Guardian Article about offensive comedy
The new offenders of standup comedy
Political correctness used to rule comedy, but now comics routinely offend their audiences. How did things get so nasty?
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27 July 2009
It's a Saturday night in north London, and a group of people are listening to one white man speak. First he suggests that all Muslim men are secretly gay. Next, he's using the n-word. Then he draws his eyes into slits to mock the Chinese. One woman in the crowd has had enough. "You're awful," she says, leaving the room. "You're a disgrace." Soon, others join her; the man abuses them as they leave. The atmosphere is sour.
This is not an unruly seminar on racism, but comedy, 2009-style. It's a world where all the bigotries and the misogyny you thought had been banished forever from mainstream entertainment have made a startling comeback. Tonight's comic is San Francisco comedian Scott Capurro, and his routine is not unusual in the taboo-teasing world of 21st-century standup. Before the gig, I ask Capurro how he feels about routinely offending his audience. "It's great," he says. "I'm not friends with my audience. I'll never see them again. If they want to fight, they can have one with me. How often does an audience get the chance to stand up and say, 'You are fucked up'? It's so exciting â€“ it's a conversation."
Is Capurro probing the boundaries of what is sayable or not? Or is he just smuggling out bigotry under a veil of irony? It's a question that will be asked at the Edinburgh Fringe next month, which in recent years has resembled less a comedy festival than a sounding board for racial and sexist provocation. Notorious examples range from this charming Jimmy Carr quip â€“ "the male Gypsy moth can smell the female Gypsy moth up to seven miles away. And that fact also works if you remove the word moth" â€“ to the serial political incorrectness of Ricky Gervais. "One false move," as Gervais likes to say in his live act, "and I'm Jim Davidson."
This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues "that racists have a point". Fringe 2009 also welcomes back Aussie standup Jim Jeffries, whose jokes include: "Women to me are like public toilets. They're all dirty except for the disabled ones." Jeffries tells me: "You can't do a joke these days about black or Asian people â€“ and rightly so â€“ [but] you can do rape jokes on stage and that's not a problem." Why does he think rape is now less of a taboo than racism? "I don't write the rules," he says. Nor, it seems, does he seek to challenge them. Capurro told me, with some distaste: "For a lot of comics, it's OK to talk about raping women now. That's the new black on the comedy circuit."
Of course, for as long as there has been comedy, there has been offensive comedy. Most of the iconic standups of the last 50 years â€“ Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, even Billy Connolly â€“ were once considered beyond the pale. What is interesting about the New Offenders is who they are offending, and why. Their predecessors tended to offend against establishment opinion, and came from what might broadly be described as a left-libertarian perspective. The sacred cows they butchered were religious orthodoxy, obscenity laws, militarism and racial inequality.
In the 1980s, this brand of outre humour â€“ then called alternative comedy â€“ went mainstream. The derogatory comedy of Bernard Manning and Benny Hill was elbowed off the airwaves by proudly anti-racist, anti-sexist comics of the younger generation: anti-Thatcher ranter Ben Elton; Alexei Sayle, who describes his younger self as "a fat man in a suit, shouting at people for not being political enough"; feminist comics French and Saunders, Emma Thompson and Jo Brand. And it is this right-on orthodoxy that today's New Offenders have been reacting against.
Certainly, this is the case for Herring. "Alternative comedy had got to a place where it was po-faced and not very funny," he says. "Comics were just saying stuff that everyone in the audience thought anyway. That preachy, patronising thing â€“ it was necessary at the time, but audiences have become more sophisticated." Brendon Burns, the confrontational Australian comic, agrees that alternative comedy became a fundamentalism that had to be challenged. In 2007 Burns won the If.Comedy award for his Edinburgh show So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now?, painting himself black and dressing up like a Zulu warrior for the poster. Ten years ago, he would not have got away with it, says Burns. "If you said certain words, people would freak out. I can list the big five. Chuck in an n, chuck in a p. Spastic was another one, the c-word was a no-no. Twenty years ago, if you said girlfriend, people would say, 'No, it's partner.'"
For many comics, it is received wisdom that this proscription existed, and that it was a bad thing. But to comic Jo Brand, it's not that clear-cut. "Misogyny, racism and anti-disability were bubbling away under the surface throughout the 80s," she says. "There were all these unwritten rules going on: people would get offended back then if a comic worked for Sky. But there were plenty of people who adhered to the rules only in a mild fashion, so they weren't berated by their fellow comics. Comedians like [writer and quiz show host] Bob Mills, say, were always on the edge of doing anti-women jokes. It's just that they censored themselves a bit."
