Friday, October 09, 2020

Not as Funny As He Used To Be....

The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. I am not thinking primarily of indecent or bawdy humour, which, though much relied upon by second-rate tempters, is often disappointing in its results. The truth is that humans are pretty clearly divided on this matter into two classes. There are some to whom "no passion is as serious as lust" and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for talking about sex.

The Screwtape Letters


When Alf Garnett said that we should send the fuzzy-wuzzies back to fuzzy-wuzzy land, we laughed at him, because his opinion was so awful and he expressed it so badly. We were supposed to laugh at him.
Warren Mitchell said that people sometimes recognized him on the street and said “I enjoyed you having a go at the immigrants on TV last night”. He used to reply “I wasn’t having a go at the immigrants: I was having a go at arseholes like you.” 

You can’t satirize a bigot without actually saying bigoted things. You probably couldn’t show Till Death Us Do Part on TV today, because Alf sometimes used the kinds of words that people like Alf sometimes use. We have rightly decided to stop using those words. No one can have the slightest doubt that the Major in Fawlty Towers is a ludicrous idiot: but I think that the BBC has made the right call in dropping the episode where he uses the n-word.


Steve Coogan is a clever man and Alan Partridge is an idiot. But I don’t particularly enjoy the Alan Partridge shows: Coogan’s comic re-creation of the most cringe-making TV disasters actually make me cringe; his satirical caricature of dreadful TV is often, to me, simply dreadful. But there is no question about where Coogan stops and Partridge starts. 

His portrayal of Stan Laurel was more like Stan Laurel than Stan Laurel was. 


If a comedian tells a cock joke we don’t imagine that he doesn’t understand basic human taboos and that he would expose himself in public given half the chance. It’s often rather buttoned-up and coy people who laugh most when the man on the stage talks about men's willies: it is funny precisely because the comedian is saying things they would never say. There are no streakers on naturist beaches. But some people think that there are things (indeed, Things) that you mustn’t mention ever, ever, ever, except maybe to a doctor or a nurse when Mummy and Daddy are also in the room. There is nothing funny about Rude Words and even if there is that is no excuse. 

A lot of people would also say that about Jimmy Carr’s rape gags. Exactly that. 


If I say “I am showing Karloff’s Frankenstein as part of my scary movie night” I do not expect you to say “I don’t find Frankenstein scary: it’s actually pretty tame.” 

If I say “I don’t think parents should dress little girls in sexy outfits” I do not expect you to say “I certainly do not find six year olds in leotards sexy”. 

If I say “That was a racist joke” then it is not very much to the point to say “That comedian is not a racist.”

"Scary", "sexy" and "racist" are qualities that a film, a dress, or joke can possess: regardless of our reaction to them, or the intention of the film maker, dress-maker or joke-teller. 

If you grant that racist words might be a legitimate component of comedy there is a danger that racists might pretend to be comedians simply in order to say the bad words. 

Or that common or garden street bigots mights use the bad words and say “oh but I didn’t mean it I was just making a joke: you libtards don’t have a sense of humour.” 

Or that very unfunny people might think that standing up and saying bad words was funny in itself.


The line between a witty political speaker and a comedian who jokes about politics because politics is sometimes funny is quite a wobbly one. It used to be said that Alternative Comedians could get laughs just by standing up in front of liberal audiences and saying “That Mrs Thatcher! What a cow! Know what I mean?” You couldn’t do that nowadays. Except maybe on the Now Show. But very many comedians use comedy to make out a case that they deeply and sincerely care about. Does Nish Kumar talk about his personal experience of racism because he wants to get laughs and living in a racist country sometimes gives rise to funny situations? Or does he want to make a serious point about racism and use funny anecdotes because they help him get his point across? 

(A little from column A and a little from column B) 

Jonathan Pie is a fictional TV news reporter portrayed by (checks notes) comedian Tom Walker, who is perhaps best known for portraying a fictional TV news reporter named Jonathan Pie. His portrayal is sufficiently convincing that not everyone realises that Jonathan Pie is a fictional character. The material is either ad libbed on the spot; or else Walker sufficiently inhabits the role that his vocal mannerisms, repetitions and verbal fumbles are part of the act. 

