British Libertarian campaigner Claire Fox goes after the joke police and takes no prisoners taking serious offense at being called offensive.
Whether we like it or not, we now have to think twice about when to laugh at or even tell jokes, at least without checking whether someone, somewhere, might…wait for it…“be offended”. When the likes of Dave Allen and Lenny Bruce broke the taboos of their day, they incurred the wrath of conservative prudes, politicians and the Church. Now it is liberal online activists, chattering classes, faux feminists and anti-racists who regularly use the outraged heckler’s veto if you dare laugh at the wrong joke.
Admitting what makes you laugh can be a minefield once humour is caught up in endless “You can’t laugh at that” controversies. Recently, I laughed when I saw someone wearing a t-shirt designed for a St Patrick’s Day pubcrawl, emblazoned with the slogan ‘Drunk Lives Matter’, a play on ‘Black Lives Matter’. But I soon realised I had committed a sin against comedy correctness. There’s been a huge furore about the shirt, denounced as ‘racist and disgusting’ for allegedly making fun of the ‘brutal killings of an entire race of people’. Oh dear. Had I laughed inappropriately, unconsciously showing insensitivity to black activists campaigning against police brutality in the US?
But when the complaints expanded to moans about the t-shirt stereotyping the Irish as drunken and implying St Patrick’s Day is an excuse for ‘debauchery and binge drinking’, I felt less guilty and on surer ground. I’m from an Irish family, and have been known to use St Pat’s Day as an excuse for the odd Guinness and tipple of Jameson’s, and I’m not offended. Surely – in these days of identity politics – laughing at ourselves, at our own identities, can’t be considered a ‘thought crime’? Don’t be too sure: consider the ludicrous situation of the arrest of Tottenham Hotspur fans for a racially aggravated public-order offence because they call themselves (with a wry smile) the ‘Yid Army’. Let’s remember when black American comedian Reginald D Hunter was effectively accused of racism for an ironic use of the N-word at an after-dinner speech at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) awards, resulting in the bizarre spectacle of the white PFA chair apologising for an anti-racist joke, told by a black comedian, to ‘everyone who was offended – and everyone who wasn’t’.
There is always more offence on the horizon. One irate Amazon reviewer wrote about the Drunk Lives Matters saga: “This shirt is…bigoted. It belittles two ethnic groups, the Irish and Blacks. It also makes fun of a disability called alcoholism.” And although I was also amused by another jokey Irish t-shirt reading ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’, but with the word ‘Irish’ crossed out and replaced with ‘Drunk’, it was attacked for trivialising the issue of rape. One feminist commentator, Carmella Farahbakhsh, explained that this sort of humour “just encourages an ongoing disbelief of people who have experienced sexualised violence”.
This killjoy approach insists on a dull literalism, where we are asked to take jokes at face value. Is it really the case that sniggering at a mock-sexist/self-deprecating Paddy-bashing jokey T-shirt means that I am secretly a rape apologist, misogynist xenophobe? The whole point of humour is surely that it elicits spontaneous mirth: sometimes innocent and juvenile; sometimes uncomfortable laughter at transgressive pokes at the orthodoxies of the day. If we have to walk on eggshells and deconstruct every line of humour to check its political ramifications, we’ll kill the joke. Maybe comedy clubs need to display ‘think before you laugh’ trigger warnings on the front door. As author Caitlin Flanagan wrote in an excellent article for The Atlantic in September 2015: “[T]hey are jokes, not lessons from the gender-studies classroom. Their first objective is to be funny, not to service any philosophical ideal. They go where comedy always wants to go, to the darkness, and they sucker-punch you with a laugh when you don’t think you should laugh.”
