The War on Humour

19 Jan

Pop quiz, people!

What was the number one deciding factor in Britain’s victory over Germany in World War II?

Apart from these guys, of course.

Apart from these guys, of course.

If you answered the RAF, the bravery of our troops, our superior firepower, Winston Churchill, or God you are wrong!

The correct answer is: Our sense of humour.

Seriously. Our grandparents were only in it for the giggles.

Seriously. Our grandparents were only in it for the giggles.

That’s right. It wasn’t bullets, bombs and Spitfires that defeated Hitler, it was Arthur Askey. The Germans, you see, have no sense of humour whatsoever, whereas we Brits are global comedy titans, chortling our way through whatever mishap comes our way.

"Ha ha ha! A plane crash, you say? Oh, my word, that's tickled me silly, that has."

“Ha ha ha! A plane crash, you say? Oh, my word, that’s tickled me silly, that has.”

Of course, this is mostly rubbish. Germans do have a sense of humour, and we wouldn’t have got very far if we’d simply parachuted George Formby and Joyce Grenfell behind enemy lines. That said, there is a grain of truth to the idea that a sense of humour kept us buoyant during the six terrible years when we were at war. Certainly, as well as the physical damage the war inflicted upon them, the German people suffered greatly from being ruled by people who saw laughter as a regrettable by-product of the human experience, rather than one of its essential ingredients.

"What do you mean, you've never seen 'Blazing Saddles'?"

“What do you mean, you’ve never seen ‘Blazing Saddles’?”

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that our most resilient – if intangible – national asset has been suffering. Not in terms of quality. We’re still more than capable of producing funny comedy, and anyone wondering why this era doesn’t have its Monty Python, Not the 9 O’Clock News or Fast Show has forgotten that there were ten year gaps between each of those shows.

No, when I say our sense of humour is suffering, I mean it’s under attack, and from all sides. Indeed, it’s been under attack for at least 30 years, but for much of that time the onslaught was one-sided.

And very badly dressed.

And very badly dressed.

Alternative Comedy

It began in the early ’80s, with the arrival of the so-called Alternative Comedians. These were the broadly left-wing comics, including Ben Elton, Keith Allen, Alexei Sayle and Jo Brand, who emerged through London’s Comedy Store and TV shows such as The Young Ones, Not The 9 O’Clock News and The Comic Strip to dominate British TV comedy for the best part of 20 years.

In doing so, they replaced the likes of The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise and Les Dawson, not to mention more “old fashioned” comics like Bernard Manning and Freddie Starr.

Old fashioned meaning racist. And fat. But mostly racist.

Old fashioned meaning racist. And fat. But mostly racist.

Nothing unusual about this, of course. The nation’s sense of humour isn’t something fixed. Okay, so there may be recurring motifs (mainly fart gags and blokes dressed up as women), but comedians have always had a shelf life. What marked the Alternative Comedians out as different was the aggression with which they bumped the previous generation off the stage. Of course, there were veterans they looked up to (or didn’t dare attack) like Peter Cook and – to a lesser extent – the Pythons, but the Alternative Comedians made it clear from the offset that they weren’t there to simply take over the reins, they had come to obliterate the legacy of their forebears joke by joke.

Time, it must be said, hasn’t been kind to that generation. There are some gems that still hold up, in particular all four series of Blackadder, much of French & Saunders and Harry Enfield’s ’90s shows, but a lot of it has dated horribly. Take nostalgia out of the picture, and The Young Ones is occasionally funny but mostly unwatchable, particularly to an audience which didn’t catch it the first time around. Compare it to, say, Fawlty Towers or Dad’s Army, both of which are still very entertaining, and you’ll see what I mean.

Face it. This is the only episode you remember.

Face it. This is the only episode you remember.

