Friday, January 27, 2023

I Don't Wish To Know That...

contains some very bad words and quotes some very bad taste jokes

Jimmy Carr also came in for a lot of criticism after a Netflix special called His Dark Material. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust described the routine as "abhorrent", Hope Not Hate said that he was actively celebrating the Holocaust, and some MP or other talked about him perpetuating and legitimising racism.

And again: his act is clearly in the most appalling taste. He jokes about penises, vaginas, sex, masturbation, funerals, child abuse, cancer, strokes, concentration camps and rape. He makes rather a thing of telling jokes about rape. In themselves, they are not particularly shocking: the shocking thing is that he tells them at all. He claims that, approached by a call-girl in Amsterdam, he replied "I don't need to pay for sex: I'm a rapist" and immediately eye-balls a female member of the audience. "You look like you really don't want to be laughing at that rape joke. But somewhat ironically, I'm forcing you." 

And that's very much the formula. Warn the audience that the next joke is going to be incredibly offensive. Make an incredibly offensive joke. Upbraid the audience for laughing at it. Point out that they knew what the act was going to be like when they bought the ticket. Rinse and repeat. It's not that from when Humphrey Lyttleton, of blessed memory, used to mouth "what?" and look bewildered after some filthy double entendre. Or indeed, Frankie Howard's trademark "Ooo...don't you dare!" 

Ricky Gervais justified his dreadful material because it was ironic. He was expressing terrible opinions, but he didn't really believe any of them. My contention is that he clearly did believe quite a lot of them, and the audience wouldn't be whooping and applauding if they didn't believe some of them too. Carr mostly doesn't do opinions. When he does take a stance, it is generally on the correct side of an argument. Early in the act, he talks about covid:

"Let's talk about the controversial thing: the vaccine. Who's not going to take the vaccine because they think it might be dangerous? Raise your hand. Now take that hand...and slap yourself in the fucking face."

And a bit later, about race:

"Black Lives Matter happened: clearly a good thing. And then people who didn't really understand it came along and started saying 'all lives matter'.... It's like someone saying 'save the whale' and someone saying 'save all animals'. Yes, but we don't have a problem with people harpooning pigeons, you daft cunt."

It was said of 70s Irish raconteur Dave Allen that he thought any old shaggy-dog yarn became twice as funny if he added the word "bloody" to the punchline. Jimmy Carr takes the same approach with rather ruder words.

Both remarks are recognisably jokes. The first involves a change of direction -- raise your hand to show assent / raise your hand in order to hit yourself. The second involves an absurd analogy. The point about the stupidity of the "all lives matter" slogan would be made equally well by pointing out that "all houses matter", but fire trucks don't generally speed to buildings that are not currently burning down; and that "all swimmers matter" but we don't generally throw life jackets to people who are not drowning. But the absurd image of people hunting pigeons like whales makes the political point with a belly laugh. If the object was merely to shock and court controversy, he could presumably have done a little rant about snowflakes wearing face pants and sheeple kneeling at the shrine of PC. The Ricky Gervais routine writes itself: if you won't kill Hitler in case it changes the colour of your hair, then obviously you won't wear an uncomfortable item on your face to stop someone else getting sick. Carr doesn't do this. Some people are even now writing essays accusing him of excessive wokeness. 

But he rarely expresses a point-of-view, ironic or otherwise. He certainly never says "Maybe rape is good, actually", even as a comic stance. What he says is "Rape is terrible. So terrible you shouldn't joke about it. So here is a joke about rape."

Jimmy Carr's defence of his terrible material is essentially that words don't matter and you can say whatever you like:

"Lets start with a trigger warning. Tonight's show contains jokes about terrible things. Terrible things that might have affected you, or the people you love. But these are just jokes: they're not the terrible things. There's a huge difference between doing a joke about rape, and doing a rape. I fucking hope. Or I'm going to jail forever."

Now this is an obvious straw man. No-one has ever claimed that joking about murder is just as bad as killing someone; no one has ever claimed that telling a joke about genocide is the moral equivalent of a war crime. Ricky Gervais says directly that "people nowadays" want you to believe that "words are actual violence", and demonstrates that this is not the case by pretending to beat up a disabled toddler.

