Guardian article about Bernard Manning
On the offensive
Bernard Manning, who died this week, clung to a shameful, outdated idea of comedy with his racist and sexist routines. At least, that's what his critics said. But bigotry is thriving in stand-up, reports Stephen Armstrong
Wednesday June 20, 2007
Comedian Richard Herring's latest show Ménage à Un involves a clever routine in which he pretends to endorse the BNP. "Don't go thinking I'm the new Bernard Manning," he tells the audience. "I'm being post-modern and ironic. I understand that what I'm saying is unacceptable. But does that make me better than Bernard Manning, or much, much worse?"
He tells me: "Comedy should challenge people - so the material is aimed at the preconceptions of a middle-class audience, but you do worry that the only difference between my satirical take on expectations and something Bernard Manning would have said is the trust you place in the performer."
But as Manning's obituaries head for the bin, trusting the performer may not be enough to ensure that Manning's brand of racist humour dies with him. A new generation of comics has been playing with race-based humour, arguing that jokes about bigotry are not the same as being bigoted. Sacha Baron Cohen stretches stereotypes to breaking point with Ali G and Borat, while Ricky Gervais's standup skits on Nazis and disability would cause outrage in the hands of another comic.
This month, a conference on comedy and British identity at Salford University saw academics queueing up to identify new strains of racist humour in comedy. Guy Redden, of Lincoln University, Susan Becker, of the University of Teesside, and Lloyd Peters, of Salford, argued that British comedy is as bigoted and racist today as it was in the 70s and that, after a wave of political correctness in the days of alternative comedy, jokes are again targeted at minority groups. "Unlike the discriminatory humour of the 70s, today's performers are aware of the power and meaning of the taboos they choose to break," Redden told the conference, "but that doesn't make the humour acceptable." The BBC seems to agree. Last year the corporation had to apologise after Jimmy Carr joked about Gypsies on Radio 4.
Little Britain came in for particular attack in Salford, with mail-order Thai bride Ting Tong and Desiree deVere - David Walliams blacked up in a fat suit - identified as insidious racism. "I have seen Little Britain live at a huge theatre in Brighton and you do feel a little uncomfortable when the crowd roar at the Ting Tong sketches," counters Steve Bennett, editor of Britain's largest comedy site, Chortle.co.uk. "But I do think it is different from the 70s where you had white comics saying, 'We don't like black people and we want them to go home.' Little Britain is playing with what is acceptable in our PC world."
Knowing though it may be, Little Britain's blacking-up appears to have made the concept - first popularised in the deep south of America as part of a vicious song-and-dance routine about a crippled black stable hand called Jim Crow - acceptable in live comedy for the first time since the 70s. Young character comic Simon Brodkin's routine, for instance, includes blacking up for a monologue as an Asian doctor complete with comedy accent, while the poster for stand-up Brendon Burns' 2007 Edinburgh Fringe show, called Now Is This Offensive?, shows the comic blacked up as a Zulu warrior.
It is not just race that is suddenly an acceptable butt of comedy. Gender and sexuality are fair game too. Today's comics are telling the kind of gags that Jim Davidson would embrace, but dressing them in a flimsy cloak of irony to deny their offensiveness. Standup Jim Jeffries, for instance, delivered a stream of misogynistic gags in his Edinburgh Fringe show last year - including "if a woman's not coming it's not my fault: her cunt is broken" - while pitching himself as a laddish rascal oppressed by the dour PC brigade. Jason Rouse has a routine on having sex with a woman who has cerebral palsy and even former Perrier Award winner Daniel Kitson, icon of the student comedy world, recently introduced "out" black comic Stephen K Amos with: "Now you've got a gay nigger who should be compering, but he's only going to do a 20-minute set."
Kitson shouldn't be seen as racist and homophobic, says Bennett. "It's a bit snobby saying that some people are allowed to tell and hear these jokes, and some aren't. But it is true that most of the time the comics are aware of their audience's expectations and are playing with it."
"I think it was really important and necessary that we had that period in the 80s where you literally couldn't talk about race as a comic because we had to clear out the mindless racism of Manning and his ilk," says Herring. "Where you can get a problem is with young comics who don't yet have the skill of someone like Stewart Lee [Herring's former comedy partner], who plays with offence and religion with talent and experience. They can see him perform and just walk away thinking it's fun to shock."
Indeed, where the ironic comic treads it seems the flat-out racist isn't far behind. Comedy promoter Christian Knowles, who has helped organise the BBC New Comedy Awards for the past three years, screens out an alarming number of explicitly racist comics before they have even made it to the early heats. In 2004, a comic told a joke that hadn't been cleared with the organisers: "I was stage-managing at a judging night in Newcastle when a guy came on and started talking about 'darkies'," he says. "I couldn't quite believe I'd heard it, until his next gag ... We pulled him off and thankfully the audience responded with total silence, but I have been at gigs at club level where there is way more racism in the crowd than on the stage."
Two weeks ago, Jewish standup Adam Bloom was given a Nazi salute by a racist heckler at the Other Side comedy club in Scarborough. Bloom tackled the man at the start of his 90-minute act for using the word "Paki" in an exchange with the compere, Jon Reed. When Bloom asked the heckler to take the word back, he refused, saying: "I'm a minority to them," and delivered the salute - receiving a huge laugh from the crowd.
Manning ended his self-penned obituary in the Daily Mail yesterday with digs at TV executives, the animal rights lobby and the Commission for Racial Equality. He said he sensed the affection of the British public and finished: "I know that I am the one having the last laugh." It looks as if he may be right.