Sunday, January 29, 2023

It's a Cracker....

Ricky Gervais's material is nasty. Jimmy Carr's material is nasty but clever. I am inclined to say that comedy like Carr's is justified, or partly justified, by its wit; where there is no excuse at all for comedy like Gervais's. 

But I can find no sound argument to defend this position. A comedian's job is to be funny. A joke is a good joke if people laugh at it. People laugh at sick jokes. That's all the excuse the jokes need. 

I am free to say "It doesn't matter if it was funny: you ought not to laugh at that kind of thing." But that forbids me from laughing at the clever comedian as well as the crassly vulgar one. The Bishop of Oxford felt that Life of Brian was a fifth rate, undergraduate level comedy. But presumably his argument about not making fun of holy stories would have applied equally if it had been a first rate movie replete with post-graduate gags. 

I sincerely hope that you are not expecting me to sort this conundrum out in the next half hour or so. 

Comedy takes place in a designated space. To complain that a comedian has said a Bad Thing at a comedy show would be as absurd as to complain that someone had taken their clothes off in a male locker room. You knew the rules when you stepped through the door.

READER: Do you mean to say that a comedian can say anything he wants?
CARTOON RABBIT: No: not anything he wants. Only things which are funny.


When I say that I am a free speech absolutist, I mean that my side ought to be able to say exactly what it damn well likes without consequences, where your side ought to shut the hell up.

In the current polarised political climate we tend to assume that it is the left who want to police language, and conservatives who think people should be allowed to say whatever the hell they damn well like.

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s find this a little hard to get our heads round. I thought it was conservatives who wanted to ban books which mentioned homosexuality because they would turn children gay? I thought it was conservative clergymen who wanted to ban role-playing games because they would cause children to sacrifice goats to Satan? I thought it was Mr. Tony Blair who wanted to ban "video nasties" (and possibly videos) because they literally caused children to murder other children? I thought it was Mrs Mary Whitehouse who wanted to ban a particular silly Chuck Berry song because it would make children masturbate (and that it was the literal job of the BBC to prevent masturbation). It wasn't the left who were trying to stop the BBC from playing a show-tune from the Wizard of Oz after the death of Margaret Thatcher. It wasn't the woke purity police who were prowling around trying to cancel anyone who dissented from the politically correct position after the death of some pointless parasite named Betty Windsor.

Nothing is true apart from the fact that nothing is true. You can quote me as saying that I don't want to be quoted. 

For most grown-ups, the shape of men's bodies and the fact that humans expel waste from their bodies is neither very funny nor very taboo. Not having kids myself, I remain mildly uncomfortable when I hear parents telling cute stories about that time little Jimmy did a poo. And don't get me started on pet owners. No really, don't get me started. Say shit, say ordure, say poo-poo but for gods sake spare me the vile Americanism 'poop'. (I was brought up to call it "stinks".) But actually stinks and bums and sex and willies are not very surprising or shocking. So naturally you gravitate to the Great Big Unmentionables. If you make a joke about the fact that you aren't allowed to make a joke it's probably a very good joke. Except when it isn't.

Characters in Shakespeare say "a pox on it" all the time. Were people in the olden days really that casual about incurable STDs? Does "a pox on your throat" really mean "I disagree with what you just said so strongly that I hope your mouth catches AIDS?" Does "a plague on these pickled-herrings" mean "I hope this tin of tuna gets terminal prostate cancer?" I guess there was some quite dark humour in the gay community in the 1980s. 

In 1983, DJ/comedian Kenny Everett notoriously performed a comedy routine in front of a Young Conservative rally. In the persona of one of his stock characters (a hellfire preacher named Brother Lee Love) he shouted slogans along the lines of "Bomb the Russians!" and "Kick Michael Foot's stick away!" (The then leader of the opposition was an elderly man who used a walking cane.)

Everett himself subsequently claimed that he was being ironic: he had intended to make fun of the Young Conservatives by presenting them with an exaggerated caricature of themselves, and was disconcerted when they applauded with approval. Mrs Thatcher herself said that it was absurd to object to an entertainer having some fun before the serious business started, and if people wanted to object to something, they should object to her speech, which she would be happy to defend.