But no-one does, in fact, say that words are actual physical violence. You can only get to "a comedian can say whatever he likes because words don't do actual physical harm" if you start from "people in general should be allowed to say whatever they like because words don't do actual physical harm". And some people, sadly, do say exactly that. They say that words don't have consequences. They say that words are so important that it doesn't matter whether they have consequences or not. They say that a romany gypsy who objects to Jimmy Carr's holocaust jokes and a traveller who objects to being called pikey in the playground are both equally pathetic effeminate millennial snowflakes who should suck it up. The real threat to civilisation is not racism, but laws against racism. Bullying is good, actually. 

If you want to draw political conclusions from this kind of act, that's the one you should draw. If you ban hate speech, you'd have to ban jokes; if you permit jokes, you have to allow hate speech. Every bad taste joke you laugh at strikes a small blow for free speech.

I think some campaigners are genuinely unable to perceive context, and I think some free speech campaigners are genuinely worried about them getting the upper hand. We all remember moral welfare campaigners who felt that Batman stopping a bank robbery was irreducibly a "crime comic" and Dennis the Menace getting spanked was nothing more or less than a "child abuse comic". Many of us lived through an era where stories about happy same-sex couples were (in some contexts) against the law because "talking about gay people" was the same as "promoting homosexuality." We all agree that this is pernicious nonsense. But fear of this kind of thing can lead to equal and opposite extremism. Rowan Atkinson affects to believe that the right to say whatever you like is the second most important right: not as important as the right to food, but more important than the right to shelter. It is better to be street homeless than to be prohibited from making jokes about silly vicars. It's the sort of thing that only a rich person with a big house could possibly say.

Jimmy Carr is not a free speech absolutist. He says (to his credit) that comedians ought not to "look round" before speaking: if you wouldn't tell a particular joke if you saw a black person or a disabled person in the room, then you shouldn't tell it at all. I rather think that the conclusion he draws is not "There are some jokes I wouldn't tell" but "I don't mind who I offend." Bernard Manning, of rather less blessed memory, used to claim that he was not a racist because he told jokes about every race; which is a little like saying that you are not a wife-beater because you beat up your kids and complete strangers as well. But the point (about not looking round before telling a joke) is well made.

Jimmy Carr tells jokes. Old fashioned jokes with set-ups, twists, verbal ambiguities and punch lines. Not all very clever, but delivered at a quick fire pace, so quantity overwhelms quality. Anyone who frequented Butlins Redcoat Shows or watched Seaside Special in the 1970s will encounter a number of very old friends, repurposed around eternal verities like mortality and self-abuse.

"Once, my mother walked in on me masturbating, and I said 'Mum, stop masturbating'"

That joke is pure Basil Brush-out-of-Groucho Marx:

"This morning I answered the door to the post-man in my dressing gown. I told him to take it off immediately and buy one of his own." 

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I don't know". 

It's also a meta joke, a joke against his own profession. It's a colossal cliche for alternative comedians to tell stories about awkward teenage sexuality. I once heard a guy literally opening his set with "Hey, wanking. Wanking! Wanking, eh? But sometimes your mum walks in. That's in my contract, now I can start the act." Carr's set-up says "I am going to tell an embarrassing story against myself": the punch line says "Fooled you -- it's just a daft wordplay." It's not a million miles from "A man walked into a bar, ouch, it was an iron bar".

Or, again: 

"My father died"

"What was it?"

"The big C"


"No, he drowned."

I tell precisely this joke to small children: 

"What's a pirate's favourite letter of the alphabet?" 


"You'd think it would be R, but they're really all about the C."

At some level, it's another joke about jokes, and a Jimmy Carr joke about Jimmy Carr jokes. It's rather outrageous to talk about The Taboo Illness through the medium of a Christmas Cracker gag. It doesn't occur to us to ask how Person B felt when he mistook drowning for cancer -- was he embarrassed at misunderstanding a tragic situation? or cross that Person A had deliberately misled hm? You might as well ask if my wife had a good time in Jamaica, and whether she was in the end pleased that I insisted she go. 

Probably a third of Carr's material involves this kind of change of register: introducing a serious subject and then talking about it trivially; or talking lightly about something and then revealing that he was really talking about something very serious indeed.

"So, I'm in a thirty mile per hour zone, built up area, middle of the day, so what am I doing? Thirty miles per hour. Driving along, minding my own business, come across a guy doing barely ten. So what do you do in that scenario? Flash your lights, toot the horn, let him know, either move over or speed up. He did neither.... And this is what I'm dealing with: he had one of those "novelty licence plates." Beloved Mum, in flowers..."

