No offence

I told my first ever joke in front of an audience when I was eight years old. I was at my mate's ninth birthday party, and all the other kids had gone home with their parents. We were the only kids left, and our parents and aunts and uncles were busy boozing in the dining room while the two of us watched The Two Ronnies and something I think was The Comedians in the front room, until we thought we'd go and wow the grownups with the jokes we'd just seen. It was going to be great.

I opened with a joke about a black man on top of a burning building who refuses to let firemen rescue him because he don't trust no white man. In the end, the firemen get out their big trampoline thing they hold and call for him to jump into it. The punchline is that since he don't trust none a dem whiteys, he'll only jump if dey all put dat dere ting on de floor. I did it complete with comedy West Indian accent and asides involving kids marching around the bottom of the building singing, 'Hot, chocolate - drinking chocolate,' everything.

Maybe you can imagine what happened next. Horrified, gape mothed adults. Quiet explanations of how we shouldn't really make that sort of joke. One inappropriate uncle trying to stifle his giggles. Confused tears. Early bedtime.

If that's what you imagined - bzzzt! Wrong! I got enough laughs for us to both launch into telling Ronnie Corbett's monologue and bicker over what asides were important to the story, which got more laughs. Then we went to play Star Wars figures and my aunt slipped on her arse on the way home.

This was 1982. I'd taken the gag from a a prime-time TV show. The guy who told it had only just stopped hosting a children's programme, and he went on to be in East Enders. There was no controversy. The papers didn't mention it. This was normal. We liked that kind of thing on our TVs back then. That shit was hi-larious.

But everything changed, to the point that the 70s and early 80s seem weird and otherworldly now. Like an old episode of the Twilight Zone where some bloke wakes up and everyone is completely unthinkingly being an insufferable shit to each other and they all think he's weird because he doesn't call anyone a coon. They even made a whole detective series out of the concept. One reason for those days seeming so weird is the rise of alternative comedy.

Alternative comedy arose from the conviction that it's possible to create funny stuff without targeting people weaker than you - without being sexist, racist, homophobic or disablist. The old mainstream comics looked down on the alternative comedians as po-faced killjoys at the time. They didn't see what could be so harmful about a joke. Jokes aren't serious. None of them apparently had a racist bone in their bodies. Jim Davidson's Chalky was just a thick character with a great big knob who happened to be black (Davidson apparently being the victim of a bizarre coincidence where those were the racist stereotypes of the time - D'oh!). Anyway - it's just a joke for Christ's sake. People should be allowed to joke about anything. You can't censor jokes. And so on.

In the end, they lost. They slowly disappeared from our screens except for fronting the odd game show. You probably wouldn't see any of them at your local comedy club. Some of them still made a good living touring and one played almost exclusively at his own club, but they lost the spotlight.

Alternative comedy thrived, but gradually something got lost. It became difficult to be transgressive once people got used to jokes about sex and bodily functions, and being transgressive can get big laughs. With the traditional targets removed from the table, jokes attacking people outside the group got much harder. For a while some comics just attacked people with ginger hair, but that got old quickly and was never very good in the first place.

Still, it was possible to tell those old school style attack gags. By using irony to distance themselves, some comics managed to get the thrill of the naughty back into their sets. If the audience knows the comic doesn't mean the nasty bit in the joke, they can laugh not with the joke, but at it - and maybe even question their response. Like, 'ha ha, that bloke just did a joke about gypsies and that's not right - ooh, should I have laughed at that?' rather than, 'ha ha, aren't gypsies disgusting'.

Or at least, that's the theory.

Every few months, there seems to be a Twitter storm about how some comic or other has said something about disabled children or told a hilarious joke about women being raped that someone in the audience has taken exception to. People pile in, the controversy grows, the comic defends themself and others jump in to defend them. You can't censor humour, they say. They're just pushing the boundaries of what you think is safe and making you ask questions. You can joke about anything. Nothing's off limits in comedy. It's just a joke, for Christ's sake. Nobody's actually saying rape itself is okay.