Brand thinks this concept of self-censorship has been lost. Now, she says, "you've got the Jimmy Carrs, who appeal to all the people out there who thought, 'Where have all those delicious anti-women jokes gone? We miss them.'" Is this a disappointment? "You can't live as an ex-alternative comedian in your ivory tower, sneering at what the rest of the population is laughing at. I find some of today's jokes hard to laugh at, but I know that a lot of people don't." Sayle identifies the lads' comedy of the mid-90s, the Frank Skinner and David Baddiel era, as the turning point: "Skinner is a great comic but there is something misogynistic in his attitudes."
A younger generation see things differently: challenging taboos is less a betrayal of their recent forebears, more a concession to a changing world. "In the 1970s, black and Asian people were getting shit put through their letterboxes," says Herring. "But the world has moved on. Now we accept the [anti-racist, anti-sexist] tenets of alternative comedy as true, and don't need to patronise audiences any more." Burns goes further: "Cultures are blending now. People are getting used to one another more. And nowadays, more sections of society are being represented in comedy clubs."
This is a moot point: you will see very few minority ethnic comedy audiences in Edinburgh â€“ or, in my experience, on the mainstream comedy circuit in general. And Burns's argument that racist and sexist jokes are acceptable because racism and sexism are on the wane is jumping the gun. Even Capurro acknowledges this: "Gay men are targets still," he says. "Black people are still targets." Social psychologist Sue Becker, an academic at Teesside University who recently wrote a paper about resurgent bigotry in British comedy, says: "You'd find a different opinion [to Burns's] if you went and talked to people in local communities." She dismisses another frequent defence of minority-baiting comedy, which is that it's all right as long as you offend all communities equally. "Does that make it any less racist? Or does it just mean there's a broader range of vulnerable targets?"
To Becker, the New Offensiveness, with its often contorted self-justifications, is a symptom of "aversive racism" â€“ the negative stereotypes that persist under a veneer of liberal values; stereotypes we've collectively lost the confidence to identify or oppose. A classic example, she believes, is Little Britain, in which David Walliams blacked up to play the character of Desiree, an obese black woman, and in which so-called "chavs" are ridiculed. Brand shares Becker's qualms about this show: "With Little Britain, I'd say half the population are taking it in the way it's intended. Others are just laughing at someone who's poor and slaggy."
Mind you, Little Britain debuted five years ago: post-Andrew Sachsgate, TV and radio stations might think twice before broadcasting anything as contentious. The furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's prank-gone-wrong brought the debate surrounding boorish comedy to a head, and has shifted the goalposts for broadcast comedy. "When you go on a TV or radio show now, you're being told you must not do certain things," says Herring. "People are so nervous about transgressing. The producer is telling you not to be offensive even in the bits that aren't going to be aired."
For this reason, Herring now does most of his work on the web. His weekly podcast, presented with Andrew Collins, makes a point of "pushing back boundaries and saying anything we want". One recent episode aired Herring's purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set. In another routine, he claims to support the BNP's policy to deport all black people from the UK. Into the awkward laughter that greets this joke, he says: "Don't go thinking I'm the new Bernard Manning. I'm being postmodern and ironic. I understand that what I'm saying is unacceptable." Then he pauses. "But does that make me better than Manning, or much, much worse?" This is "playing around with things", he tells me: "it's the intent behind it that's the important thing."
But is it? Isn't the important thing the effect that this comedy has out there in the real world? For the most part, the likes of Herring, Capurro and the liberal-baiting US comic Sarah Silverman ("I don't care if you think I'm racist. It's more important to me that you think I'm thin") know they are performing to a well-heeled white audience, and pitch their explorations of middle-class guilt and the post-PC sensibility accordingly. "As a comedian, you've got to say contentious things," says Herring. "That's part of the contract. To make people gasp, or stop laughing; to pull the rug out from under people's feet and surprise them." And, as they point out, there is a big audience for offensive comedy, albeit one with a sometimes unsavoury edge. "Some people like being offended," says Jeffries. "And some people like watching other people being offended. I get people at the end of gigs going, 'You should have seen this woman's face!' or 'There was this old man who got really upset!' People get off on that." Is it a reaction he is content to provoke? "I don't know what to say to that, really," he says. "I don't go out of my way to offend people."