Ricky Gervais would like us to believe that he actually made an obscene remark about his friend's granny's clitoris at her funeral -- or that his fictional stage persona had done so, or that his stage persona wants us to believe he had done so. The friend's reaction to the utterly inappropriate remark is the point of the story. Carr definitely doesn't want us to imagine that he really doesn't know a wreath from a licence plate, or to consider how people on their way to a funeral would feel if the driver behind them started sounding his horn. Like the cancer gag it's a verbal construct that takes place in joke-land. 

I've sometimes been bothered by old Laurel & Hardy routines, because they seem to transpose slapstick situations into the real world. I find it harder to laugh at a pie-in-the-face routine if I am being told that the baker is sad because his nice cake has been destroyed and the bride is sad because her wedding cake has been ruined. I find it harder to laugh at wheels coming off a clown's car if I am supposed to pretend that it is a real car and the owner has lost a valuable asset and been put out of business. Perhaps this is what is meant when we say that joking about terrible things is not the same as actually doing terrible things. Jokes don't even hurt imaginary people: there are no characters in joke land. 

Some of Carr's more anecdotal material does have explicit consequences: and notably these stories are a lot less cruel, and sometimes directed against himself. His story about doing a comedy routine in a hospice depends on the reaction of terminally ill patients to his bad-taste jokes. He claims that when he said  "We don't have much time, well, I do..." the audience was pleased that he had mentioned the elephant in the room, but when he said "Anyone here from last year?" it fell flat. True or not, the sense that this is a real situation in which the comedian went too far and felt mortified is the point of the story. 

But of course, a lot of the act is pure smut, as smutty as possible, smut and nothing but, smut for the sake of being smutty. It's quite juvenile, generally directed at members of the audience and supposed hecklers. ("I'm going to go soft on you. Like every man who's ever seen you naked.") At one point he asks the women in the audience to shout out their names for their genitals. In some possible world, there could have been a feminist message behind this: it is both funny and uncomfortable to hear grown up women admitting to using terms like "flower", "minky" and "nunu".  There would be nothing particularly funny about getting men to shout out "cock", "prick" or "willy": that's just what the thing is called. Carr has some ad libs about the various euphemisms -- he is very quick witted indeed, although I do wonder if some of the heckles he responds to are purely imaginary. But it's mostly a build up to a daft punchline in which he portrays himself in a deliberately childish light. "My wife calls it her fu-fu; which to be honest makes mister dingle-dangle not want to do the humpy hump."

Well, yes. We tend not to talk about our thingybobs and etceteras. And because we don't talk about them, we don't know what to call them, and because we don't know what to call them, we only have silly names for them, which makes it harder to talk about them. I believe modern childcare manuals encourage parents to use Proper Words, but very few do so. The one time I was in hospital as an adult, I was uncomfortable with nurses using babyish expressions like "willy" and "number two" but I don't know what else they could have done.

When we mention things we aren't allowed to mention, some people are uncomfortable. Offended, even. Angry. But it makes other people laugh. And it's a comedian's job to make people laugh: so, naturally, he is going to mention things he isn't allowed to mention. The ruder the word, the more taboo the subject, the more people hollering that he isn't allowed to say that on the stage, the funnier the gag. If comedians ever stopped mentioning the unmentionable they would have stopped being comedians. I suppose that some comedians have a genuine fear that this is the end game that the various species of puritan are working towards. 

Or is there a kind of unspoken double-think? Is there a kind of cultural agreement that we will pretend that you aren't allowed to say "shit" or "cunt" even though we know you are? And therefore we pretend that when a comedian uses one of those words, we are very shocked indeed, even though we are no such thing? And this allows us to pretend that rude jokes are funny, even if, in the cold light of day, they aren't? (We used, after all, to have a tacit agreement that if anyone said "mother in law" we would all fall about.) On the other hand there are some words that you really aren't allowed to say: even in italics and quotation marks, even in the course of an essay about bad words, even if you use *st*r*sks to blot them out. Fuck me all the fucks you like but if I say "J*h*v*h" or "N*gg*r" god will strike me down with a gigantic boulder. I can't even say that I can't say it. 

Carr ends his routine with what he heavily signals will be very bad taste jokes indeed. He describes them as his Career Ending Gags. As usual, many of them are clever and polyvocal:

"I don't like being told to take off my shoes at airports. Really, Heathrow? Just got new carpets, have you? I wouldn't take off my shoes if I was visiting a Mosque. And that sort of cultural insensitivity towards Islam should tell you, I'm not the guy you're looking for."