The Daily Mirror, who broke the story, ran a rather pompous editorial beginning "We should not blame Kenny Everett for what he said last night: he is a clown by profession": but went on to say that the audience's ecstatic applause revealed the true face of the Young Conservatives. This was, after all, the era when some Young Tories thought it was real funny to wear badges with the slogan "Hang Nelson Mandela" on them. The badges were joke --- a skit on lefties with Specials buttons. But quite a lot of respectable grown up Tories said openly that Mandela was a terrorist, which as the law stood at the time, amounted to much the same thing.

This seems to neatly encapsulate three or four approaches to comedy.

a: It must be taken at face value: there is no difference between a comedian saying "Nuke Russia"" in a comedy routine and a politician saying "Nuke Russia" in a conference speech.

b: It is cocooned from criticism by the fact of its being comedy: if the speaker is just a clown or just having fun then his words, however disgusting, are content free. Anyone who reads anything into them is being rather ridiculous.

c: Comedy has a dual context: what the words mean, and what the speaker intended them to mean. Comedians pretend to be stupid, or pompous, or bigoted or Scottish in order to make the audience laugh -- at stupidity, pomposity, bigotry or Scotland. 

d: Comedy has a triple context: what the words mean, what the speaker intended them to mean, and what the audience took them to mean. If the audience are approving the bigotry -- or getting sexual pleasure from the lewd references, or sadistically revelling in the cruelty -- then the show as a whole is bigoted, pornographic, or cruel even if the comedian or actor genuinely didn't intend it to be so.

Very few of us are so intellectually pure that the position we take is not influenced by our agreement or disagreement with the material. You are inclined to think that the bad taste jokes about the Queen were merely harmless clowning, but the racist jokes expressed genuinely abhorrent views. I think the racist material was ironic but the one about the Queen bordered on the treasonous.

The Bishop of Oxford could have said that Life of Brian was a wonderfully clever and funny film, but being wonderfully witty and clever is no excuse. But he didn't. It is very rare to find someone who thinks that the Satanic Verses is a terrible book, but not all that offensive; or that it is a work of literary genius, which should nevertheless be burned for its blasphemy.

Intention is a very slippery concept. It applies, not just to comedy, but to every kind of art. It may very well be that Peter Schaffer put the nude scene into Equus for a genuine artistic purpose: but it must also be the case that many people bought tickets for the 2008 revival because they were curious to see Daniel Radcliff with no clothes on. And the producer must have known this when he offered the Harry Potter star the role, and the actor must have known this when he accepted it.

The censorious will always tell your that the real motivation is the prurient one; and pornographers will always claim that their smut has an artistic purpose. Actual racists will always claim that they were just trying to be funny; but people without a sense of humour will always claim that edgy jokes are just a pretext for racism. If you ban hate speech, then some legitimate academic papers about race and gender and Nazi Germany will be banned. If you allow absolute academic freedom, then every racist, homophobe, TERF and holocaust denier will claim that his screed is an academic paper.

When someone told me that he regarded Game of Thrones as pornographic, I was tempted to reply "Do you mean it gave you an erection; or that you are afraid that it might give someone else an erection; or that the whole thing was consciously constructed with the soul purpose of giving men erections?"

Very good friends sometimes say very nasty things to each other without really meaning them. I am told that in some circles "motherfucker" is a term of macho endearment, carrying the connotation "We are such good friends that I can call you the worst thing possible, and you will understand I don't really mean it." This is one reason why black people are allowed to use a particular very mean word and white people are decidedly not. Devout Buddhists sometimes deliberately blaspheme in order to show that they are so enlightened that it doesn't matter. (This must be true: I heard it during a game of Bushido.) 

Ricky Gervais concludes the Supernature monologue with a routine in which he claims that saying dreadful things is the working class equivalent of hugging. He tells a sequence of stories about dreadful things that his loved ones have said to each other. His brother said "There's not much point in you going home" to a very old man at a funeral. (A venerable old joke, that.) I take it that he didn't really make an obscene joke about an old lady's genitalia after accidentally inhaling smoke from her body at a cremation. (That's not how crematoria work.) But I take the point that "saying something unexpectedly disgusting" might be a way of diffusing tension or normalising a situation. It may be true that middle class people hug each other (but do not banter) and working class people banter (but do not hug); so it follows that "insults are working class hugs".

Anyone who has ever been in an English comprehensive schoolyard can see the drawback of this line of reasoning. Friends sometimes playfully insult each other. Therefore all insults are friendly. Young men sometimes play-fight. Therefore all fighting is playful. Therefore I can insult you and hit you if I want to, and if you are upset or hurt by it, it is your own fault. If I am unwilling to let you bully me, I am by definition rebuffing your hugs.

