The complex cruelty of comedy

With comedians coming under pressure to only perform ideologically pure material, can comedy and satire survive?

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Victims of sense of humour failure: left to right, Osip Mandelstam, Merve Büyüksaraç and Jan Böhmermann (Merve Büyüksaraç © Ian Gavan/Getty Images for IMG. Jan Böhmermann © Superbass / CC-BY-SA-4.0 via wikicommons)

One of my more vivid memories from early childhood is of when I was cornered by a group of older boys behind a disused greenhouse near to my school. Over months of neglect, a thick patch of nettles and brambles had broken out against the glass panes, and inevitably I was pushed into this mass of clawing weeds. I was wearing my summer uniform at the time, which meant shorts and a short-sleeved shirt that left a good deal of skin exposed. I could not have been much more than six years of age, unaccustomed to physical confrontation and, in any case, hopelessly outnumbered. Each time I attempted to stand, the boys would simply push me back, and their laughter seemed to amplify with my cries. Admittedly, there is something quite creative about using foliage as a means of torture.

Although I was stung and scratched relentlessly for what felt like hours, it’s the laughter of my assailants rather than the pain that I remember. The relationship between comedy and cruelty merits consideration, not least because we live in an age in which comedians who misjudge the public mood or transcend the arbitrary and ever-shifting “red line” can risk the loss of their livelihood and reputation. We are told that “hate speech” is violence and that jokes can “normalise” bigotry. In this climate, comedians who cause offence are perceived as the equivalent of the playground bully, their jibes as potent as physical assault.

The problem with this reasoning is that comedy cannot exist without the potential to offend. By its nature, subversive humour teases and tests the limits of our tolerance. John Cleese has pointed out that “all comedy is critical”. The American stand-up Sam Kinison put it more bluntly when he asked: “When has stand-up comedy been kind to anyone? Comedy attacks.” This is not to deny that humour can be a weapon for bullies, but the small barbarities of the playground are not in the same category as the theatricalised cruelty of a stand-up routine.

Let’s take the example of Canadian comedian Mike Ward who, in 2016, was fined $42,000 by Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal for a joke he told about Jérémy Gabriel, a young man suffering from a disfiguring condition known as Treacher Collins syndrome. In 2006, a children’s foundation flew Gabriel to Rome to sing for the Pope. In his routine, Ward spoke about how he had supported the charity’s gesture on the understanding that the boy was terminally ill. “But now, five years later, and he’s still not dead,” Ward said. “Me, I defended him, like an idiot, and he won’t die.”

Taken literally, these words would seem callous. In the context of a stand-up comedy show the joke works well. For one thing, the target is Ward, not Gabriel. The notion of a man who feels duped by a terminally ill child who has failed to die is self-evidently absurd. Then there is the ambiguity of intention; can Ward actually mean what he is saying, or are we witnessing an irrational outburst from his theatrical persona? Given that most humour relies on the element of surprise, we cannot pretend that shock is not a valuable comedic tool. Nor should we expect a stand-up to break character and expose his true moral compass. By all accounts, Ward is a thoroughly decent and kind-hearted individual. His onstage persona is not, and is all the funnier for it.

The widespread mistrust of jokes that veer into morally ambiguous territory is understandable, not least because of the ways in which humour can be weaponised. Any schoolchild knows that the bully will always resort to his get-out clause: “it was only a joke”. But while humour can certainly be used as an excuse for slander, or as a device to cause harm to vulnerable people, in practice this is hardly ever the case when it comes to professional comedians. Whenever stand-ups are accused of bullying, more often than not it is because the critic has approached their performance from a position of bad faith. When Louis CK performed a routine about the Parkland school shooting, he was accused of “mocking the survivors”. It takes quite a leap of the imagination to suppose that a comedian genuinely relishes the deaths of innocent children. As Ricky Gervais has observed, “people confuse the subject of the joke with the target of the joke, and they’re very rarely the same”.

But the essence of bullying is that it is not subversive; rather, it is a means by which those with power may assert their dominance. In these ongoing debates about comedy and social responsibility, a common distinction is made between what has become known as “punching up” and “punching down”. In these terms, comedy becomes predominately a matter of status. As audience members, are we watching Louis CK, a powerful multi-millionaire ranting about those who are much less fortunate? Or are we watching “Louis CK”, a caricature of his true self, whose moral deficiencies and petty hypocrisies are laid bare through the process of performance? Better still, perhaps the performer is occupying both roles at once, his status continually oscillating between high and low, toying with our certainties and blurring the boundaries of authenticity and fantasy. In any case, that so many seem determined to interpret stand-up as a literal expression of the comedian’s true feelings is suggestive of the low regard in which the art form is held.

These suspicions make even less sense when one considers that there are virtually no working comedians whose intention is to attack marginalised groups. An unfortunate by-product of the culture war is that a new generation of activists has become convinced that our society has made little progress over the past 50 years. They rail against the comedians of the present as though they were peddling the racist tropes of the past. It seems fitting, then, that these same activists have taken up the mantle of Mary Whitehouse, whose “Clean Up TV” campaign of the 1960s was based on the premise that popular entertainment, if not properly regulated, could have a corrupting influence on the masses. Like Whitehouse, these new puritans, crowned with haloes of their own making, are scrapping with phantom enemies.