Is there really a joke that would not offend somebody, somewhere, especially when what makes people laugh is so subjective? Precisely because what make one person laugh may well offend another, there is an increasing number of topics deemed taboo. In 2015, there was a huge row, and an obligatory online petition, calling for a show to be cancelled, despite the fact that not a single episode had been made. Channel 4 had commissioned an Irish writer, Hugh Travers, to write a comedy about the nineteenth-century famine, but some other Irish people took umbrage. Even before anyone had read a script, knew the plot or the characters or who its jokes were aimed at, Hungry was denounced as ‘an affront to the genocide that was perpetrated in Ireland’. Dublin councillor David McGuiness berated the show because he predicted it would denigrate and embarrass the Irish, while writer and broadcaster Tim Pat Coogan compared it to making a comedy about Auschwitz or Belsen.
But who decides what are appropriate topics for humour? Interestingly, Austin Harney, an activist from a UK-based Irish community group and one of the most vocal in demanding that Channel 4 abandoned Hungry, admitted that: “I didn’t find Blackadder or Father Ted offensive, but we have to draw the line here.” But why here specifically? What about all the priests who might have been offended by Father Ted? Wasn’t Father Jack the very epitome of a cruel caricature of the elderly with dementia, those suffering alcoholism? Harney’s objections to Hungry were as daft as suggesting that Blackadder Goes Forth, a comedy set in the trenches, should have been banned for making us laugh in the context of the millions killed in the First World War.
When comedians that are judged to have crossed some arbitrary offence line are censured and punished, the consequences for a free society can be serious. One of Germany’s most popular satirists, Jan Böhmermann, spent most of last year facing the threat of prison after he read out a poem mocking Turkey’s President Erdogan on the public channel ZDF. The German courts backed down in the end, but in Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Commission extended its remit to include the policing of bad taste jokes, leading to stand-up comedian Mike Ward being fined $42,000 last year for telling an offensive joke about a disabled person. Meanwhile, British comedian Jimmy Carr was ‘found guilty’ of causing ‘considerable offence’ by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom after he cracked a joke about dwarves on BBC TV. And lest we forget, the satirists at French magazine Charlie Hebdo paid a terrible price when offended Islamists massacred them for daring to poke fun at the Prophet Muhammad.
Incredibly, author Will Self said in an interview on Channel 4 News after the brutal shootings at Charlie Hebdo that “You always have to ask with something that purports to be satire, who’s it attacking?” No, you shouldn’t ask that. Comedy has to be free to attack all subjects, not least because one of its values is to push at the limits of what passes for taste and decency, allowing us to laugh at the respectable rules and morals of society. As Eddie Doyle, head of comedy at RTÉ, noted in relation to the Hungry saga, “the function of comedians [is] to be the advance party testing the frontiers of what is sayable in society”. When asked how far comedy should go, the late comedian George Carlin said: “It’s a comedian’s duty to find the line and deliberately cross over it.”
Inevitably, such constant offence-checking has a chilling effect on comics and their material. Two respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have raged about the problems comics face on college campuses, both deciding to avoid the prescriptions on their gags by refusing to do university gigs. Recently, Jennifer Saunders revealed there will not be a TV reunion of award-winning series Absolutely Fabulous: “People are so politically correct now; we couldn’t get away with anything…People take offence at the smallest things.” The infamous champagne guzzling, fag-smoking characters of Patsy and Edie would never survive, she said, because “the modern world is hyper-sensitive and unable to enjoy humour without being mock offended”.
The flip side of this hyper-sensitivity is the savagery with which comics are attacked for jokes that violate the values of identity politics. Last year’s big screen version of Ab Fab did well at the box office, but didn’t escape a vicious tongue-lashing from PC critics. Because Scottish comedian Janette Tough, best known for her portrayal of Wee Jimmy Krankie, was cast (ironically) as Japanese fashion designer, Huki Muki, the casting was branded as racist “yellowface”. No wonder Saunders has concluded: “In the future it’s going to be harder to write anything.”
So, how should we respond to PC killjoys? No doubt I will get into trouble for quoting working men’s club favourite Bernard Manning’s motto: “They can’t stop us laughing!” But he had a point. Laugh on.