It's an edgy, taboo subject: terrorism and religion. It takes place, again, in joke-land. If you actually refused to co-operate with Airport security, you'd end up in a cell. I find it very hard to parse it as anti-Muslim. There's a misdirect: wouldn't it be funny if security staff were worried about mud on the carpet. There's an ironic yoking together of two different things: take your shoes off to be searched by security / take your shoes off out of respect in a holy place. And there's a paradoxical pay off: the fact that I won't take off my shoes proves I don't need to. The joke teller doesn't have a clear position and I think our difficulty in processing what has just been said is what makes it funny. Are we laughing at the Islamaphobia of the narrative voice (who won't take his shoes off in a mosque)? or the Islamaphobia of the security man (for assuming that if he's not a Muslim, he can't be a terrorist)? or at ourselves (for momentarily seeing the security man's point)? 

oh but Andrew if you had dark skin and were hassled by security every time you went onto an aeroplane or for that matter if you'd lost loved ones to a terrorist attack which could have been prevented by sensible airport searches than I wonder if you'd be laughing I doubt if you'd laugh if you slipped up on a banana skin and hurt yourself you'd probably be quite annoyed there is absolutely no difference between playing my ding-a-ling on top of the pops and doing a blue peter makes table demonstration of masturbation techniques and incidentally no difference between talking about masturbation in an age appropriate sex education presentation and grooming kids on the internet dirty things are dirty islamaphobic things are islamophobic racist things are racist comedy is no excuse

Perhaps, then,  it is not particular subjects which are off limits. Perhaps particular subjects are off-limits for jokes. Perhaps the taboo is not "mentioning terrorism". Perhaps the taboo is "mentioning terrorism in a joke.

But which are the joke-free categories? 

The Scotsman says "For my last request, I would like to hear a bagpiper play the Bluebells of Scotland". 

The Irishman says "Before I die, I would like to hear an Irish tenor sing Croppy Boy." 

The Englishman thinks for a minute and says "Would you shoot me first?" 

If I am allowed to joke about firing squads, ship-wrecks, death-beds, suicide, and crucifixion who decided that I am not allowed to joke about gas chambers? And won't that create an infinite regress? If gas chamber jokes are taboo and taboo breaking is funny then aren't the kinds of jokes that comedians aren't allowed to tell precisely the kinds of jokes we'd expect comedians to start telling?

I'm not sure if I ought to quote Jimmy Carr's awful, terrible, very bad, not good joke. At first I wasn't going to, but you've heard it already and can easily google for it, so here it is.

"When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the tragedy and horror of six million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis. No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”

We can agree that this joke is in very, very, very, very, very, very, very poor taste. I think we can agree that the very, very, very, very poor taste is the point of it. Carr delivers it in a more than usually arch tone of voice; as if he is speaking in quotation marks. After delivering the punch line, he immediately starts talking about the joke, and why it is funny. ("Edgy, edgy as all hell, it's a joke about the worst thing that has ever happened in human history.") But it would be completely off the wall to infer that the joke is, on any level, actually celebrating the holocaust, or actually calling for the extermination of Roma.

Does the joke depend on anti-traveller racism? I'm not completely sure that it does. The Airport gag was about anti-Muslim prejudice. The train of thought goes: "Dang right, if he's anti-Muslim he can't be a terrorist, oh shit, what am I thinking, ha-ha". But I don't think the holocaust joke expects us to say "Yes! Killing gypsies was a positive -- fuck, no, of course it wasn't ha-ha." I think the laugh is merely about the incongruity of saying that a bad thing was a good thing, with a straight face. One can easily imagine how a comedian in the Ricky Gervais mould would treat the same material. Ironically, of course. Have you ever noticed how gypsies sometimes park their caravans inconveniently, leave lots of litter, and try to sell you craft items you don't really want? All I am saying is that Hitler had the right idea. No, honestly, of course I don't want to kill all the gypsies. Just the ones on my street. No, stop it, gassing minorities is totally abhorrent. You should shoot them. But seriously folks..."

but andrew that's not the point you don't make jokes about genocide you just don't you just don't

Miss Beale said that you mustn't make a joke about bums, because bums are not the sorts of things you should make jokes about. Mrs Whitehouse said you shouldn't make a joke about, er, ding-a-lings, because ding-a-lings are not the sorts of things you should make jokes about. And all right thinking people agree that you mustn't make jokes about genocide because genocide isn't the kind of thing you can make a joke about. 

