Morning! There you are. Just when I’d told you I would be blogging late today and even then rather half-arsedly, it turns out I’m writing this in a park before ten a.m., and with my WHOLE arse. I love to surprise you.
A lady called Lydia posted a comment the other day which began like this:
I have a question for you, which kind of relates to Mock The Week because something Jack Whitehall said last night got me thinking about it again.
I’m basically just wondering what your opinion is on comedians making jokes to do with people with special needs.
Lydia, I wrote a blog on this subject a couple of months ago, when Frankie got into (a tiny bit of) trouble for taking the piss out of a Down’s Sydrome sufferer. (It was called Frankie, My Dear, I Don’t Give A Damn, I think. Easy one to remember as there are only so many times you can make a ‘Frankie’ pun like that.) It was my most-read blog ever, largely because of people googling Frankie Boyle – I’m thinking of calling a future entry Michael McIntyre Kevin Bridges Russell Howard Sex Romp to hoover up those search engine surfers. I basically said that, even though comedians in general are thought to have a licence to say whatever they want, quite a lot of the time they probably shouldn’t. Then I backtracked a bit from this already pretty vague point of view and ended the blog mumbling things like ‘anyway, enough from me’. So it ended much like any other conversation I might hold.
Now the subject’s been raised again, and it ties in a little bit with the international football tournament I keep being at pains not to mention. The prospect of England playing Germany has got the tabloids stirring up what you might call ‘mild xenophobia’, e.g. referring to Germans as ‘Jerries’, mentioning Hitler, and so on. Few of us alive today remember either World War, and in a way jokes of this kind aren’t really even about the wars any more; for the casual football fans they’re aimed at, they tap into more recent tradition of England-Germany games (most notoriously, the one in 1996, when we lost on penalties after The Sun had printed pictures of our players dressed up in WW2 uniforms) and general anglo-German ‘banter’. Not many of the people reading, even some of the meatheads who read The Sun, would genuinely have a problem meeting, and speaking to, a German. Hardly anyone in this country believes ‘The Germans’ are evil. But these pantomime antics keep coming out when we meet them at football. So, is it all harmless fun, or should we be a bit more careful than to keep dragging up this history?
I think the answer is somewhere in between. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy rivalry in football or in life, and if you’ve had the privilege of watching any sport with like-minded fans of the opposing side, you’ll know that sport can be one of the greatest ways of bringing different groups together. There’s been a lot of talk in this World Cup about how the whole of Africa is united behind the different African teams, for example, and although some of it is sentimental bollocks, some of it IS true. Football has allowed me to bond with people from many many places I’d not have known much about otherwise. If there are shared jokes between these people, that all adds to the fun. For example if the Germans were currently making jokes about how they bombed Coventry and how many homes burned down in the Blitz, and we found those jokes funny, then I guess that’s sort of OK. The thing is it tends to be mostly us making jokes about the War, because ’we’ won it.
I think in general a little more sensitivity is needed from comedians/people who pass for comedians in the newspaper/anyone who other people listen to. Comedy has blossomed over a golden age when comedians have been given free rein to say anything about anyone. This was a necessary counter-attack against the pointless strictures of most of the 20th century, the stiff-upper-lip British tradition, and it’s allowed comedy to become one of the more interesting artforms of the past ten or twenty years. I never support censorship and I do think comedy’s freedom of speech is worth defending. But ANYONE’s freedom of speech is only valid up the point it’s used to wound other people. Comedians aren’t exempt from that, just because they might do the wounding more wittily than others, wear a nice suit as they’re doing it (though not in my case), and say ‘hey, chill out, I’m just kidding’ afterwards. Comedy is like a naughty younger brother who everyone loves and indulges. Its whole appeal comes from that naughtiness. But at some point the mischievous oik has to go to university and get a job and take responsibility as a citizen. If comedy wants to keep being important, it has to get over itself as a ‘cool, dangerous, edgy’ art that doesn’t give a fuck, and start being something more valuable – a cool, dangerous, edgy art that DOES give a fuck.
So, no, to be honest I don’t think it is OK to make jokes about people with – for example – learning difficulties, (a) because they are not really in a position to defend themselves, (b) because you’re likely to reinforce ignorance and prejudice by doing that, and even the most vicious comedy should be about challenging assumptions, not buffeting them.
A caveat to all this, though: you mentioned Jack Whitehall talking about ‘retards’. I wouldn’t have done this myself, but I’m well aware I might easily use a similar word without pondering what it would mean to some people (and indeed, nothing I’ve said here is meant to exempt me, I’ve said some terrible things in the past I’m sure). I’m certain Jack would be horrified if he thought anyone with special needs would be upset by his using that word. It’s easy to do in the heat of the battle that is Mock The Week, and in the pressure of being on stage generally. So, yes – where individual words and phrases are concerned, we should cut comedians some slack. In return, comedians should cut themselves a bit LESS slack.
Those are my opinions. Or rather, rather incoherently arranged versions of my opinions. If this were an essay, I wouldn’t hand this in now; I’d go back and try and make it progress more smoothly from one point to the next. But who would read ten years of my essays?