Wednesday 11th July 2012
My poor little VW Golf has taken some battering over the last 11 years and the 129,500 miles we have now travelled together. There have been a few scrapes and bumps, though each of them has been caused when I've been driving at less than 5mph. Probably less than 2mph. I am an excellent driver as long as I am going fast. That is the lesson I have learned.
Tonight as I turned a sharp corner on an unfamiliar street in Clerkenwell I caught the side of my car on a broken and raised paving slab. It should have had a cone on it to warn me, but someone else had knocked the cone off and it lay in the street. There was a grinding and I reversed off. My wife offered to get out and have a look to assess the damage - I said there was no need, we'd see it soon enough. It's another battle scar for this long serving employee of Richard Herring enterprises. I won't be fixing it. It's good for the car to have this character.
It had been a tiring day. I'd inadvertently offended some people with a joke that I have been doing for eight years, in front of thousands of people (mainly liberal and left wing), none of whom had ever complained about it (in fact it's one of my guaranteed biggest laughs). It's a joke (like many jokes) that if you take it literally you can argue is nasty. But people have understood that I am playing with them and that the nastiness is deliberately over the top and in response to provocation. And that actually the joke wrongfoots you away from proper nastiness. It's a joke aimed squarely at a single inconsiderate person who is ruining the enjoyment of an audience full of people and at no one else.
I'd argue you have to interpret it in a certain way to be really offended by it and thus in a sense you're getting offended by something you've imagined yourself. But some people think you shouldn't joke about certain subjects, even obliquely and they have the right to believe that. I disagree. I think humour is a good way to tackle serious subjects. This is also my right. But it doesn't mean I always get it right either.
My wife said I shouldn't get involved in discussing it on Twitter and she's right, because it's not a forum for an argument about anything that involves subtleties of intent and language. Partly the joke works because over the course of an hour (or my career) the audience know me and trust me enough to know what my intent is - but if stripped of context that is maybe lost a little.
But I did the worst thing possible which was to get partially involved on Twitter before realising that my wife had been right all along and then (mainly) stopping. Unless someone interpreted the joke so wildly wrong that I felt I had to point out their error.
I should listen to my wife - she is very wise. Unfortunately my inherent sexism and misogyny has prevented me from doing so.
That was a joke by the way. Please don't take everything I say literally. I am both a feminist and an androgynist. (also a joke - I actually have equal disdain for men and women - also a joke). And I also really dislike many of the lazy and horrible jokes that are made about stuff like death, rape and paedophilia in stand up clubs for no other reason than to shock. When I hear jokes that I think are shit I will sometimes say so and challenge the person telling them.
But I make jokes about all those subjects. Hopefully thoughtful ones, but ones that I pretty much always have a good reason for, even if it is just to make my audience consider why they believe something, or to ask questions by being offensive. It's by no means black and white, it's very complex. But I always think hard about it. Certainly for much longer than the people who read the joke on Twitter (or edited versions of it) and responded with knee-jerk indignation. I have been thinking about the joke for 8 years.
Stripped of context (as quickly on Twitter this joke was - many people didn't even acknowledge that it was a response to a heckler or about a talkative person) the joke maybe looked worse than it really was.
But anyway, I don't really want to get into defending myself here either or reigniting the argument. It really boiled down to whether you feel some subjects should be the subject of jokes. I think the big subjects like death, love, hate, fascism, disability, prejudice must be tackled by humour and that in many ways the best way to change people's prejudices is to make them laugh or point out how ludicrous their stand point is. Other people think you must never joke about these subjects. So there's always going to be an impasse. But I don't think it's a bad thing to be made to question why you're doing something or what the effect of it can be.
Some people think it's better to hit out against these things by being serious or po-faced or by insisting their are no subtleties of interpretation or opinion and that you have to agree with them on everything or be castigated. And that's fine. I am not sure it endears them to anyone other than the people who absolutely agree with them 100% though. And it's hard to have a discussion. Especially in 140 characters. I find it hard to fully express what I feel about this in a blog.
I am a feminist who hates lazy rape jokes or comedians who think they are edgy just because they mention the subject. Yet I also see that to laugh in the face of fear and bigotry and violence and death is a helpful coping mechanism for some people. Not for all. But it'd be a shame if the people who want to be able to laugh at the bad stuff that's happened to them aren't allowed to because of the ones who say you can never do that in any circumstances. It felt odd to be the whipping boy on this particular subject, mainly because I knew that we could pick a comedy club at random and I'd be able to show these people half a dozen much more unpleasant jokes probably in the first half an hour. Robin Ince said that going after me on this issue was like a ticket inspector allowing fare-dodging youths to run around vandalising his train and then penalising a confused old lady for having the wrong ticket. And whilst I am the confused old lady in this analogy, I think that's pretty much spot on.
But I was upset to have upset people. You'd think if I was trying to be shocking and in your face I would have been delighted. Just as when the Guardian took quotes out of context to imply I was racist and hated Pakistanis, I didn't like the idea that anyone genuinely thinking I was misogynist. I have accidentally become a controversial shocking newspaper columnist. Does AA Gill spend the day after his columns come out feeling sad and a bit sick? Probably not I am guessing. But maybe he accidentally insulted people to begin with and then his response to their opprobrium was to be more insulting the next week. And he started a chain of events that inevitably led him to shooting a baboon and thinking that Mary Beard was anything but the most wonderful woman alive.
I don't want to go that way. Ironically I agree with most of what the people having a go at me were saying. And it's a shame that any of us wasted our time discussing this when there are millions of people out there who completely disagree with us and millions of less ambiguously unpleasant jokes and people actually doing horrible things to other people. Not to say that doesn't mean we can't discuss this joke. I am happy to do so. Just it's a shame that the focus ended up on this when we pretty much agree in our ends if not in our means. And perhaps I was foolish to think that a joke that works in the context of my act was going to work (for everyone) in print.
I like to challenge the views of both other people and myself, but I hope the people who didn't like this one joke might search out my Objective on Page 3 or come and see Talking Cock. Because I think these both show my true feelings about such subjects, albeit from the perspective of my slightly confused and occasionally perverted and unpleasant comedy character. It's good to fight, but it's also important to choose battles carefully.
And if you think this is ironic given the stance I took on disabled jokes last year, then you should probably actually look at what I said.
Maybe I am wrong on this one, maybe the people who complained were, maybe we all are. But I don't think we broadly disagree about too many things and we shouldn't get bogged down in this.
Anyway it made my last day as a 44 year old a bit unhappy, and crunching my car into some broken stone was a fitting end to it all. It feels bad enough that as of tomorrow I am in the second half of my forties.
If you tweet me about any of this I won't respond. My wife has told me I can't. And if I have learned anything in 3 months of marriage it is that I should obey her. Only Mary Beard is better than her.
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