Political Correctness Gone Mad
I once watched a sweating comic struggle through a stand-up set in Edinburgh as a woman in the front row called out a label after each joke he told; ‘Sexist’, ‘racist’, ‘ageist’ and so on.
With the Edinburgh Festival in full swing how can you be funny in a diverse culture now? In America, a newspaper apologised last Friday for publishing a cartoon that compared aeroplane seating conditions to those on slave ships. ‘To link the inconveniences of air travel with slavery in general and the slave ships in particular was not only just plain wrong it was deeply hurtful to our African American community and all those who understand the horrors inflicted on the men and women forced into the slave trade,’ said a spokesperson.
It would be hard to imagine that this kind of thinking would work in the UK; our racial issues are very different, and the US is at a sensitive juncture (or not, as it seems white cops still kill black people). But it raises a question about how we perceive humour now.
With the publication of the Mohammad cartoons, the idea that religion must be strong enough to withstand parodying was lethally revised. All religions are fundamentally absurd when taken literally, but their strength lies in the faith of their followers. When that faith is tested and the concept of divine forgiveness is dumped in favour of retribution, a much greater mockery is made of religion.
As for social humour, gone are the bad old days of the sexist, racist and homophobic comics. What replaced laughing at others? For a while irony was king – that wearying referential humour which required a degree in pop culture to follow – but there has been a strong return to classic comedy lately, in which humour is built on situation and character. In the UK the radio show ‘Cabin Pressure’ featuring Benedict Cumberbatch played out in 26 episodes which felt strangely timeless.
BBC TV’s brilliantly dark ‘Inside No.9’ comic plays feel classic because they use the established rules of traditional humour. This didn’t make them old-fashioned or bland; the best ones retained a real power to shock. The trailer for the upcoming ‘Dad’s Army’ reboot has done something surprising; the characters are directly modelled on the originals down to their vocal intonations. But where else can comedy go now?
Surrealism and satire enjoy limited success (although they once ruled the UK with Monty Python and That Was The Week That Was) but mainstream comedy is paradoxically about anarchy and common sense. You know when the line has been crossed, and in the UK the slave ship analogy, while a bit crass, would have upset few even in a country where it is accepted that while our national art gallery was founded on the profits of slavery, the past is far behind us.
It always shocked me that the US could make ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, a sitcom set in a Prisoner of War camp, in 1965, but then Europe was making Hitler parodies in the 1940s. Britain has a reputation for making ‘too soon’ jokes, or for making the kind of jokes that seem horrendous at first glance until you understand what they’re actually doing. Stewart Lee’s set which advocated the blinding of a Top Gear presenter’s children was created to prove a valid point about press offensiveness. Likewise, Frankie Boyle’s take-no-prisoners approach to comedy only shocks those who misread its purpose.
Is there such a thing as ‘pure comedy’? Probably the closest we’ll ever get is PG Wodehouse, whose natural sense of humour shines through every sentence.