Further feedback on Guardian piece
The readers' editor on ... squeezing the whole show into a few lines
o Siobhain Butterworth
o The Guardian, Monday 3 August 2009
Ihad intended to write about the inaugural appearance of the Câ€‘word on the Guardian's front page a couple of Saturdays ago, but the page one swearword will have to wait while we attend to an article on so-called "offensive comedy", which caused offence to two of the comedians mentioned.
Around 150 Richard Herring sympathisers emailed about the way the comedian was represented in G2's comedy issue last Monday. Herring was one of more than 30 comics mentioned in Brian Logan's analytical piece, about the "new offenders" of comedy, which examined reactions against the politically correct "alternative comedy" of the 80s. Logan interviewed several comedians, as well as an academic and an audience member at a Scott Capurro gig, for the feature, in which he explored the question of whether comedy that challenges liberal assumptions, using irony as a passport, risks making bigotry acceptable.
In an article covering so much ground it was hardly possible to describe routines in detail and that created two potential pitfalls: readers were given only brief accounts of the comics' work; and there was little to differentiate the attitudes of various comedians grouped together under a single heading.
Herring complained that partial descriptions of his routines, especially lines quoted in isolation, misrepresented his comedy. Readers were told that he wears a Hitler moustache in his new show (Hitler Moustache) and argues that racists have a point; they were also told that, in a weekly podcast he presents with Andrew Collins, Herring aired what Logan described as "his purported hatred of Pakistanis" and that in another routine he claimed to support the BNP's policy to deport black people.
"The point of all the routines mentioned, when quoted in full, is vehemently anti-racist," Herring said in a letter to the Guardian last week. "The show as a whole, far from examining my hatred of Pakistanis (another out of context quote from a routine intended to demonstrate the ludicrous nature of racism) is about trying to change the meaning of the toothbrush moustache so that it is no longer associated with Hitler and to make it into an anti-fascist symbol as a way of encouraging people to vote to ensure that the BNP never get elected again."
Herring was quoted several times in the piece. His thoughts on alternative comedy were included ("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,") as were his remarks to the audience during his BNP routine: "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."
Logan and the paper's arts editor, Melissa Denes, told me they felt these, and other comments from Herring (and Logan) left readers in no doubt about his views. Nevertheless I'm sympathetic to Herring's complaint that his work wasn't described fairly and accurately. While his comments to the interviewer shed light on his intentions, they didn't necessarily address the impression given by the incomplete accounts of his routines.
Herring's complaint was followed by another from Brendon Burns, who was described as a "confrontational Australian comic" and creator of an award-winning 2007 Edinburgh show called So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now?. Logan described Burns's appearance in a poster for the show in which he dressed as a Zulu warrior and was painted black. In an earlier version of the piece these words followed: "He sprang a coup de theatre surprise that forced audiences to examine their own complicity in racism" â€“ it would have helped if they'd been left in.
Denes and Logan don't share my views. They feel strongly that the feature should be read as a whole and that the short descriptions of the comics' work shouldn't be taken out of context. It's striking that their arguments mirror the complaints from Herring and Burns about the way their comedy was represented. The feature wasn't the end of the conversation: G2 published replies from Burns and Herring on Friday and Logan posted his responses in a blog on the Culture site.