You can make jokes about anything apart from the things which you can't make jokes about. And we all agree which those things are. Except where we don't. 

But a joke is a thing which makes you laugh, and a good joke is one that a lot of people laughed at, and everyone laughed at Jimmy Carr's awful terrible no good bad joke

Well, they shouldn't have done. 

Boom boom. I'll be here all week. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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g said...

This is (as ever!) generally excellent, but there really are people, quite a lot of people and not just a few isolated loonies, claiming seriously that in some contexts words are actual violence. Not "actual physical violence", but AIUI Gervais didn't use the word "physical".

For instance, here's the Oncology Nursing Society: "Verbal abuse is still violence, Joint Commission says" ( Unfortunately I can't tell what the Joint Commission actually says because the link to their report 404s.

Here's Everyday Feminism, which I think is a pretty high-traffic thing, saying that misgendering trans people is violence: "Here's why misgendering trans people is an act of violence (

(For the avoidance of doubt, my citing these things doesn't mean that I am in favour of being verbally abusive to nurses or misgendering trans people; both of those are unpleasant and cruel things to do and I wish people would stop doing them.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks for that.

Yes, to be clear, what RG said was:

"And it's all, like 'Comedy should punch up; it should never punch down.' But sometimes you've got to punch down. Like if you're beating up a disabled toddler. If you punch up you'll miss the little cunt and he'll win. I like that joke because it highlights the difference between metaphorical punching down in jokes and actual punching down. But nowadays people want you to believe that words are actual violence, like. Now you laughed at a joke about beating up a disabled toddler, right? No-one get hurt. If I'd actually dragged out a disabled toddler, you wouldn't have laughed."

So while he didn't use the word "physical" I do think he's setting up a straw doll that people who say "words are actual violence" are conflating physical and metaphorical violence.

I do actually think it would be better if we limited the word "violence" to refer to "violence" and used words like bigotry, psychological cruelty, hate-speech, and verbal bullying to refer to bigotry, psychological cruelty, hate-speech, and verbal bullying. But "people nowadays think that joking about hitting a child is the same as hitting a child, which it isn't, because no child is actually hit" is bordering on gibberish.

Gavin Burrows said...

Agreed Carr is a different case to Gervais. He’s essentially said before now he’s a kind of gag formalist. His job as a comedian is to build workable gags, and worrying about their content and what it’s effect might be, that isn’t his affair. But if an architect said “I just plan buildings, my last commssion may have been Nazis wanting a death camp built, but that’s nothing to do with me” …well, we might look at him a little askew.

For Free Speech Absolutism to be coherent within itself, it needs to claim there’s a rigid distinction between words and actions. But of course this is nonsense as soon as you try applying it to real-life situations. Hitler, insofar as we know, killed no-one with his own hands. That scarcely makes him innocent of all charges. “Forms of words are violence” is just looking for a shorthand way of saying that. It may be clumsy, it may be one of those things which only gets its point over to those who already know it. But the point behind it is solid.

g said...

I don't think he's saying anything quite so stupid as you say. (I do think that what he's saying is pretty dubious.) It's more like "people nowadays think, or say they think, that joking about vulnerable people is the same kind of thing as physically attacking them. But look, obviously you don't really feel that way, because you laughed at the joke and you'd never have laughed at actually hitting a toddler. The reactions are different enough to prove that you don't really think of joking about disabled toddlers and hitting disabled toddlers as the same kind of thing at all, which means that calling the former "punching down" as if it were a kind of actual violence is a misleading metaphor."

Again, I don't think much of this argument. Metaphors are often in terms of something very different from the reality, and this doesn't generally invalidate them; if I say "he chose the nuclear option" the fact that I'm not hiding in a bunker doesn't prove that I'm insincere, if I say "she absolutely eviscerated him in that debate" with evident glee rather than horror and disgust it doesn't prove that I'm insincere, etc. But I don't think it's bordering on gibberish; it's just not a very good argument.

... On the other hand, RG was trying to make a joke at the same time as making whatever point he was trying to make, and maybe he's entitled to a bit of slack if being funny gets in the way of being accurate. (Not an infinite amount of slack. To some extent you need to take responsibility for the claims and arguments you make even if you say you're joking when you make them, which after all is kinda the point here. But some slack.) Maybe there's a less-overreaching version of RG's argument that (1) still says something not-completely-obvious and (2) isn't invalid, and that his horsing around about disabled toddlers is gesturing towards?