The twist is that Pie is a news-reporter for the BBC, standing outside 10 Downing Street or Parliament, giving a very neutral, balanced report on some debate or controversy, and then handing back to the studio. Once the mic is off, he says what he really thinks, which invariably develops into an angry, sweary rant. 

Here is Pie reporting on Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party in 2016. He says that although Corbyn appears relatively popular with ordinary people, the media have deliberately attached the label “unelectable” to him. He says that Corbyn appears to sincerely want to change the country. He says that people who write for the papers are by definition in positions of privilige and would therefore have something to lose if the country changed. He says that the Labour Party should not sacrifice integrity and principles in order to gain power. He says that Corbyn’s opponents are supporters of Blair, and that Blair was a bad thing. He says, in fact, the kinds of things which any political pundit might say. The humour, such as it is, is in the delivery. It’s not what he says it’s the way that he says it. 

He starts out talking calmly “Who decided he’s unelectable? I’ll tell you who did, the media did, we did”. 

He becomes more and more agitated as the speech goes on “this is about missing the good old days, the good old spin-doctoring war-mongering, Bush-fellating, Tory-imitating good old days”. 

Is the joke that a person from the media is saying about the media what the rest of us think — in the way that a very boring Richard Dawkins argument would be funny if it came out of the mouth of a Vicar? Or is the joke that he gets angry about this kind of thing: is passionate political engagement funny in itself? 

At one point, contrasting Jeremy Corbyn with Tony Blair he rants “fuck honesty! fuck integrity! we just want power!” Someone might say “Yes, that is correct: power without integrity is not worth having.” Someone else might say: “No, that is not correct: principles are worth nothing if you are only ever in opposition.” These are both positions that people might, and in fact do, hold. Is the joke that an angry sweary man is saying the kinds of things we normally only hear calm, polite men saying? Or is it simply that a posh man said fuck?

As a recovering Corbynite, I cannot deny that at the time I lapped it up. I forwarded it to all my friends. Ha-ha-ha the funny man is shouting about all the people who are being horrid to nice Jezza ha-ha-ha. 

Here is a more recent video about (oh god) cancel culture.

Background: Rebecca Long-Bailey, a Labour MP, allegedly tweeted a link to an interview with an actress that allegedly referred to an Amnesty International report which allegedly drew a connection between the killing of George Floyd and techniques allegedly used by the Israeli secret service. Kier Starmer, the alleged leader of the Labour Party, judged this to be anti-Semitic and removed her from her allegedly important position as (checks notes) opposition spokesperson on Education. Some people think that Kier Starmer, by acting promptly and decisively, showed leadership and the potential to be Prime Minister, bringing to an end five years during which the anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn had become a greater threat to the continued existence of Jews in Europe than Hitler had been. Some people think that largely concocted accusations of anti-Semitism had been weaponised by the Right to undermine Corbyn’s Prime Ministerial ambitions, and that Starmer had opportunistically smeared Corbyn’s de facto successor with the same mud. Where you stand on the issue has everything to do with where you stand on Corbyn’s and Starmer’s leadership, and almost nothing to do with what the offending article actually said. You may not find it too challenging to work out where I stand. 

The Jonathan Pie character draws a link between the sacking of Long-Bailey; the Black Rights Matter campaign; and “cancel culture” more generally. 

Once again, he makes a perfectly mainstream political argument: that it is hypocritical of the Left to complain about Long-Bailey being penalised for what was, at worst, a fairly minor deviation from the party position because the Left frequently penalise people for even more minor deviations from their own orthodoxy. Where the Corbyn monologue made the kind of case you could have found in any Guardian op-ed, the Long-Bailey video says exactly what any number of Daily Mail pundits say on any day of the week. 

Once again, I am a little puzzled as to where the “joke” occurs. What humour there is comes from rhetorical exaggeration. He starts from “people are losing their jobs for tweeting the wrong opinions” and builds up to “a society where a tiny but very vocal majority of perma-offended woke twats with an extraordinary amount of power have penetrated every aspect of our culture.” 

