Comedy: The Death of Heroes
In the infancy of the BBC and Television’s wholesome and repressed roots, comedians dared not offend the British public with profanities and sexually explicit vulgarities and were instead confined to traditional and trusted bigotry and Mother-in-Law jokes which form the culturally safe backbone of our nation. In the familiar paradigm best exhibited by thoroughly British comedian Jim Davidson, comedians voiced the thoughts and feelings of the nation when it came to recently introduced cultural phenomenon such as ‘black people’ and ‘the gays’. The average bloke on the street took the Rising Damp stance of ‘don’t bring your voodoo over here’ and ‘eh-up lads, backs to the wall!’ and this is precisely the voice heard through the mouthpiece of Britain’s comedians. Racism was safe, familiar and acceptable, it’s what the public trusted. It is unfortunate that Television’s puritanical attitude towards the mention of sex or anything deemed unsuitable for family, pre-watershed viewing did not extend to the policies on bigotry.
Since those days comedy has subverted, inverted and transcended all those well-established boundaries and has formed as many new identities and levels of acceptability as Madonna . Riding the new national atmosphere of cosmopolitan tolerance and understanding, comedians fought against the rules on swearing and sexual openness and simultaneously challenged the boundaries of racism and homophobia. As open displays of insularity were rebuked in favour of open-mindedness, the stuffy, tightly-buttoned shirt collar of the proletariat underbelly was loosened and swearing and sexuality became more acceptable. A more open-minded, liberated generation of comedy emerged which embraced all of society’s diverse components and allowed itself the freedom to behave on stage/television as one would in ‘real life’. The new-age attitude allowed comedians to speak to their audience as they would their mates in the pub, with swearing and honesty. Over time the old generation of comedians became fodder for satire and risible artefacts of a by-gone, intolerant age. The new, fresh comedians washed away the ‘gay’ jokes and the sub-sudo-sub-textual innuendoes which became sinister and dangerous in their forced repression, and brought in a new age of ‘f words’ and ‘knob gags’. A little further down the line and both the ‘gay jokes’ and the ‘knob jokes’ had both given way to a more enlightened comedy which was both free of prejudice and repression and also free of the adolescence of rebellion and its innate prosaic crudity and caustic spit. Now came a spiritual, new comedy, comedy which inspired its audience and talked people down off ledges. Then new comedy was able to reflect on the repression of the early television generation and its closeted, buttoned-up stuffiness, and also the teenage rebellion which followed, comedy had now evolved into an adult. It could swear but not aggressively, talk about sex maturely and be understanding of all sexes, races and sexualities. The comedy of the new millennium is intelligent, satirically sophisticated and understanding of every part of society, comedy which steps up to the challenge of our social diversity but resists the ‘PC’ madness which has replaced the old repression.
Britain is a naturally obsequious nation. We don’t like controversy and this is no bad thing, except when it prohibits freedom of speech. We are a nation which stands back while people push in front of us at the supermarket checkout, we don’t like a fuss. By nature Britain is an unconfrontational sycophant and when it comes to anybody but hard-working British people our current burden is not upsetting anybody who isn’t white, middle/working class and employed. Television has gone beyond PC to a ridiculous extent but comedians have resisted, somehow maintaining the balance between understanding and freedom. It appears to be because comedians are able to handle subjects with more intelligence, charm and understanding than any television producer is able to. Rather than worrying whether something will offend or upset, comedians face a subject head-on, challenging pre-conceptions and delicately balancing the subject so that neither side of the fence are offended. This does not mean ‘sitting on the fence’ but means that they are able to discuss a subject with understanding and compassion which satisfies both the party which is subject and also the party which is audience. Where Television steps back from controversy, comedians smash it up and piss on it. They don’t offend people because they have the intelligence to show empathy and actually understand the subject, rather than being frightened of it. Comedians get their hands dirty and are rewarded for it.
Sadly the new generation of comedy is under threat. The older generation are still attached to the old days of no swearing and ‘black’ jokes. Yes older people are equally entitled to enjoyable entertainment, but sadly they feel the need to eradicate anything they don’t understand and so instead of changing the channel or making an effort to comprehend a new way of thinking, they complain, meaning that the new comedians are soon going to be forced down the repression route of old.
A recent (and frankly exhausted) example is Sachsgate. We’re all aware of the who’s, where’s and what’s but are we aware of the cost of the incident to our cultural freedom? A rapacious listener of The Russell Brand Show, I willingly surrendered my Saturday nights to my radio and was educated, enlightened, entertained and simultaneously had my eyes opened to new experiences and knowledge and also brought to tears with laughter. The programme was intelligent, hilarious and in my opinion extremely valuable. The programme offered listeners a unique experience which combined internationally top-draw comedy (improvised live, unscripted), truly intelligent and remarkable discussions on diverse subjects from Darwinism and David Icke to the dispute between China and Tibet. Listeners were also integral to the show and contributed by phone, text, e-mail and also largely featured in the conception of the regular items. It was a fantastically unique experience enjoyed by a vast and loyal following. While no defence for what was said to Andrew Sachs is offered because it was categorically wrong, the point should be made that much of this event was orchestrated by the media. One key fact often missed is that Andrew Sachs was booked to appear on the radio show that night to be interviewed. It was not a random prank call, it was arranged. I am not suggesting that Brand and Ross were right to say what they did, they weren’t, but it should be clearly understood that on the night of the radio show (broadcast between 9.00 pm and 11.00 pm, well after the watershed) only four people phoned to complain (out of a listening audience of two million). It was two weeks later, following a feature by the Daily Mail, that the thousands of complaints were received, most of them by people who hadn’t even heard it. In fact there was one final broadcast of the show the following week, before the event even hit the news, when the Daily Mail were present, compiling their case.
What happened to Andrea Sachs was wrong and reprehensible but my point is that a radio show which was enjoyed by many people ceased to enlighten their lives because the BBC was frightened of controversy. A metaphorical slap on the wrists would have sufficed, purely for the offence caused to an individual grandfather. In fact an apology was made and fully accepted. I understand why it would cause offence to people listening but is it really fair to curtail a cultural cornerstone and immensely enjoyed weekly event simply because some people object to the use of a certain word?
If comedy and free speech are restricted, confined and suppressed then so too is the freedom of thought and speech which enable us to function as intelligent human beings. I understand why my own grandmother dislikes hearing swear words on television (despite using them herself in private), but my argument is that if television does not reflect a true representation of real life then our thoughts and opinions are being forcibly squeezed out of us. If comedians are prohibited from speaking to us in the same way they would if they met us in the street then they are not being themselves and are suppressing their own thoughts and views, which are precisely what I enjoy about comedians. They are human beings and should be allowed to behave as such. I do not advocate anything which intentionally hurts or offends people, by which I mean something aimed directly at another human being with the intention of causing offence (for example gay or black jokes), but I do feel passionately that freedom of speech is what makes human beings better. It educates and improves us and through it we grow. If all of that is repressed and we go back to bigotry and the ridicule of people who have no control over the colour of their skin or their own sexuality or physical disability (the stand-up material of Ricky Jervais for example), then how are we better people?