Should We Reevaluate Comedy?

In the wee hours of the morning, having been watching my favourite Twitch streamer get slowly sozzled playing Final Fantasy 7, I found myself inadvertently engaged in a discussion of the highest quality and respect with a good and dear friend of mine. What was particularly surprising was that upon re-reading the chat transcript the next morning, considering the quantity of gin that had been consumed by that uncouth hour on the o’clock-metre, its points remained valid and interesting. As a historian, I enjoy having my personal opinions questioned, challenged, and cross-examined by those able to make intelligent, reasonable, and cogent arguments. And the friend in question is more than capable of doing so. At this point, you are probably wondering what this particular discussion was about.

Under consideration was the recent trend of censoring certain types of comedy that do not fit into the socially ‘woke’ narrative of society’s left, in which socially repressed groups are considered an endangered species that must be protected from insult at all costs. In recent days, this has led to a multitude of censorships of past broadcasts, demanded apologies, and outrage. But to what extent is this necessary?

My friend, a kind, reasonable, and balanced individual prodded me towards this discussion by asking the question of whether it is right or not to censor comedy, and if comedy should be a protected form of art (much like speaking in parliament) in which special leeway is given due to its irreverent nature. I will attempt to summarise the points that were made, before explaining where, having had time to process my thoughts on the matter, I stand on the issue. This post is somewhat long, but please do stick with me on this one to understand the full justification of what is written; half a story could paint an alarmingly erroneous picture.

The discussion opened by considering what comedy actually is. This sounds like an obvious question, but not necessarily so. It exists in such diverse forms that really, it is rather hard to nail down as an art form. There are gentle, rambling comedy films that one can happily watch with Granny on a rainy afternoon, and there are Scottish comedians who stand up and make jokes that would make the most hardened criminal gasp. But the point is, it is a medium that is supposed to make people laugh, or at least chuckle, and it is supposed, to a greater or lesser extent, to be funny. But what makes something funny, and another thing not? I am brought to mind of a comedian who I cannot remember discussing this very subject. Comedy is a genre that always has a ‘victim’ – be they human, animal, or inanimate. Humour is derived by the interaction that is created with that ‘victim’. Where this became interesting was in the description of who this ‘victim’ is; it is nearly always a person or group that is higher in social, economic, or political status than the person throwing the punch. Punching upwards is a perfectly acceptable way of creating humour. What is most definitely unacceptable is punching downwards, and there is a very good reason for this; making fun of somebody who is socially, economically, or politically not as fortunate as yourself is a behaviour that we are taught from a young age has a specific name – bullying.

Of course, there are caveats to this upwards/downwards punching thing as there are with any broad-spectrum rule. Do forgive the crude adjectives that are used from here onwards, but I do not wish to dwell on nomenclature – nothing here is intended for offense, simply description.

It is absolutely acceptable to point at any ridiculous action taken by an individual who would be below oneself for the sake of comedic value. People do stupid things regardless of their position in life and society, and people doing stupid things is intrinsically funny. What is not acceptable is using generalised, broad-brush characteristics about a vulnerable group within society that is below your own position. Why? Because this has become bullying. I will get to some examples a little later to show how looking at what is acceptable comedy in this way is phenomenally complex, yet it is a rule generally followed by comedians, even if subconsciously.

But that does not really answer the question of censorship. Should comedy be censored at all? Should it be a protected form of speech? Should audiences be left to make their own minds up about whether to engage with controversial topics? Well, herein lies the trickiest of topics.

Certain types of comedy, stand-up for example, require a tacit contract between the audience and the performer in which the former accepts that the latter has the intention of deriving humour, and not insult, from the output of their work. The audience in this case is an informed observer in that they are broadly aware of what they are about to be viewing. It then becomes the opinion of the audience as to whether or not the output is indeed humourous in nature. I fully accept and agree that stand-up should have a free hand to allow speech in whatever form the performer desires; the audience is, in essence, the regulating function in this scenario. No comedian worth their salt is going to blow their career by saying something so socially unacceptable that the audience walks out. Unless they do. At which point the audience walks out.