I fear that when a comedian talks about irony, what they are sometimes talking about is banter. And what they are doing is erecting a protective cocoon around their jokes. Making them immune from criticism. I can say what I like, and if you call me out, I can immediately say "Only joking" "Only ironic" "Only banter." You aren't allowed to be hurt by me and if you are its your own fault.

I take it that this is what the nasty motor car man meant when he said his article about wanting to punish a member of the royal family in the same way the nasty priest in the fantasy TV show punished the wicked queen was only a joke. He didn't mean that there was a twist or an irony or a double meaning that some people hadn't picked up on. He meant "I thought I was free to say horrid things and I am rather shocked that some people find them horrid."

I myself, many years ago, tweeted that after the revolution "First thing we do, let's kill all the pavement cyclists" which rather fell flat if you haven't read Henry VI Part II. Which apparently, not everyone has. 

There really is such a thing as banter and teasing and joshing. We really don't have to all go about with po-faces at all times. But among civilised grown-ups, it is the banteree, not the banterer, who gets to decide where the line is drawn. If what you say hurts me, you don't get to tell me that it shouldn't. And you damn well stop when you are asked. 

This also applies, incidentally, to hugging.

Bad taste-comedians often claim that they are only saying what everyone else is thinking. Alarmingly, right-wing politicians often say the same thing. David Cameron based an election campaign on the premise. 

But "saying what everyone is thinking" is only a good thing if you think that your first thoughts, your lizard-brain, gut level reactions, have a purity and an authenticity and a truth about them; and if you think that applying a filter to those thoughts makes them less real. That may be what the nasty motor car man meant when he said he hated the Duchess of Sussex at a cellular level. It may be what lies behind madder conspiracy theories about Mobs and Brigades and Cultures. We all really think that we should torture criminals, beat children, deport asylum seekers and cook exclusively with gas. But the terrible Mob Brigade won't let us say what we really think. The gut-level feelings are frequently described as common sense. The filtering systems which censor those common-sense feelings are denounced as artificial and insincere: box ticking, performance, virtue signalling. Christians, rather unfairly, associate the Old Testament with law and rigidity and prohibition: interestingly, the people who Won't Let Us Say What We Think are frequently identified with the Cultural Marxists, who are the puppets of the Frankfurt Group who are a stand in for that old bogie-person, The Jews.

Hmm. Perhaps that doesn't work. But it's definitely what I was really thinking.

But perhaps comedy really is an exercise in romantic liberation, in satyric bacchanalianism. Perhaps Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais are a kind of shaman. Perhaps the fool in his coxcomb struts on the stage saying "I masturbate over images of the baby Hitler" and "The holocaust has a positive side" precisely in order to remind us that those are Bad Thoughts which you really shouldn't have. And perhaps, far from being a radical fuck-you to Authority this kind of thing is innately conservative. We joke about sex because society works better when we are all relatively demure. We joke about race and gender because we all agree that it's better to be a tolerant liberal. We watch the zany man breaking all the rules, but only as a safety valve. Tonight we'll merry, merry be. Tonight we'll merry, merry be. Tonight we'll merry, merry be. But tomorrow we'll be sober.

If a clown ceases to break taboos he will cease to be a clown. If "political correctness" is extended to the stage, clowns will cease to exist. If we banish the clowns we would forego a lot of laughter. And perhaps without that safety valve, society would explode. 

The trouble with political jokes is that they sometimes get elected. 

Nigel, Donald and Boris may have served useful functions as Fools and Shamans, saying Bad Things which everybody knows are Bad Things but do not say. But we live in a world where some clowns are political leaders and some political leaders are clowns. And such a world may have no place in it for actual clowns. 

If I take a photograph of a man sitting on the sea front eating battered fish and fried potatoes from a paper bag, I am recording an actual moment of time. But when I publish the picture, it is not just a picture: it's also a symbol. It doesn't just mean "At 6:15 last Tuesday in Weston Super Mare Mr Hugh Walker purchased a take-out." It represents Englishness. The Working Class. The Summer. Nostalgia. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. Fings ain't wot they used to be. If it had been a photograph of a teenager with a baseball cap eating a cheeseburger, it would have meant something quite different. Put the two pictures side by side, and new meanings start to happen. Whether I meant them to or not. I believe this is what M. Barthes had in mind when he talked about mythologies and second order signs. 