Something like this, perhaps. "Some people get very upset when comedians get laughs at the expense of vulnerable people. They say comedians have a solemn duty to 'punch up' and not 'punch down'. But that's wrong: sometimes the benefit of making people laugh outweighs the alleged harm. The language of 'punching' exaggerates how much actual harm there is. If I beat up a disabled toddler I would do them a lot of harm. If I make a joke about beating up disabled toddlers, I don't actually harm anyone. That's why when I make the joke you laugh instead of being horrified and finding it as un-funny as you would if I actually beat up a disabled toddler in front of you."

I'm not sure that's right (not least because it is extremely possible to make a lot of people laugh by doing things that I'm very sure are very bad), but it's a kinda-reasonable argument and it doesn't seem impossible that it's more or less what RG meant by his (of course overstated for comic effect) bit about punching down at disabled toddlers.

Sophie Jane said...

It is perhaps helpful to understand both verbal and physical abuse as the deliberate infliction of pain. I believe that’s the commonality the people you think ridiculous have in mind, anyway

g said...

Yup, verbal abuse is bad in lots of the same ways as physical abuse.

If "... the people you think ridiculous ..." was addressed to me, then I think at least one of us is somehow failing to communicate clearly. Probably me. I don't think it's at all ridiculous to say that some sorts of verbal behaviour are forms of violence. I understand (or at least I think I do) why you might want to say that mockery or insult or misgendering or whatever is a form of violence; I just happen to think that other ways of acknowledging the harm that words can do are better.

Also, although as a matter of fact I don't think that position is ridiculous, even if I did that would be very different from thinking that the people who hold it are ridiculous. It's very possible for not-ridiculous people to hold ridiculous opinions.

I definitely didn't intend to say anything that implies or even suggests that anyone or any opinion is ridiculous; to whatever extent I did, I screwed up and I'm sorry I did.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't think I said anyone was ridiculous either. Certainly didn't mean to.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think it is possible that some people may have taken the following paragraph:

"If you want to draw political conclusions from this kind of act, that's the one you should draw. If you ban hate speech, you'd have to ban jokes; if you permit jokes, you have to allow hate speech. Every bad taste joke you laugh at strikes a small blow for free speech"

to represent my actual opinion; it was intended to represent what I think some free-speech absolutists might take away from this kind of act. (It follows on from "bully is good, actually." I don't think that bullying is good. I also don't eat dogs.) I haven't written anything about politics since September 2021 and don't intend to do so again until April 2025.

Kyle said...

I always enjoy Carr on panel shows but I find his stand up tedious. The first time I saw one of his specials it was funny and shocking for ten minutes and then more of the same.

You're on to something with him: when he's being even a little sincere, his mannerisms and his style of joke telling change pretty significantly. I think he wants the audience to understand he has different modes, while Gervais is always himself, even when he doesn't want to be.

Scurra said...

I tend to agree that Jimmy Carr is far more interested in what might be termed the philosophical and scientific nature of humour (he wrote a book about it, and there was a fun radio series too) and the result is that his stand-up sets are clearly constructed to within an inch of their life to illustrate various specific structural things - it's just that he has also figured out that doing 'unbroadcastable' material is healthier for his bottom line; I wonder if Netflix has somewhat undermined that particular stand-up 'schtick' now, or whether it will lead to a healthier relationship with taboo? (Based on the entirety of human history, I doubt it.)

In passing, I also note that the tax business resulted in him accepting the punching but also enabled him to punch himself repeatedly for something that has done him no real harm in the longer run.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Kyle: I've heard this is general problem with stand-up: that someone can be VERY FUNNY as a 20 minute turn in a cabaret or comedy club, but not be able to sustain a 90 minute headline set. I've definitely found this so with the folk scene: there are singers who I like very much indeed but probably don't need to hear do two lots of eight songs plus an encore.

Andrew Rilstone said...

g. Yes, I think yours is a very much more charitable interpretation than mine.

But I do think there is an element of metaphor-abuse going on. The claim that is sometimes made is that it is okay for a poor person to say "Isn't it funny that rich people are rich" but not okay for a rich person to say "Isn't it funny that poor people are poor". The former is described as "punching up"; the latter as "punching down". Maybe this is wrong; and able-bodied people should be allowed to make fun of disabled people provided it's funny. But "it's not literal punching" is kind of a non-sequitur. And it's made more confused by conflating it with "words are violence" and the ambiguous qualifier "actual". Which is a different claim.

