Censorship Is A Funny Thing
There’s been a lot in the academic press lately about the ways in which public-driven censorship is destroying free debate. Although this is currently more of a US talking point, what starts there usually ends here. Currently there are over a dozen books featuring drugs, abortion, race and LGBT issues on the US college libraries’ ‘most banned’ lists, along with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, which faces calls for withdrawal in, of all places, the American south.
Ignoring the nonsense of clickbait press items about trigger warnings and safe spaces, you still reach an uncomfortable truth; while the religious right is out to stop controversial books, there’s no-one quite as censorious as a good liberal.
The argument has spread to ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for its male gaze – something I pointed out in my review, although I think in that case it’s not pernicious, as it is in Matthew Vaughan’s crude, hate-filled ‘Kingsman’ films. But if the argument is that we need more films like ‘Wonderwoman’, let’s not pretend that kick-ass gals in leather boots are the future of feminism. Still, in a world with bigger things to worry about, we’re all walking on eggshells about sex, race and gender.
All of which creates a problem for comedy, which has always taken its cues from working class subjects and traded in stereotypes. In ‘Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall: The Dark Side of Victorian London’, Barry Anthony looks at the through-line from the twice-nightlies to variety to film, to which we could add television. If the traditional structures of comedy are no longer acceptable, where does it go from here?
I’ve always responded best to comedy of character or its complete opposite, surrealism. Comedy occasionally straddles both extremes of the surreal and observational successfully with TV shows like ‘Green Wing’, ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘The Brittas Empire’, ‘W1A’, ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Toast of London’. But it also needs good situations to work with. ‘Count Arthur Strong’ is a good example of rethought comedy, and treads a clever line between a sitcom and something more bizarre. In this clip, thanks to a mix-up with the clocks going back, both characters think the other is their flying instructor.
Humour becomes organic when rooted in character, so that you should need only suggest a situation to see how the characters will play it out. This approach is evident in the Ben Elton sitcom ‘Upstart Crow’, which works on a simple premise; that we know Shakespeare better than his own family.
Shock-comedy becomes dated as censorship changes (with the possible exception of the genuinely disturbing ‘Nighty Night’) but characters can live on forever. I opted on a far more realistic approach to character for the Bryant & May books than may first appear, and base all of the leads’s personalities on the traits of friends.
Happily the days when women were the butt of cheap jokes is fading (although shows like ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ still use drag and stereotypes as mainstays), but the search for new ways forward in comedy continues. Mel Brooks and John Cleese argue that much of their best work would be inadmissible now because of censorship. Brooks, who was just in London retooling ‘Young Frankenstein’ for a more music hall-style West End production of the show (at 91!) reminds us that the liberal agenda of ‘Blazing Saddles’, in which a black sheriff becomes a hero in a racist frontier town, is paradoxically reduced if it is censored.
‘The League of Gentlemen’ is coming back for a Christmas special, and I wonder how on earth it translated to the US because it seems to have more in common with the folk-horror and paganism of, say, ‘The Wicker Man’ than anything traditional. Yet within the framework it also makes fun of ‘local’ parochialism.
While smart, socially awkward comedy can be fun it’s very rare now to see or hear something that makes you helpless with laughter. Perhaps we have become too knowing, too aware for such simple pleasures. Sometimes it’s worth putting on Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ to remind ourselves how it can be done best.
I wonder if we’re seeing a step away from edgy comedy toward something more traditional. In ‘Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control’ by Matthew Fellion & Katherine Inglis, we see that in the Western history of literature it’s far rarer now for the state to step in, because individuals are doing a perfectly good job censoring themselves. And so, sadly, we see that in retrograde action again with the ‘Mockingbird’ debate.