Suppose I see a mug with the word "Controls on Immigration" on the side of it. And suppose I photograph the mug and put the photo on my website. The photo of the mug means something different from the mug itself; and the words on the mug have a different meaning from the meaning they would have had if they had been in small print on page 53 of a political policy document. "Controls on immigration" is a relatively innocuous political aspiration. The act of putting the words on a mug symbolises something -- what kind of a party you are, what kind of voters you want to attract, what kind of voters you want to drive away. The act of putting a picture of the mug on a website symbolises something else entirely. "Sod you, Milliband, this time I'm giving the Greens a go." Ce n’est pas une tasse.

Comedians used to tell jokes about mothers-in-law. Working class couples often had to live with the wife's mother for the first few years of their marriage, which husbands found understandably irritating, so mother-in-law became a helpful short-hand for a certain kind of annoying older lady. I am not saying the mother in law hates me, but she is trying to find a loophole in my birth certificate. We're less willing to joke about size and appearance and age and gender now, and the social situation has changed, and that particular joke-format has dropped out of use. So if I stood on a stage in 2023 and said "I'm not saying the mother in law is a terrible cook, but..." I wouldn't be telling you anything about the mother of my wife. I wouldn't be signalling that I was going to tell you a funny story about an old lady. I'd be sending a message. "This is an old fashioned routine." "I'm a retro comedian." "Things were better in the olden days." "I'm dead politically incorrect, me." "The woke mob have ruined comedy." "We're all traditional working class blokes, and we don't give a damn."

The other week the BBC did an archive compilation about Les Dawson, and, right on cue an MP tweeted that that was the sort of thing the BBC wouldn't show nowadays.

And that's as far as I can get. Jokes are not just jokes: they are also mythologies and symbols and second order signs. A joke isn't just the words. It isn't just the performance. It isn't just the laugh. It's also the history and architecture of the London Palladium; and the split-second between the punch-line and the applause. It's the audience in the theatre watching the comedian; and it's the streaming audience on their sofas watching the audience watching the comedian; and it's Twitter talking about the streaming audience and the Guardian talking about Twitter talking it and and god forgive us it's this blog reacting to the Guardian's reaction to how Twitter reacted to the way Netflix reacted to the studio audience's reaction. 

There is a particular very mean word that some people use to describe people of a particular race. It is such a mean word, that you can't possibly say it without also saying "I am the sort of person who doesn't mind saying incredibly mean words". 

What was it Frank Carsen used to say? 

"It's not the jokes. It's the fact that I told them."


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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Gavin Burrows said...

This is probably picking up on an incidental point, but is it generally thought "a pox upon" relates to STDs? I'd always assumed it was disease in general, so could be smallpox for example. But tell me I'm wrong and I will admit that I'm wrong.

Mike Taylor said...

When someone told me that he regarded Game of Thrones as pornographic, I was tempted to reply "Do you mean it gave you an erection; or that you are afraid that it might give someone else an erection; or that the whole thing was consciously constructed with the soul purpose of giving men erections?"

Since I am that someone, I suppose it's only polite to answer the question that sort-of-kind-of directed at me.

What I think is that when you put sexualised naked women on the screen, you have changed the nature of what your show is, by making it in part about sexualised naked women; and that it's useless to pretend either that that's not true, or even than you don't know that perfectly well when you do it.

I doubt there is any part of Game Of Thrones' plot that could not have been perfectly well communicated by keeping the sexualised naked women off screen, as has been done in many other shows to no ill effect. So if there are sexualised naked women on screen it's because the show's producers wanted there to be sexualised naked women on the screen, and that's because they want us to have some specific reaction to the sexualised naked women. And we know what that reaction is: sexual excitation (with or without an actual physical reaction).

Now, I'm pretty sure there is a word for images created with the intention of producing sexual excitation.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

I was only tempted to reply in that way: I didn't because I didn't think it would have been an entirely fair point.

It's an interesting question, though. If the Vicar trips on his cassock and falls on his bum while climbing into the pulpit, it may be funny, and we may laugh: does that make it a joke? If a very inept clown deliberately trips up and falls on his respective bum, it may be completely unfunny and we may not laugh at all: does that make it "not a joke"? Or are there categories of "accidental joke" and "failed joke"?