I know how to respond to this as an argument. It only works if you accept some pretty massive false equivalencies. It’s a common enough rhetorical device: ludicrously understate one side of the argument and therefore portray the contrary position as ludicrously extreme. “If you even suggest that there might be such a thing as biological sex you will be labelled a transphobe”. (Compare: Poor Enoch Powell only dared to suggest that maybe white people have some rights as well and he was labelled a racist.) He paints a picture of a world in which poor silenced J.K Rowling and poor martyred Graham Lineham just want to have a sensible, nuanced conversation but instead…some very bad thing has been done to them, which is somehow analogous to being put into a gas chamber. 

No-one is saying that biological sex does not exist. Some people are literally saying that trans women are male fetishists who get off on wearing women’s clothes because they have a thing about toilets. 

At one point in the piece Pie starts to shout  “I AM NOT JOKING”. Indeed. And responding to a joke as if it were an argument is obviously a category mistake: I would hardly criticise Monty Python by saying that the advertising standards authority didn’t record a single case of pet shops selling pets which were already dead in the whole of 1969. But the ludicrous Jonathan Pie is saying the same things that the perfectly serious P*t*r H*tch*ns makes in the Daily Mail on a weekly basis. “From the lockdown to the destruction of statues, these febrile weeks show the pillars of our freedom and civilization are rotten. As the Left now controls every lever of power, we face nothing less than regime change.” 

But perhaps H*tch*ns is not serious either? Perhaps The Right never are? Perhaps Conservatism is only ever a grotesque self-caricature intended mainly to annoy the libtards? Perhaps I should not be saying "Jonathan Pie is no funnier that H*tch*ns? Perhaps I should be saying "H*tch*ns is just as much a wind-up as Jonathan Pie".

Joanthan Pie is a caricature of the kind of person who says the kind of thing Jonathan Pie says, in the way that Alf Garnett was a caricature of the kind of person who says the kinds of things that Alf Garnett says. I am supposed to laugh at Jonathan Pie because he thinks that “losing your Twitter account” and “being ushered into an incinerator” are roughly the same thing, when I can see quite well that they are not. He is funny because he is wrong.  

And I now see that that was also the joke in the earlier, apparently left-wing monologue. The joke was that the Jonathan Pie character was such a big fool that he thought that Jeremy Corbyn was a good Labour Leader and that he had some chance of becoming Prime Minister. Only a big fool could believe anything so silly. Pie said “the trouble with Jeremy Corbyn is that he tells the truth…”. I reacted as if he had made a good political point. I was supposed to react in the same way I reacted when Ali G asked Buzz Aldrin if he was ever jealous of Louis Armstrong.

The joke’s on me. I forwarded the Corbyn rant to all my leftie friends because it was saying things that I agreed with; not realising that the whole joke was that they were things that only someone as stupid as me could possibly believe. I was in the same boat as the American right wing news outlet who thought that Pie was an example of what left wing British journalists were actually like. This time, the joke is on P*t*r H*tch*ns and the Daily Mail who continue to nod and say “Yes, that’s a good point” even as the rant gets more and more extreme. 

I think it was Mark Steel who stuck up his hand in a Tory fringe meeting and suggested the restoration, not just of hanging but of crucifixion, to see if anyone present would agree with him. (They did.) I think I may have walked into a similar trap. 

But this kind of thing is double edged. Alf Garnett couldn’t satirize racism without being racist. Jimmy Carr tells jokes about the ways in which audiences react to very offensive jokes as part of an act which includes jokes which are very offensive. Someone suggested that we should apply a version of the Turing Test to on-line trolls: if you can’t tell whether the poster really has ludicrously extreme views, or is merely pretending to have ludicrously extreme views then he has ludicrously extreme views. There isn’t much difference between a man yelling right wing fallacies for comic effect and a man yelling right wing fallacies. Jonathan Pie is a sufficiently clever parodist that he is no longer a parodist: he is become the thing itself.

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g said...

I think Jonathan Pie's opinions are a deliberately-overheated version of Tom Walker's. See e.g. this interview on CNN, which has some other curious features besides revealing a thing or two about Walker's sociopolitical opinions.