But should this free-hand extend to other forms of comedy, in which there is a wider, less well-informed audience? In this, I am not so sure that we can apply the same rules as per stand-up. Audiences are far more likely to come across comedy by chance, and a far less likely to be informed as to the nature of its content. But, one might ask, surely there is a measure of personal responsibility involved? We are all consumers of any number of things on a daily basis; would we drink from the bottle without first knowing whether it was beer or boric acid? Of course not. We are responsible for our own consumption. What is required is the necessary information to judge whether or not we want to consume the item – something which is not necessarily forthcoming when dealing with comedy outside of the canon of the safe and vanilla. With adequate labeling, would access to this comedy be acceptable? I believe so, yes. It is consumed by an audience which has been presented with the information necessary to make a personal decision to do so. What form should the labeling take? That is a question far better left to better bureaucrats than I.

At this point, I imagine many people would be thinking that this is all well and good, but free speech is one of our fundamental rights and so the entire discussion is moot. Well, unfortunately for you, you are wrong. In this country we do not, and not in the lifetime of any living person, had free speech. We have freedom of speech within the law. There are numerous prohibitions on what can be said and written, all in the attempt to create a better society. It is illegal to conduct hate speech, for example. This is where comedy treads a fine line; many a line said with humourous intention can be said with malevolent intent. The same words can be said by two different people with vastly differing purposes, and can be received in a multitude of ways. This is summed perfectly up by a phrase I heard once spoken by Jimmy Carr who when talking about offense in comedy said, and I paraphrase, ‘humour does not happen in the mouth of the comedian, but in the ear of the listener’. That is to say, you take something that is said by another, it is processed through your brain which applies all of your life experience, social bias, cultural influences, and decides whether it is funny or not. The same is of course true of things not intended for comedic purposes. But yes, broadly speaking, freedom of speech is a protected activity in our nation, and so long as things do not stray into the realms of the ridiculous, people should be free to follow this law – even in comedy.

So far, we have said that comedians effectively self-regulate their material, that with appropriate labeling an informed audience could choose whether or not to consume content, and that freedom of speech protects the activity. So, it is looking rather positive for the genre to have free reign. But what about the cause of so much recent controversy; legacy comedy? In this particular field exists a wealth of content which, at the time, was perfectly acceptable, but today finds itself outside what is now considered decent.

Putting my historian’s hat back on, I would immediately say that one cannot judge the actions of those in the past by the standards of the present day. It is fundamental in the study of history that we do not taint the past with our own cultural and societal projections. So, alongside the measures listed above on labeling as to the possible offense that the content might cause a modern audience, I do not see that there is issue with it remaining available for public consumption. After all, we are able to observe depictions of vastly more grizzly events from history that a distasteful joke through the ancient media forms of tapestry, painting, and the written word. Should images of Harold getting shot in the eye be banned simply because we do not allow the public to carry bows and arrows through the street in modern Britain? Furthermore, as noted above, comedy happens in the ear of the listening and is subject to the social conditioning of its audience. If you find a joke humourous, that is because the humour is being constructed by your own mind. For evidence of this, one only has to watch Peter Kay standing, saying nothing for minutes on end, to an audience howling with laughter. If we have as a society moved beyond seeing certain types of comedy as humourous, then it ceases to be comedic content and simply enters the canon of historical artifacts reflecting the culture within a given time period.