In fact, most of the comics I spoke to denied any responsibility for how audiences interpreted their work. "If you're doing a brilliant piece of irony and someone takes it literally," says Herring, "that's not your fault. It's their fault for not being intelligent enough to get it." Does he have a responsibility to frustrate the bigots in the crowd? "I don't know how you control that. It's a massively complicated issue." The case study here is Al Murray, whose Pub Landlord character began life as a satire of Little England attitudes, and has ended up â€“ perhaps unintentionally â€“ celebrating them. One comedy promoter I talked to described Murray's recent O2 arena gig as "like a BNP rally. It was 12,000 people waving a British flag and singing, 'We hate the French.'" Murray is apparently unfazed by accusations of racism, saying recently: "You hear the odd ironic cheer at gigs. The joke's on them for getting it wrong. You can't get hung up about it."
Murray has also been accused of homophobia, following the launch of his new character, the gay Nazi Horst Schwull, in his ITV sketch show. Whether mincing in pink to depict homosexuality is offensive any more is a tough call; Sacha Baron Cohen's film BrÃ¼no makes a bonfire of such liberal anxieties. Is BrÃ¼no homophobic, was Borat racist â€“ or do these characters expose the ridiculousness of racism and homophobia? In this debate, Baron Cohen's Jewishness is often used to exonerate him. Similarly, Burns and Jeffries often use their personal experiences of working in care homes to legitimise anti-disability jokes.
And here lies the confusion from which Becker's notion of "aversive racism" springs. "One of the difficulties when people object to offensive comedy," she argues, "is the criticism that they don't get the joke. That's difficult to counter, because you are then seen as someone who lacks a sense of humour." Burns has a point when he argues that to be offended "is selfish, because we all have our own personal goalposts and we all think that everyone else should adhere to them." Still, it doesn't get us very far in establishing an agreed standard of offensiveness â€“ and it does let gratuitously abusive comedians off the hook. Burns proudly says: "Not once has any non-white person accused me of being racist on stage. So I must be doing something right." But this implies that offence is invalid if taken by any party other than the minority in question (as well as overlooking the fact that non-white people make up a small minority of his audience).
After Capurro's London gig, I speak to several audience members. Some, who resent a perceived taboo on white people joking about black people, adored his racist material. Others loathed it. Nobody argues that the jokes were not racist. The woman who branded Capurro "a disgrace" when she walked out (a white, Scottish woman called Patsy Sweeney) "found it so thoroughly offensive that I couldn't sit and listen to it, because that would have felt like condoning what he was saying." She feels Capurro was wilfully antagonising his audience, and that it wasn't a game she was prepared to play. "Was that some social experiment about what people find funny and what they don't? Because actually I thought I was going to see a comedian."
As far as she is concerned, she has been denied the evening of laughter she has paid for. Capurro has also affronted her sense of what people should be allowed to say. "I don't think comedy gives you carte blanche to insult people. If he said those things in the street, he could be charged with incitement to racial hatred. So yes, it might create laughter, but it also might give a mandate to racists that it's OK to say these things, because somebody in a mainstream position is saying these things."
I enjoyed Capurro's set, but Sweeney's walk-out forced me to interrogate why. I agree with her that racists would find little to challenge their prejudices in Capurro's material. But to me, his effort to offend the non-racist, liberal pieties of his crowd was amusing in its childishness and transparency. I felt that â€“ like the great misanthrope Scots comic Jerry Sadowitz â€“ Capurro had created a genuine comic persona that put the unpleasantness in context. As Sayle says: "Offence doesn't reside in the subject matter, but in the power relationship between the comic and the audience." Sadowitz's impotent fury, Silverman's preppy naivety, Capurro's puerility â€“ all of these comics reduce their status vis-a-vis the audience and ensure that the jokes bounce back on them. Usually.
But that's just my take on things; offence is clearly in the eye of the beholder. I think it's a good thing that comedians want to exploit (and relieve) our anxieties about what's sayable â€“ but only if we as audiences become bolder in opposing comedy that bullies, comedy that sneers at the vulnerable and the under-represented, comedy that feels, in Herring's words, "like being at school and going, 'Ha ha, you're a spastic.'" If standup is uniquely able to offend us â€“ "It's more intimate than kissing," Capurro says â€“ then we, as an audience, are uniquely able to offend them right back. We can argue. Or leave. Or not buy tickets in the first place.
Post-Ross-and-Brand, there are forces gathering that might soon make us pine for the spiky comedy of old, however. Industry insiders I talked to thought the next generation of comics would bring in a new era of whimsy and mild observation. "There are hardly any young comics coming out with any sharp opinions," said one promoter, "be it political or ironic racism, or sexist, or whatever. They're all being very safe."