So I think he really does think Jeremy Corbyn was a good Labour leader, that "New Labour" was too willing to be Tory-lite, and that if Corbyn was unelectable it was mostly because the media decided he should be; but that he doesn't really think it fair to call Blair a Bush-fellating warmonger. And that he really does think that Political Correctness Has Gone Too Far and that today's political left is too focused on identity politics and not enough on the traditional priorities of the left; but that he doesn't really think anyone is in danger of being sent to the incinerators for daring to suggest that there is such a thing as biological sex.

So yes, the humour is in rhetorical exaggeration, but not because he doesn't believe any of what he's saying. I think he mostly believes what he-as-Pie says, for good or ill. In particular, I don't think he thinks that only an idiot could think that the trouble with Jeremy Corbyn is that he tells the truth. But he might think that only an idiot would get as shouty about it as Pie does.

(I don't think it's quite the same as Alf Garnett. So far as I know, Warren Mitchell didn't agree with Garnett's opinions and merely deplore the way they were expressed.)

Nick M said...

Warren Mitchell was known to say to people who came up and congratulated him on ‘having a go at the darkies’ that ‘I’m not having a go at them. I’m having a go at you’

However, the fact that Til Death was constantly praised by the very people it was supposed to be satirising does raise the question - at what point do you say ‘You know, people don’t understand this thing I’m creating no matter how clear I make it. Perhaps I should stop doing it?’

Aonghus Fallon said...

I remember reading somewhere how, when satire becomes indistinguishable from what it is satirising, it ceases to be satire. One of the occupational hazards of playing a crank (for laughs) is that you sometimes end up becoming one. I can never quite make up my mind why. Either the person is just playing a variation of themselves - having enough self-awareness to do so, only for this to be eroded with time - or maybe sometimes consistently playing a part means you end up identifying with it? The Irishman Kevin Myers used to write ‘The Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’, which I recall being pretty funny. He had this Colonel Blimp-style persona that started out as a joke, until suddenly one day it wasn’t.

Andrew Rilstone said...

This sounds like Auberon Waugh: his comic persona was a very conservative, upper class English duffer, whereas he himself as actually a very conservative, upper class English duffer...

It is often said of Conservative comedians -- your Jim Davisons and Bernard Mannings -- that they "say what every one else is thinking". I am not quite sure how to articulate this: I don't think that all conservatives are "really" racist little Englanders like Alf Garnett and Al Murray. But it does seem that the Right is more likely to applaud and extreme caricature right-winger than the Left is to applaud a caricature leftist. Could it be something to do with the Heart and the Head? Some conservatives gut instinct is more extreme than their brains or their conscience would admit? So if you stood up in front of an audience of conservatives and said "Never mind hanging serial killers: we should be talking about hanging Remainers" half of them would cheer; but if you stood in front of an audience of liberals and said "I think we should open up the prisons and replace life-sentences with a stiff ticking off" most of them would say "No, actually, I don't agree with that".

Is it like what I've said about Doctor Who -- that you can't parody it, because it already parodies itself so well?

There really ought to be lots of examples of funny, caricatures of The Left by clever Tories. But the only thing I can think of right now is Dave Spart in Private Eye.

I suppose it is a little like what I've

Aonghus Fallon said...

Well it’s certainly an allegation that’s often made against the left by the right - not entirely without justification - that the left lacks a sense of humour about itself. That said, I’m not sure your right wing audience are laughing at the caricature right-winger so much as laughing with him - ie they might not agree with him, but they sympathise with him.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that they agree with him ("heck yeah! put mouthy women in the stocks!") and don't agree with him ("what, no, that's an awful thing to say!") at the same moment, and that data processing error results in laughter. Most humour comes from being pulled in two directions at once.

Andrew said...

I too had a Jonathan Pie period, dutifully sharing his content, to the point of going to see him live. At which point I realised that he and his co-writer Andrew Doyle (of Spiked) were deliberately trying to deliver material that made 'both sides' happy, presumably in order to maximise his revenue (in the same way that modern Spitting Image is much more about attracting new subscribers to Britbox than making any kind of satirical point).
Last time I watched him, Pie seemed to be kind of trying to tread a nuanced 'Trump voters have a point', 'we should debate Nazis, not cancel them' line. Perhaps by now, he realised that he can make more revenue by appealing to the right.