Soon enough the UK’s right wing press began labelling the Left’s assault on “old fashioned” comedy “political correctness” and, if they were feeling particularly bilious, “political correctness gone mad”. What was wrong with the Black and White Minstrel Show, they argued? What was wrong with Bernard Manning’s jokes about black people and Pakistanis, or Jim Davidson’s “Chalky” character? They were only having a laugh…

Conservative Political Correctness

What newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail failed to realise was that they too were prone to launching their own PC campaigns. What they didn’t realise, and what they still haven’t grasped, is that “political correctness” was never the Left’s exclusive domain.

Next week: "Does political correctness give homeowners cancer?"

Next week: “Does political correctness give homeowners cancer?”

Take The Life of Brian. Here, in Monty Python’s Biblical spoof, we have a prime example of what happens when the Right, and in particular the Christian Right, launches its own campaign of curtain-twitching political correctness. Some (including that champion of conservative political correctness, Mary Whitehouse) took offence at perceived sleights against the Christian church, and campaigned – successfully in some areas – to have it banned.

Twenty years later they were at it again, when Channel 4 aired the so-called “Paedophile Special” of Chris Morris’s news spoof, Brass Eye, with the Daily Mail leading the charge.

Daily Mail Brass Eye

Now, while they may have argued they were doing this in the name of taste and decency, so too would those who called for comics like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson to get booted off the air. Their humour, they said, was racist. Racism is tasteless and indecent. The only difference between the Left’s political correctness and that of the Right is worldview – they’re both attempts – often conceived in haste – to sculpt the cultural landscape through censorship.

All of the examples I’ve mentioned so far happened in those sepia-tinted days before the internet, or at least before the internet became so dominant in popular culture. Can you imagine what would happen if the Brass Eye special was aired now, in a world with Twitter? First would come the tidal wave of people thinking it was real (despite the listings, despite the jokes), next the chorus of those calling it sick, depraved and monstrous. By the following morning any newspaper with an axe to grind against Channel 4 (take your pick, their readers would still confuse Channel 4 with the BBC) would have scoured Twitter for the most frothing-at-the-mouth reactions and printed them as if they were representative of the national psyche.

Just so we're clear, in this instance the BBC received 32 complaints from 6.8million viewers.

Just so we’re clear, in this instance the BBC received 32 complaints from 6.8million viewers.

Online complaints forms mean that by the following night Channel 4 would have received tens of thousands of complaints – mostly from those who hadn’t watched the show but thought it sounded simply awful – and this would generate, on Day 3 of the “scandal”, another dozen column inches about the “public reaction”.

Case in point: The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, screened on New Years Eve by Channel 4. Now, I didn’t watch it (I was busy drinking gin), so can’t comment on how offensive or funny it was, but the Daily Mail and their brethren would have you believe it was some sort of televisual Sodom and Gomorrah. With James Corden. They told rude jokes about the Queen, apparently, and that simply isn’t on. (It was okay, of course, back in the ’70s to tell jokes about women, gays, the disabled, and blacks, but that was different.) They told even ruder jokes about people’s naughty bits. And, of course, in its role as a national newspaper, the Mail felt obliged to reprint many of these jokes so that we could see just how abhorrent they were.

Without a shred of irony.

Without a shred of irony.

As if right wing political correctness wasn’t annoying enough, the Left has kept its end up by losing its sense of humour altogether, or at least by forgetting the purpose of comedy, which is pretty much the same thing. Hardly a day goes by without some pundit on Twitter bemoaning a comedy series because it failed to represent any and all minorities in an exclusively positive light, as if this is comedy’s job.

The Big Bang Theory

For instance, according to columnist Laurie Penny the US series The Big Bang Theory is offensive to geeks, because it portrays them as socially inept, and offensive to women because the only attractive woman in it doesn’t understand science. In fact, it isn’t just offensive, it’s “massively offensive”, which makes me wonder where she would put, say, Human Centipede 2. But this also ignores the fact that the character of Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski is very pretty, and a scientist, and that there are no doubt plenty of men and women who would find the other female characters (and not just the pretty, blonde neighbour) attractive. 

This, for instance, is Mayim Bialik without her glasses and cardigan. What a minger*. (*Sarcasm.)

This, for instance, is Mayim Bialik without her glasses and cardigan. What a minger*. (*Sarcasm.)

