Sinead O Connor, that would be great”. The person to satirise here was a woman who had recorded two albums of pop songs, not a man who ran an organization with a dubious/criminal history.