Returning to the notion of what is and what is not acceptable comedy, my first example will consider one of the greatest taboos of them all; blackface. This is a clear example where, predominantly in the past, comedians most certainly punched downwards at a vulnerable group. So, would this be covered by the freedom of speech argument? I do not believe so. As discussed, punching downwards is a form of bullying, and bullying is a form of hate. As promoting hate is prohibited under freedom of speech laws, censoring it would be fully justified in my own opinion. And yet, I still do not believe it should be. As noted back in Blog No. 0000001, any historic mistake provides a learning opportunity. Why not use what already exists to provide an opportunity for future generations to learn? Apply the suggestion of a label requirement, inform the audience the reasons as to why such content is no longer acceptable, and allow an informed decision to be made as to whether or not it is consumed. There have been recent blackface revivals, such as depictions by Keith Lemon, Ant and Dec, Matt Lucas, etc., and I will not excuse their creation. However, I believe that these still, with adequate warning as to their content, provide a learning opportunity. Particularly as their cringeworthy attempt at humour is enough of a deterrent for people not to repeat the mistake. In any case, the public backlash that they have received in recent weeks is enough of a learning experience for artists considering undertaking such an attempt at humour to consider otherwise.

There are two complex examples that I would like to mention to explain why shock and outrage should always be moderated and measured before implementing action. The first is regarding an episode of Fawlty Towers in which a family of Germans stay at the hotel. The second is a joke told by Jimmy Carr that divides audiences.

The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers has two points of contention. The first is the outmoded and derogatory way of referring to Indians and West Indians as used by The Major. The second is the humour apparently drawn from the presence of the German family itself. With regards The Major’s choice of language, I have covered the use of language in my writing above. Use a content-warning, and explain why it is no longer acceptable. The deriving of humour from the German family is, however, far more complex. Superficially, the humour of the episode is the result of jokes made at the expense of the German family. That would be unacceptable based on the punching downwards rule; Basil is clearly in greater control of his surroundings than his victims. However, more careful consideration reveals that it is not the family, nor indeed Germans in general that Basil is making fun of. It is Nazi behaviours and characteristics that he erroneously attributes to the family. I cannot imagine many people take issue with poking fun at the Nazis, however the family is still a victim, and therefore it is unclear which way the comedy is punching. That is, until you realise that the humour of the situation comes from the fact that Basil, through his own ignorance, is entirely unable to differentiate between Germany and the Nazis. When watching this episode, the viewer does in fact have sympathy for the German family; laughter is directed entirely at Basil himself. Whilst not strictly punching upwards, punching oneself is tantamount to the same thing.

‘Poor little Suki has to walk fifteen miles each day just to collect water. I can’t help but think; she should move.’

A joke that divides even the hardened audiences of Jimmy Carr. Superficially, Carr is punching significantly downwards in this joke. However, once again, if we look more closely for the person who is the butt of the humour, it is not Suki, but the (presumably) white, middle-class viewers who are ordinarily the target of such the charitable advertisements, and are most likely to misunderstand Suki’s true difficulties. The audience here is laughing at the stupidity of the ignorant, white middle-classes, hence Carr is punching upwards once more. It is delicate here, to be sure. Removing the words, ‘I can’t help but think’ would place the responsibility of the situation squarely at Suki, making her the victim of the joke, and redirecting the swing of the punch downwards, making it unacceptable.

As demonstrated, comedians are rather good at their craft (for the most part), even if what they do is subconscious. And for that reason, they should be allowed to continue, as they have done through history, to speak and act with freedom and no fear of censorship. An audience will judge the output on its content, and any content that goes too far is hate speech, which is already prohibited by law.

Yet there is one final problem. I shall call it, ‘The Bernard Manning Clause.’ There might be occasion upon which a comedian becomes popular by telling comedy which is of a racist nature, or derogatory towards another vulnerable group. Perhaps this comedy reaches the ears of an audience who are sympathetic to such a cause. It is not unfeasible that such a comedian could become a lightening rod for unsavoury individuals. In a case such as this, how could one prove that the line between comedic use of derogatory terms, and hate speech had been crossed? What is the limit of freedom of speech in comedy? I leave that very difficult subject open to discussion.

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