If a schoolboy looks at the bra advertisements in the Marks and Spencers catalogue for titillation, does that make them pornography? If someone sends me some badly done slash fic about what happened to Han Solo and Princess Leia on the planet of the nudists and I don't find it remotely sexy, does that make it not pornography? Or is there a category of "accidental pornography" and "failed pornography"?

A little while back someone on facebook -- it may have been the same person who was complaining about the woke RSC making Othello black -- draw my attention to a director who had introduced a nude scene into a production of Pygmalion (or, as it might be, My Fair Lady.) You will recall that Shaw contrasts middle-class prudery with working-class prudery: Eliza is horrified that ladies take all their cloths off in the bathroom, and embarrassed by seeing her own body in the mirror. (But she isn't bothered by the word bloody which horrifies the posh people.) The scene takes place off-stage in the text; but I can see why it might be interesting, or funny, to actually depict it on stage. (Or it might have been a really terrible idea: I wasn't there.) There commentator, however, appeared to think that because some men might be turned on by seeing a lady in the bath; the only possible reason to show a lady taking a bath was to titillate men, and the scene, and therefore the play, was pornographic, and therefore a Bad Thing.

My rejected question about Game of Thrones was whether "pornography" exists in the eye of the beholder, or the intention of the film maker or somewhere else.

Your answer appears to be that it exists in the nature of the image -- that there is an image can have an intrinsic quality called "sexualised-ness" which makes it pornographic. (I don't know whether you add, under your breath "and therefore bad" or whether it is merely descriptive: we can all agree that there is such a thing as a "violent" film; we night disagree about whether "violent" films are good in general, bad in general, or sometimes good and sometimes bad depending on other factors.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I'm not sure if "sexualised images" has a different meaning from "pornography": I'm not sure if "it's pornographic because it contains sexualised images" is different from saying "it's pornographic because it's pornographic".

A term like "indecent" has, at least theoretically, an objective standard. We might disagree on the definition, but if we agree that "more than an inch of leg visible above the ankle", "nipples" or "pubic hair" are indecent, then we pretty much know which images are indecent and which are not. Unfortunately, morality campaigners are inclined to say that indecency is always pornographic: the only reason for making that Tarzan movie was that some ladies like looking at bare chested men in loin-clothes.

Real life is messy, of course: I imagine that in any given life-drawing class there are some dirty old men who only came because they like looking at boobies; some serious art students who are no more interested in naked flesh than they would be in a bowl of fruit; and quite a lot of people who honestly like painting but think naked ladies are quite attractive as well. But I would be careful of saying "Most art galleries are full of pornography." Again, unless "pornography" is simply a different way of saying "pictures of people with no clothes on, which some people might conceivably enjoy looking at, which is fine, subject to age and consent."

Game of Thrones? A very large thread of the plot was about sibling incest: a consenting adult brother and sister who genuinely loved each other, but were horrible people in other ways. And another very large plot thread involved a brothel keeper who was a significant powerbroker. Could we have revealed Jamie and Cersie's relationship without showing any flesh; yes. Could we have just talked about what was happening in Littlefinger's establishments without showing them; or only shown the customers and clients above the waist; yes. Was the plot set up as a pretext to show pictures of willies and boobies for the benefit of people who wanted to look at those pictures? I don't think so. Ought the scenes to have been kept implicit? I am not quite sure. I suppose the violence could have been kept off-screen as well: it could have been done like one of those 1970s historical fictions where swords are thrust under people's armpits and they act being hurt. A non violent Game of Thrones would have been a different artistic work; in the same way that Lady Chatterly with the swears taken out would have been a different artistic work, or (god help me) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a global find and replace changing "fat" to "large" would be a different artistic work. Are there moral considerations as well as artistic ones? Yes. If sexuality, or male sexuality, or masturbation are Very Bad Things in themselves, then certainly, there's an absolute moral obligation to cut all the sexy scenes out of everything.

If nudity is the same as pornography, then it is obviously true that Game of Thrones and the National Gallery contain a great deal of nudity and are therefore pornographic (with “and therefore bad” added under your breath, or not, as the case may be.) But if some nudity is pornographic and some not, then we get back to my first thought: is it pornography because the viewer finds it sexy; or because some hypothetical viewer might find it sexy; or because the film-maker intended the viewers to find it sexy?