I can't help thinking - haven't we been here before?

Of course, there are differences. The older comedians back in the 80s never argued from some rarified position of artistic purity as if they were casting pearls - pearls! in front of people who barely deserve to receive such wisdom as can only be imparted through the delicate medium of a joke following a one-liner about old people doing a fart. They're also coming less from a position of ignorance than the old comics did. But we're still in the position where we have some people saying it's not right to joke about certain things and some comics telling them to lighten up and getting angry about being challenged in the first place.

The thing is, if you're a comic breaking taboos and pushing barriers you run the risk of breaking someone's barrier. Otherwise you're not pushing them at all.

It's at the point where barriers get broken that two opposing social taboos collide. On the one hand, there's the taboo that says you shouldn't make light of rape/people with cancer/disabled children/whatever. On the other, there's the taboo that says if you're not holding the microphone at a comedy show, you shut the fuck up unless you're spoken to or you're laughing. And don't attempt to restrict the comic's freedom of speech and artistic expression by telling them not to joke about certain subjects. Especially if you weren't even there.

Each month's twitterstorm around whatever offensive thing some comic said are really arguments about whose taboo trumps the other's. The offended audience member and their supporters are saying it's more important that the comic involved joked about their taboo subject (or did so badly) than it is to keep quiet. The comic and their supporters are usually arguing the opposite, unless we're talking purely about whether or not the audience member understood or is telling the truth.

The comic has freedom of speech. The audience does not have the right to not be offended.

But surely, the audience has freedom of speech too. If you're a comic and you're arguing that the audience should shut the fuck up no matter how strongly they feel about what you've said, you're not really championing free speech.

The whole point of stand-up comedy is that the audience participates. That's where the excitement is. The success or faliure of any given comic performance rides on the audience participating in the way the comic wants them to, primarily by laughing. Sometimes you really do want to take away an audience member's freedom to say what they want. If some drunk is shouting bullshit or getting aggressive for no reason, nobody will mind if they're thrown out.

But if the audience doesn't laugh, tough luck. If someone calls out because you've genuinely upset them, tough luck. You failed to win that audience member over. You made them feel so strongly about whatever it was you said that they fought against their social conditioning and spoke up when they knew they shouldn't and knew a whole room full of people might be against them. For most people, that's not an easy thing to do. And with some subjects, you can bet that for every person who speaks out, there are more who feel the same way but keep quiet. Not everyone who speaks out is deliberately being offended for attention, even if some are.

If you're a comic and this happens to you, you have three options, and they're exactly the same options as you have if your material's not making anyone laugh:

1. Ditch what hasn't worked
2. Rework it until it does
3. Keep going on with it. You're sure it's only troublemakers who are speaking out and they're wrong.

There is no option where you stop people being upset by force of will, or by the force of your unbridled genius.

Which option you pick depends partly on who your target was. If you were punching up, at something more powerful than you, it's option 3 all the way.

If you weren't, and you were getting laughs from joking about people less powerful, what you do depends on where you are on the comedy ladder. The closer you are to the bottom doing five minute open spots in rooms in the back of pubs to audiences made up mostly of other comics and your mates, the more likely option number 1 is for you. The closer to the top, touring theatres with your own show, the more you're able to pick option 3. But wherever you are on the ladder, don't kid yourself that you're Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks or George Carlin or Louis CK. You're probably not. There are only four of those guys, and only one is still alive.

If you're at the top of the comedy ladder and you pick number 3, you can legitimately make the argument that people should know what you're like and should stay away if they think they won't like it. If you go to see a comedian who's known to be edgy and offensive, don't be surprised when they're edgy and offensive.

At the same time, if you're a comic who built your act around being edgy and offensive, don't be surprised when your act actually offends someone. It's what you were playing with when you started.

(Plus, even if you're at the top, lots of people get tickets bought for them, or go to a show not knowing who the hell you are. Don't assume everyone is aware of the groundbreaking genius of the person on the poster).

