Saturday, 7 November 2009

The gag reflex and the urge to purge: comedy in the dock


A comic writes ...

As Britain goes the same way as the Roman Empire, things fall apart and the cultural superstructure collapses into the economic base, the Big Question is, what happened to our sense of humour?

Or as Ian Burrell asks today in his insightful piece in the Independent, Q: When is a joke not a joke? A: When it's offence.

Almost thirty years since alternative comedy came together at the Comedy Store, we've come full circle with the new taboos being broken and soft targets all the rage. I fully expect Jim Davidson to enjoy a revival very soon. But we've got ourselves in such a PC tangle that it's hard to know what's legitimate to attack and what's just lazy hackwork pandering to renewed social divisions.

In my last post about Tony Blair and his bid for the Presidency of the European Union I originally began the second para with, "I blame the Irish". Now, this was meant as an affectionate jibe at the country that had heroically put paid to Blair's ambition by holding out over the Lisbon Treaty and then given in. But I ended up censoring myself because I second guessed that some readers might never have got past this sentence without being upset. I was worried that some would read it literally when it's a reference acknowledging colonialist discrimination against the Irish and any subjugated people, something we trust is firmly in the past.

So was I wrong to cut the line? I'm actually up for offending some people, but it has to be the right people. And if I do mean to offend, I hope it's crystal clear that's what's going down.

The notorious Andrew Dice Clay used to crack a joke: "What do you call a fat Chinese? A Chunk."

That's not very nice, alluding as it does to the racist epithet "Chink", but it's pretty true to life, not to mention funny in a horrible squirmy way. Many's the night when my mother, whiter than Nick Griffin's big Aryan buttocks, would nurse a bottle of Emva Cream and tell me through a cloud of Senior Service smoke that I was "chunky". Not a very maternal thing to say to an averagely built five foot eight inch 8 1/2 stone adolescent who was the only Chinese-looking kid at her school, but she thought it was hilarious. "No, Mum. I defend your right to be racist against your own offspring but at least make it funny!"

Clay is the same comedian who said you can blindfold a Chinese person with dental-floss. Offensive, un-PC. But, inconveniently, it makes me laugh. At least you know where you are with Clay.

I find this far less offensive than official High Art which depicts the Chinese as monstrous and cannibalistic (see ENO's reworked Turandot at London's Coliseum, or More Light at the Arcola and backed by the National Theatre). You never hear a peep out of the Establishment when this crap comes from their own.

One joke I wish I had written and surely offends no-one is this from Gary Delaney, "The Punslinger".
"I went to my acupuncturist the other day. When I got home my voodoo doll was dead."
Genius. Short, elegant and a hoot. Unpack it and you'll find both a Chinese and an Africa/Caribbean reference in there. But only someone scarily cut-off from the human race could take offence at that.

It does disturb me, though, to hear minorities laying into other minorities. As if causing misery to another group will empower you somehow and alleviate your own pain. In contrast, early stand-up comic Lenny Bruce made his career on the American circuit at the time of the Civil Rights movement by sticking it to those with social, economic and political power who had their boots in the collective face, and that's the tradition I'd like to follow.

I can't say I like the new rats-in-a-sack humour emerging at a challenging time of meltdown. "I know, let's pick on each other and those weaker than ourselves while the exploiting scumbags stay off the radar." It's lazy, unintelligent, cowardly and, even worse, usually not very funny.

My own rules are quite simple. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. You can take a pop at those with power in society who deserve all the satire and irony you can chuck at them. But leave the losers alone.

7 comments:

splinteredsunrise said...

I liked Jackie Mason's crack that, when Jews go to Israel, they become Puerto Ricans. Maybe a Puerto Rican wouldn't find it too funny...

A lot of it has to do with power relationships. Reginald D Hunter on Glastonbury: "Black folks got over singing in fields a long time ago." From Reg, that's hilarious. I wouldn't want to think what Jim Davidson would make of the same material.

Gwei Mui said...

Humor is a very strange beast - I was told this joke recently, by an acquaintance, whilst at college. I'm still unsure of both my immediate reaction to this joke and the person who told it to me:

There is this Chinese man walking through Soho, it's early evening and he's approached by a beautiful blond. She says to the Chinese,
"Do you fancy a blow job?"
The Chinese frowns and thinks for a moment.
"Ok" The Chinese says, "As long as it doesn't affect my dole"

Madam Miaow said...

Hi Gwei Mui, the blow job joke could be about anyone, not just a Chinese. If the twist was around the pronunciation of the "r" in "blow", then it might make sense. It's not the funniest joke I've ever heard and it seems to hark back to a more innocent age when it could have been any bloke.

If it was, "There is this bloke walking through Soho ..." the joke's the same. Or have I missed something?

Splinty ... ooh! I bet Puerto Ricans would be upset. Yes, Hunter's telling of that gag has a completely different meaning.

Doug said...

I've noticed how people like Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy are invisible now when it comes to TV. Most comedians seem content to be on the crap gameshow merry go round and ad voiceovers. Flavour of the month seems to be the awful Macintyre, surprise, surprise. 'Safe' observational comedy, packed with south east middle class prejudice (don't northerners speak funny, hah fucking hah). It's even worse now Frankie Boyle's off MTW. He's an interesting case - definitely leftist but guaranteed to offend almost everyone (not necessarily trying to but not caring if he does).

Steve McIntosh said...

Well my personal favourite is Jethro's sign off line:

"Treat every day as if its your last ..... because one day ..... you'll be right."

thespanishprisoner said...

I occasionally censor myself because I'm afraid people will take what I'm going to say the wrong way. With all the nasty crap going around nowadays, I think it's perhaps best to err on the side of "political correctness".

I think you've got it right when you say that if we're going to offend, we should make sure to offend the right people.

harpymarx said...

Very good post MM.

I think for me humour is about exposing, parodying and mocking the powerless as opposed to the powerless.

Unfortunately, a lot of this new comedy that passes for humour does precisely what you say, 'rats in a sack'... "let's pick on each other and those weaker than ourselves while the exploiting scumbags stay off the radar."

Indeed, and that's what is emerging at the moment.

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