And Carr's claim is much more direct: a joke about a murder is not a murder and therefore it is okay to tell jokes about murders. Which is refuting a claim that no-one has ever made.

Words can certainly sometimes incite murders, but I don't think this is the claim that's being made. People like Frederic Wertham really did think that gruesome comic-books depicting decapitation would directly cause children to go and behead their parents with deadly weapons. I don't think he was correct. But "A comic book about a terrible thing is not the same as the terrible thing; drawing a comic about a beheading is not the same as doing a beheading" wouldn't be a helpful response.

g said...

Again, I don't think the argument Gervais is making is "it's not literal punching", it's "it's different enough from literal punching that the metaphor is misleading". Yes, he paints a picture of himself literally beating up a toddler because he thinks that's a funny and vivid way to make his point, but I'm pretty sure he realises that the people he's complaining about do already understand that this sort of "punching" isn't the same thing as literal punching. But he hopes that setting "telling jokes" alongside "actually beating people up" will help his audience recognize how very different the two things are.

Likewise, Carr isn't just saying "telling a joke about rape and committing a rape are not literally the same thing" as if there's anyone in the world who doesn't recognize that. He says "there's a huge difference" not just "there's a difference" for a reason: the claim he's making is about the size of the difference. Yeah, adding "I fucking hope. Or I'm going to jail for ever" would only make sense as a serious argument if he were only claiming that the two are not-literally-identical, but that bit is a joke not a serious argument, and it's reasonable to have slightly different standards for those two things.

(For the avoidance of doubt, I am trying to explain not endorse here; I am not convinced that they're as different as he is saying they are. But I think it's important that his claim is "they're more different than some people think" rather than "they're different even though some people think there's no difference at all".)

Andrew Ducker said...

I think that a lot of the issue with telling jokes about things harming people is the context. If I lived somewhere where I thought that a large chunk of the audience might have had someone attempt to murder them, I'd be nervous about making "murder jokes" unless I was being very clear that I wasn't trying to minimise what murder victims went through, particularly if there were a lot of people saying that by walking through dark alleys at night the victims were asking to be murdered. Because the murder survivors were going to be dealing with a bunch of deeply unpleasant emotions whenever murder is brought up, and are going to feel, understandably, sensitive about the topic, so why make them feel worse and back up the awful things that people say seriously about them?

Which isn't to say that murder jokes and murdering people would be the same thing. Just that jokes about trauma that people have gone through, that make it seem like the trauma is the fault of the person who was put through it are going to add to that trauma, and I'd want to have a *really* good reason before I did that.

Andrew Rilstone said...


I think the comedic rhetoric triggers me because it is a little too close to those "good old days" memes for comfort. You know the kind of thing -- some bad thing happened to me in my childhood "and I survived", so it was okay really. Of course, no-one actually suggests that living an unheated house or having an outside toilet or being forced to say prayers at school are likely to result in fatalities; and the people who write the memes know that. But "it didn't kill me" seems to be a way of shutting down discussion and thinking about other the ways in which poverty, child abuse and a lack of hygiene might have been Very Bad Things.

Nice to be having a constructive discussion about thing I actually said in my actual essay, by the way: thank you very much.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Andrew D.

The standard comedians response to this would, I suppose, be that you can't know what will traumatise a particular person; and that if you followed that logic through you could never say anything. I can't tell Titanic jokes because there might be someone in the audience who had a relative who died at sea; I can't tell military gags because there is bound to be someone who has served or who knows someone who has served. I remember there were complaints about a not-very funny sitcom, years ago, about an undertakers: were jokes about mixing up coffins and tripping over grave stones really funny if you'd been recently bereaved. The producer in the Radio Times sympathises, but pointed out that if he made a joke about a plumber he'd get a hundred letters from plumbers. This may have been the point of the anecdote about the hospice gig: you'd think that terminally ill patient's would be offended by cancer gags, but actually, they found them refreshing. (A lot of Easily Offended Liberal objected when Carr did his paraplegic joke a few years ago. ("Say what you like soldiers being crippled in Afghanistan, but we're going to have a fantastic Paralympic Team") But a lot of injured servicemen found it very funny. Allegedly.