It's all a question of free speech. The comic should definitely have the freedom to joke about whatever they want, but the audience is not obliged to laugh, or to shut up and like it. If someone is really and genuinely upset, they have the right to say so.

These days they have the ability to go away and make that widely known, which makes things more difficult. It can be really harsh for comics trying to make difficult new stuff work. It can easily create problems if someone misunderstands, mishears or misrepresents what the comic said, and it's ridiculous to judge an entire performance by looking at one out of context gag. But you can't stop people sharing when they've been upset. You can only exercise your freedom to explain or argue back, or ignore them and carry on.

In the end, if enough people in audiences decide they've had enough of one type of joke or another this kind of stuff could go the way of the ginger gag, slowly disappearing because they become hack subjects, their familiarity removing their naughty transgressiveness. I've been to a few low level, mainly open spot gigs recently. At a couple, some of the comics had rape or paedophilia or cancer material somewhere in their set that died on its arse - and more than one of them berated the audience for not laughing. When everyone's doing this stuff, it's not really transgressive any more. It's just old.

If that doesn't happen, and if enough people are genuinely upset by certain types of material and stop going to comedy clubs or complain, there's always the possibility that bookers will listen to audience criticism and stop booking certain types of act (or at least those who rely heavily on certain types of material). Sometimes this isn't honest, or special interest groups representing very powerful targets can interfere, which is no doubt a bad thing. But targets aren't always powerful, and it's not always bad when you stop seeing certain types of material.

I don't know about you, but I don't much miss Chalky.


Anthony said...

Really good post:-

Specifically with regards to Twitter - do you think that it's the Offended's ability to directly and publicly summon the support of sympathisers that leads to the sort of harsher knee jerk defence by the accused that we see?
There's a lot of moral grandstanding on Twitter, people seem emboldened by the lack of an immediate counter-argument as you may have had if you stood up in a room and challenged a comic on stage and risking having your case quickly and succinctly re-butted.

Making random moral assertions on things is much easier online and it's really easy to fall victim to rapid confirmation bias by people chiming in (on whatever side of the argument), themselves emboldened by your public comments. The more moderate or rationalising voice is never as loud on the internet.

Twitter encourages people to say things without thinking about them any-where near as much as they would if they were to speak them. - possibly partly to gauge a response before committing to a position, which can be seen as a positive thing if makes people more confident to speak up about certain things.

Anyway I think the whole subject is strongly symptomatic of a super raucous internet-age.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Hi Anthony,

Cheers for the reply.

I do think the whole phenomenon of tweeting and blogging goes some way to explaining the harsher defences by the accused (I assume you mean the comics here). In the old days, they'd have quietly gone away and either ignore the criticism or quietly make changes but now that's a public spectacle. The whole thing being public means there's more riding on sticking to your guns.

People are emboldened to complain more than they would in a room full of people too, but it's not always that they'd fear being rebutted. Sometimes there's just the fear of being ignored and ridiculed. It's actually really difficult to disagree with what you think the group around you is thinking, and there have been loads of experiments testing how often people will disagree with the group even when they know the group is definitely wrong.

It certainly makes things more difficult for comedians. It's whether that's always a bad thing that's the question.

Keith said...

Personally, I think, quite often, at least when it's not an orchestrated Daily Mail campaign against someone they don't like, see Jimmy Carr/Jonathon Ross, it's a case of a BAD joke about a touchy subject dying on its arse.

In the case of the Daniel Tosh 'rape' line, for instance, I feel his comeback was poor and felt like a revenge attack on a criticism, rather than a witty comeback aimed at a heckle, and to me that's why it got so much flak.

Of course, it has been massively publicised and discussed, and that part of it isn't really fair to the comedian, as we know the Daily Mail revels in this, that when forwarded on, a distasteful line gets to a far wider audience than those who chose to see someone live and accepted his/her material.

I could go on for another few pages as many parts of this bug me, but I'll quit while I'm behind.