More than this, however, critics who go hunting for offense in innocuous, pre-watershed sitcoms, are missing the most important point of all.

It’s a FUCKING COMEDY SHOW. Its job isn’t, and never has been, to offer positive portrayals of any character. If a character in a comedy is given any positive trait, it’s to win our sympathy before their next big fuck up or pratfall.

There’s a difference, of course, between situation comedy portraying fictional characters and the routine of a stand-up comedian. My personal view is that stand-ups are like the court jesters of the modern world; they’re the people licensed to fire spitballs at the King; so it’s unfortunate when some – like Frankie Boyle – use that position to mock a glamour model’s disabled son or the physical appearance of an Olympic swimmer rather than, say, our woefully incompetent government, but hey… It’s still comedy. If people don’t want to hear him make that joke, they can change channels or not watch his show. If they don’t watch his show, it won’t get recommissioned. It’s as simple as that. But the idea that a whole group should be offended because a comedian or comedy show made a generic, one-size-fits-all joke about them is laughable.

Jimmy Carr

Jimmy Carr has, on numerous occasions, made jokes about gays, and almost every time my Twitter and Facebook feed becomes aflame with online outrage. But do you know what I say? So fucking what? Chance are, it being Jimmy Carr, it wasn’t a particularly clever joke and relied on a stereotype that was old hat in 1977, but I don’t care. His joke didn’t protest a funeral with a sign saying “GOD HATES FAGS”. His joke isn’t about to corner me outside a pub and give me a black eye. His joke will never pass legislation to prevent me from marrying. And no, his joke doesn’t “feed into that culture”, because I don’t believe for one second that the Westboro Baptist church, or some unelected Tory peer voting against same sex marriage, or a queer-bashing bigot feel they were licensed to behave the way they did because Jimmy Carr once said, “Hello sailor.”

Pictured: Jimmy Carr in 2011, making a joke about gay priests in using a trope from 1997. No... seriously.

Pictured: Jimmy Carr in 2011, making a joke about gay priests using a trope from 1997. No… seriously.

As if to make matters worse, with Left and Right tussling over what kind of jokes we plebs should be granted access to, social networks such as Twitter have given rise to a new enemy of humour…

The Laughter Police

You know who these people are. Chances are you’re one of them yourself. Chances are I’ve been a member in the past. You think I’m wrong? Then ask yourself this. Have you ever, on Facebook, Twitter, or even in a private conversation, announced that a comedian, TV show or film “Just isn’t funny”. Not that you don’t find it funny yourself, but that it absolutely isn’t funny, and that anyone who finds it funny must be a fucking idiot? Come on. Don’t lie. You know you have.

Pictured: Me being a massive hypocrite, a couple of paragraphs ago.

Pictured: Me being a massive hypocrite, a couple of paragraphs ago.

For me, it’s Mrs Brown’s Boys and Adam Sandler movies. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried, and both just leave me cold. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not them, it’s me, because while don’t find Mrs Brown’s Boys or Adam Sandler funny there are literally millions of people who do. So when I say, “Mrs Brown’s Boys simply isn’t funny”, in a world in which millions of people are laughing like drains, what am I basing it on? The fact that didn’t laugh? What kind of arrogant prick does it make me if I think my definition of “funny” is the bottom line?

For one thing, I laughed like a hyena through all four of these.

For one thing, I laughed like a hyena through all four of these.

If we treat comedy as something that must be codified, licensed and means tested against a whole catalogue of political and sociological targets, we’ve killed it.

The comedy that comes approved by everyone and offensive to no-one will be about as funny as World War II.

If you were German.

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One Response to “The War on Humour”

  1. alexlizard January 19, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    I had to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys at Christmas with my mother in law. I thought it was just vulgar and boring, but she found it really very funny. Takes all sorts I guess.

    I think part of the problem is the internet just likes to go out of it’s way to be offended by things, Big Bang Theory is called “Geek Blackface” by a few different comics website, so incensed they are by the portrayal of comics fandom.

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