In a time where you can walk into almost any open mic night across Britain and hear a rape joke, where you can tune into a primetime TV show with sketches about Paedophilia and domestic abuse, there is one great taboo, more than any other. Race and racism in comedy has always been a hotly debated subject; from the sitcoms of the 70s when our moral sensibilities were somewhat different, to the Alternative Comedy scene of the 80s comedy clubs, to modern day where we come face to face with the most recent comedy scandal: “Frankie Boyle is a big ginger-bearded racist.”
It’s a subject that everyone has an opinion on. For many people it’s black and white. But for a wannabe stand up comedian like me, it’s a little more complex. I like to believe that there is no restriction in comedy, and that a comedian should be free to explore all avenues. But at what cost?
In the 70s, racism wasn’t an issue. Well, it was. Very much so. But the sensibilities of the Great British nation were such that we believed that jokes based on race, culture and particularly the stereotypes thereof, were just spiffing good fun! Take, for example, Love Thy Neighbour, a prime time sitcom from the early 70s which had 55 episodes across 7 series. The British Comedy Guide’s review entry for this sitcom reads simply:
‘Love Thy Neighbour was well received at the time. TV companies probably wouldn’t dare touch it with a barge pole these days, but it was liked by the black audience, particularly as Eddie always got his comeuppance each week.’
Likewise, Benny Hill was a staple of TV comedy since his rise to popularity in the 50s. In the later days of his career, he could often be seen playing an Asian stereotype of a character which now would be considered hugely offensive. He was watched by millions every week who tuned in to see his antics in a world where political correctness didn’t exist. It all changed in the 1980s, with the rise of the alternative comedy scene. Suddenly popular comedy was moral, subversive and politically charged. Suddenly a group of young, left wing comics were able to tell the masses that the old way of thinking was wrong; that comedy should not have victims, should not disadvantage groups or individuals, and should promote equality. Public taste shifted, and audiences and broadcasters decided that racist, sexist and homophobic jokes had no place in the mainstream. It was then that the old Mainstream comics (such as Bernard Manning and Roy “Chubby” Brown) were relegated from our screens. Mainstream comedy went away from our living rooms, and into our Working Men’s Clubs and took their ‘bigoted’ material with them.
Fast forward to 2010, and it is a different picture again. Our tastes have changed, and so have the subjects of our squeamishness. Where a comedian in the 60s would never dream of using the ‘C word’, it is peddled out in vast quantities in our stand-up shows and sometimes even our sitcoms. The latest scandal, as mentioned earlier, is the claim that Frankie Boyle, on his sketch show Tramadol Nights, uses offensive language to tell racist jokes. In the last episode, Mr Boyle manages to drop both ‘P’ and ‘N bombs’. Here is one of the jokes under scrutiny:
“What gets me is our callousness as a society when we read out our dead on the news first, because our lives are more important. Other peoples’ aren’t worth as much.”
[As a newsreader]: ‘A bomb went off in Kandahar today, killing two British servicemen, three UN relief workers and a whole bunch of Pakis.’
Now there are two schools of thought within this joke. The first is held by many of his critics, and certainly one held by the campaign group Show Racism The Red Card said who said: “Regardless of context and intention, the use of words such as these has the effect of normalising racist language.” Their argument is, that regardless of the target of the joke, there are just some things you can never justify saying. Their argument is that use of such highly charged words as ‘Nigger’ and ‘Paki’ works only to show the audience that this language is acceptable, and that it is okay to use them in your every day life. The problem that I have with this argument is that it is based on the assumption that the people who are watching are unable to make their own moral decision. It is the idea that because we hear a bad word on the TV, it automatically let us know that it’s okay to say and that it no longer represents the horrific injustices and oppression that it did five minutes ago. I don’t buy it. Channel 4 defended the show, saying “All the jokes highlight the unacceptable nature of this language”, claiming that the language was integral in making a point about the racism of our society as a whole. The idea is that the language highlighted the absurdity of that sort of viewpoint. Using the harshest language tells the audience that yes you should be shocked, you should be offended; because this is what is happening in our society.
On this occasion I am on Frankie Boyle’s side (it is a bit of a rare occurrence nowadays). I believe that you should not just be judged by the words you say, but the intention behind your jokes. When Bernard Manning made jokes about the Japanese, these were done with the intention of victimising and belittling a nation that he despised. They were done with the intention of ridiculing an entire race, and lowering their status. When Richard Herring uses the word ‘Paki’ in his live show Hitler Moustache, he did so to force the audience into a state of unease- to make a point about racism and the flippancy and callousness that these jokes can hold. Sometimes the most offensive words can have a dramatic effect in the fight against bigotry. What Mr Boyle was doing in the example above, was using the word ‘Paki’ to summarise and satirise the skewed views and values of our society. He was reading into an underlying racial skew in our media and reporting. He was offending you, to make you realise the hypocrisy of our news outlets.
The problem is always going to be that a large percentage of people simply cannot see that. And there is a big problem when that happens. When you disagree or agree with anything carte blanche, there is no space to adapt. One side of the coin will see a group who disapprove whatever the circumstances. Now this is generally done with the absolute best intentions – usually by spokespeople or interest groups who are trying to protect the rights of the disenfranchised. The problem is that they are sometimes trying to censor people who are part of their fight. The other issue is that once you start to censor one subject, others follow. Soon we won’t be able to make fun of Scientologists for being great big loonies. Now I never have and never will say “It’s political correctness gone mad!” This isn’t The Sun’s Letters to the Editor. I am, however, urging people to look at the intent and context of language and its application before running to Ofcom. The other side of the coin is equally as damaging, but in a different way. I’m going to call it the ‘Pub Landlord effect’. Al Murray has made his name with his character act the ‘Pub Landlord’; a typically ‘British’ stereotype of a bigoted publican. The Pub Landlord says things that most of his audience would never dream of- he is a blatant mockery of this sort of outdated middle-England type. The problem here is that some people don’t get the joke, and think he shares the feelings of the character. And they likey what they heary! This portion of the audience represents the dangerous group that do listen to the offensive jokes, do take it seriously and do think its okay to victimise individuals and minority groups.
For me, it is about justification. Is this joke funny enough, or making enough of a point, that is justifies the level of perceived offence? If the answer is no, then it has no place on our screen or on our stage. If the answer is yes, then I believe that there is space in the world for it. I do not like the idea of censorship, but I implore comics and writers to SELF censor. If you can rationalise your material and not make it about victimisation, then more power to you.
Of course the flaw with my entire argument is this: I am a white middle class woman in her mid twenties. I am not part of a minority. I have never felt oppressed because of my race, sex, religion or sexual orientation. It is very easy for me to say that certain things are okay and others are not – but what weight does it carry?
Nat Wicks also writes a blog now and again, which you can find online at www.comedyvirgin.blogspot.com