Only the other day, Jimmy Carr was on a quiz panel spouting a tirade of racist jokes about Travellers and their protest at Dale Farm. Two days later Jeremy Clarkson was on the BBC’s One Show saying that strikers should be shot in front of their families.
His excuse? It was only a joke. I don’t recall the same leniency being applied to the two young men who jokingly called on people to riot on facebook over the summer.
And things seem to be going from bad to worse Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s new show, Life’s Too Short, is an observational sitcom series about “the life of a showbiz dwarf”. It really is as offensive and humourless as it sounds.
I’m now 48 years old – I remember what are generally called the bad old days of “comedy”: Saturday nights spent in front of the TV watching Jim Davidson spitting out racist and sexist diatribes.
It still feels like a nightmare when I recall the TV sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, a show which encouraged viewers to laugh along with a white racist as he abused his black neighbour, calling him “Sambo”, “nignog” and “jungle bunny”. It was supposedly fair because the black guy could call him “honky” and “snowman”.
Then there was one of ITV’s most popular shows, The Comedians, a programme where a group of National Front rejects abused every ethnic minority person they could, all in the spirit of having a laugh. The show even had a token black man, Charlie Williams, whose catchphrase was, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll come and move in next door to you.”
But just like punk a decade before it, a “new wave” of comedians emerged – Jo Brand, Jeremy Hardy, Linda Smith, Rob Newman, Mark Steel and Mark Thomas. They swept away the old guard – their humour poked fun at those in authority and challenged racist and sexist stereotypes.
For sure the new wave coexisted side by side with “laddish” comedy typified by Baddiel and Skinner. But even mainstream and populist comedians such as Lenny Henry, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Ben Elton served up skits that were more challenging, even if they were a pale version of the “new wave”.
But today the ghost of Bernard Manning has come back to haunt us.
It began five or six years ago when Little Britain hit our screens and Sacha Baron Cohen launched his characters Borat and Bruno. But the “let’s be offensive” bar has been raised even higher in recent years by the likes of Jimmy Carr, Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle. All three have claimed they are trying to push back the boundaries of comedy.
Do me a favour Gervais. Taking the piss out of dwarfs is hardly path-breaking comedy.
The kings and noblemen of medieval Europe often hired dwarfs as court jesters. They regarded them as pets, dressed them up as asses and mocked them – all in the best possible taste, no doubt.
If Jim Davidson were to use the material Gervais now uses about disabled people, everyone would rightly say Davidson was beyond the pale.
But Gervais and co say they are not like the old guard – they are just being ironic. I get it. I just don’t think it’s funny to laugh at people with disabilities, LGBT people or the working class.
Comedy should be about challenging authority and convention, not laughing at the most oppressed and exploited in society. The fact is we don’t live in an equal world.
The fact is these comedians are aware of what is offensive and the meanings of the so-called taboos they are trying to shatter. I’m all in favour of challenging taboos, but if one of them is political correctness, then I think it’s time to stop and think.
If by political correctness you mean getting rid of the Black and White Minstrel Show or Bernard Manning’s rants against Asian people, then I am all for it.
In the pursuit of their right to offend and break taboos surrounding the oppressed they make it easier for even more vile characters to emerge from the sewer. At the Edinburgh Fringe this year one act was sacked for being racist.
I think it’s time for comedians to make a stand. The reason is, if you don’t, I’m going to get myself a shotgun and waste Clarkson in front of his family.
Don’t worry Jeremy, I’m only joking – just like you were!
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