For all their fusty moralising, these activists have had considerable influence on the comedy industry. In launching the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Comedy Awards director Nica Burns declared that she was “looking forward to comedy’s future in the woke world”. Similar sentiments are routinely expressed by powerful commissioners in television comedy, which accounts for the dearth of viewpoint diversity on mainstream panel shows and televised stand-up. While there is nothing wrong with comedians choosing to advance an ideological agenda, when prominent figures in the industry are urging them to do so, the potential for genuinely innovative and subversive work is limited. The “woke world” is a sanctuary for conformists, and where self-censorship is a prerequisite for commercial success, artistic expression is bound to suffer.

These developments have only come about because of a general misunderstanding of how “punching up” and “punching down” ought to be defined. Recently we have seen comedy in the firing line for its “problematic” representations of race, with  shows such as Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen removed from television streaming services. Leaving aside the question of whether or not these companies should be acting as parents in deciding what their customers should and shouldn’t watch (and my tone should leave no doubt about where I stand on this), such gestures demonstrate a form of comedic illiteracy. When an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily removed from UKTV’s streaming site, the explanation given was that it contained “racial slurs” and “outdated language”. The offending character was the Major, described by John Cleese as “an old fossil left over from decades before”. By putting offensive terms into his mouth, Cleese was quite obviously making fun of him, not endorsing his views. It goes without saying that anyone who fails to grasp this basic premise probably shouldn’t be involved in the broadcasting of comedy.

But if punching up can be so readily misinterpreted as punching down, even by those who make their living from the creative arts, where does this leave the satirist? A few years ago I appeared on a panel in Stockholm to debate this very issue. One of the other speakers, the political satirist Aron Flam, made the point that satire cannot flourish in a society which is incapable of understanding how it functions, and certainly not when the doyens of the comedy industry are determined to ring-fence their ideological allies from ridicule. It is in the nature of satire to attack the powerful, to expose the moral shortcomings of its targets. This becomes infinitely more difficult if their efforts are perceived as a form of bullying. When a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo depicted justice minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey, commentators were quick to condemn the image as racist. The true target of the cartoon was Anne-Sophie Leclère, the Front National politician who had made the offensive comparison in the first place. Satire cannot survive if context is ignored. 

To my mind, the distinction between comedy and satire has been most succinctly expressed by W.H. Auden in his introduction to Byron’s Selected Poetry and Prose (1966). “Satire is angry and optimistic—it believes that the evil it attacks can be abolished; comedy is good-tempered and pessimistic—it believes that however much we may wish we could, we cannot change human nature and must make the best of a bad job.” Auden repeated this pithy rubric in his foreword to Angus Stewart’s poetry collection Sense & Inconsequence (1972). Rather audaciously, he took the opportunity to criticise the author for describing his poems as “satirical”. Stewart’s little book, he insisted, was in fact “nonsense verse”. To take a representative example:

The Berkshire girls are big and brawny
(Unlike ’tricia who’s rather scrawny).
What-ho, boys, mount the Berkshire girls!
Cunts like caves, and tits like pearls!

If there is a satirical element to this piece, I must confess it has escaped me.

The confusions I have outlined—between high status and low status, punching up and punching down, a joke’s subject matter and its target—present a unique challenge to modern-day satirists and comedians alike. As we have seen, in the current climate even a joke about racism is likely to be interpreted as perpetuating the very prejudice it seeks to deride. This problem calls for creative solutions from comics who are willing to take the risk not to self-censor, and to find a way past the gatekeepers of an industry who are beholden to the very ideological worldview that is most in need of the satirist’s attention.

Satirists have always been risk-takers, not least because their targets so often have the power to jeopardise their livelihood, their reputation, or even their liberty. “The greatest enemy of authority”, wrote Hannah Arendt, “is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter”. Stalin never forgave the poet Osip Mandelstam for a caustic epigram which mocked his “cockroach whiskers” and fingers “fatty like worms”. In just two stanzas, Mandelstam had sealed his fate. He was exiled and, after years of desperate attempts to redeem Stalin’s favour, was sentenced to serve five years in a corrective labour camp for “anti-Soviet activity”. He died from malnutrition in the first year of his incarceration and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Even today, regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Morocco and Cambodia have lèse majesté laws in place to punish those who might denigrate the king. Since he came to power, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey has relied on an obscure and rarely-used law to prosecute thousands who have insulted him. Former beauty queen Merve Büyüksaraç was convicted and received a suspended sentence for a satirical poem about the President posted on Instagram. German comic Jan Böhmermann produced a music video which ridiculed Erdoğan, leading to demands from the Turkish government that he be prosecuted. One can only presume that Boris Johnson’s now famous limerick, in which Erdoğan is depicted as copulating with a goat, has somehow escaped his attention.

Comedy is a serious business. The romanticised view of the court jester, uniquely licensed to speak truth to power and evade the executioner’s axe, doesn’t quite do justice to the risks involved in making genuinely subversive jokes. With pressure mounting on comedians to send the “correct” ideological message, to propagandise as they play the clown, it will be interesting to see how the art form develops. For all the moral panic over “hate speech”, the misinterpretations of acerbic humour as “bullying”, and the literal-mindedness of those who fail to appreciate the inherent theatricality of stand-up, there is every reason to feel optimistic. The best comedians have rarely been inclined to work within the parameters of those in authority. Even if the comedy industry achieves its longed-for “woke world”, there will always be a few mischief-makers hankering for the next revolution.