Are We Too Critical of Comedy?
Words: Caroline Foran
Last week it was reported that whilst in conversation with The Guardian, comedian Russell Howard blamed TV channel Dave for being "the greatest threat facing comedy". When asked to expand on that, he blamed that particular channel for its never ending habit of repeating shows. I agree. My intention this morning was to write an opinion piece in support of the thirty two year old comic's statement but as I thrawled the web for the latest comedy related news stories, my angle took a slight change of direction.
As I report on yet another Ricky Gervais story which sees him once more accused of offending a group in society, this time he's anti-semetic since making a joke about Anne Frank on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, I fear it's not TV we should be blaming for threatening comedy but perhaps it's us, the audience: Are we too hard on what comedians can and cannot joke about?
Now I have written many stories at this point raising the age old question of 'how far is too far'. What is OK to joke about anymore? Won't there be at least one person offended all of the time anyway? Should comedy just never offend? Should it be safer so as to protect those more vulnerable in society or should we all just accept that it is comedy, accept that it's the aim of some comedians to shock, to say the things noone else will say, and stop taking offence? Answering these questions proves difficult though, especially as someone not at the butt of the joke.
Not an interview goes by without me raising some of these questions with a popular comedian as I endeavour to understand where the line is drawn. Speaking with Jimeoin last week, he laughed about the fact that both the public and the press continue to fall for the 'controversial comments' made by the likes of Gervais or Frankie Boyle; or if I was to pick an Irish example, Tommy Tiernan (more so in his early days.) He believes people should not take offense because it was their aim to offend. It's not coming from the comedian's personal beliefs, he explains. It's coming, more often than not from their desire to get a rise out of the audience, causing jaws to drop and, if they're lucky, get themselves a front page article out of it which in turn will give them sell out shows. Further chatting with Jimeoin about Gervais' 'mong' comments that referred to Susan Boyle, he said: "If they (the comedian) were dressed in a tuxedo and you thought you were going to a polite night of entertainment with your mother and they just came out with that stuff, then that would be shocking, but to say something is shocking and then for it to be shocking is not shocking really... I might call Susan Boyle a Mong if I can get front page article out of it."
Insulting people with physical ailments or mental issues does not always equate with humour and clearly there are many who see it this way. But is it possible to think for a second that these jokes are being made not because the subject matter is fundamentally funny - it's not - but rather because as Jimeoin says, it's the art of 'shocking.' Should we stand back and realise that they are often 'just words', carefully thought out by incredibly successful comedians who know how to earn their laughs? Jimmy Carr is one such comedian who makes a point of addressing this. During his last Dublin gig, he openly admitted to playing with the boundaries of comedy, toying with sensitive topics like Princess Diana's death, homosexuality, and a gag about how to drown irritating children, among others. The truth is that he is far too intellectual a craftsman for his humour to ever be construed as serious: his comedy comes from a pen, paper and a skill with wordplay. Carr told the audience that he was going to see how far he could take it. He judged how far a Dublin audience could go in relation to how many people were still laughing while he joked about Princess Diana's death among other things. It's clear that almost none of Carr's comedy was based on real life experiences. It's highly engineered for laughter and we knew it. It's why we laughed. And it's why we laugh at Ricky Gervais and all the rest.
I fear that if all comedians were to suddenly censor their material, becoming more mindful of those that might take offense and joke only about the absurdities of everyday life, the world of comedy would be a far less interesting place. And maybe I'm wrong but would not joking about a particular group in society not count as discrimination anyway?
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Monday 23rd April 2012 | Comedy
"And maybe I'm wrong but would not joking about a particular group in society not count as discrimination anyway?" Yes, you are wrong. It's always a challenge to work out where the "line" is but that does not mean that none exists. If there is a story about brutal child rape is it OK to make fun of those victims - some would say yes (Tiernan etc) but most would not. In general groups that are at the top of society deserve the greatest slagging. White, male, westerners like me can be top of the list and you can work your way down from there. Making fun of starving children is not funny - it's cheap laughs at the expense of the weak. In one of Tiernan's videos (I'm pretty sure it was shot in Cork - not a place known for its sophistication) he has a piece where he is attacking an employee of a video store because she is Polish. While Tiernan might (and only might, it's hard to know what his real feelings are) say that the piece was ironic and was to show up racist ideas in society, the reaction of the crowd showed that they simply enjoyed laughing at foreigners and it gave tacit approval for them to make their own racist slurs and attacks on others... it was funny when Tommy did it wasn't it? And as for that eejit Gervais? That guy made one funny show and has been living off it since. I wish he would just go away and stop making his appalling movies.Posted 18:02 | Mon 23rd Apr 2012
Have to disagree strongly with Shankhill, there. The best comedians (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin) have always pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable at the time. CK, Gervais etc are doing that now. Comedians cant account for the idiots that will take their material seriously. The same way football teams can't when they have scumbag fansPosted 22:43 | Mon 23rd Apr 2012
I'm not easily offended and am not suggesting that this content should be banned. What I'm saying is that any performer _should_ consider what they are saying and how it will be interpreted by the viewers. As a rich white male I'm not likely to be offended - I'm on top of the world.... but if I was an immigrant I might not think the same thing. Perhaps if you were an Irish person trying to find a job or somewhere to live in England in the 50s, 60s or 70s you mightn't have found all the anti-Irish jokes so funny. But then since you're just a pair of stupid Paddys you're probably not intelligent enough to understand that. (see what I did there? :-)Posted 17:44 | Tue 24th Apr 2012
If you're easily offended then don't watch what it is that offends you! For anyone who is easily offended they should go to YouTube and search for 'Comic Database: Steve Hughes... Offended? '. It's the best take on people being offended I've seen in years. "If you're offended, be offended. Nothing happens!".Posted 14:30 | Tue 24th Apr 2012
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