Comedy and offence: a reader

From Anne Frank's drum kit to PC gone mad, the best articles on this knotty cultural debate.

With the Ricky Gervais debate rumbling away (see Steven Baxter's take here), it seems that the question of comedy and "offence" is a perenially fascinating one. I interview quite a lot of comedians and comedy writers -- fittingly, because they are one of the few groups of celebrities willing to say something "risky" (ie interesting) -- and the subject inevitably comes up.

Reginald D Hunter puts his approach this way: "With comedy, you can talk about anything you like. The deftness lies in how you talk about it. If a joke moves you, then work backwards and find a way to say it to uptight people who want to hear it but don't have the nerve to admit it."

Graham Linehan has a similar belief, admitting that he relishes finding ways to tackle taboo subjects (such as the cannibal murderer). "These days, I think: "If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?" If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead," he says."

Russell Howard's way of looking at the subject is perhaps the simplest: "The test I always like to do is: would I do that in front of the person? If I wouldn't, I won't say it."

I thought I'd collect some of the best articles I've read on the subject:

1. David Mitchell and Hitler

Mitchell's is hardly the first name you'd think of when drawing up a list of offensive comedians, but he had a spot of bother over suggesting that the last entry in Anne Frank's diary read: "It's my birthday and dad bought me a drum kit."

He recently wrote a superb article about the ban on doing mock-Hitler salutes next to a waxwork of the dictator in Madame Tussauds, noting: "There are always evil, oppressive forces at work on any society but they'll be found wanting in guile if they come at us goose-stepping and shouting "Sieg Heil!" for a second time. The only thing that could make that seem attractive or worth following, even to an idiot, is if it were banned."

2. Richard Herring vs Ricky Gervais

Herring is hardly prudish (I watched one of his stand-up routines that included a long digression on whether Jesus might have used his stigmata for, er, bedroom purposes), but he's firmly in the anti-Gervais/mong-is-just-a-word-now camp. On his blog, he writes that disablist words "do equate with those racial and homophobic epithets that are rarely heard these days. They do confirm the stereotype of disabled people and contribute to their further isolation in a world that already tries to pretend they don't exist."

3. Jimmy Carr and the amputees

Carr regularly pushes the boundaries, and recently got in trouble over a 9/11 joke on Twitter. But in 2009, he got Daily Mailed for this joke: ""Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012." Bruce Dessau defends him in the Guardian here and David Mitchell (yes, him again) does so here.

Mitchell writes: "The media are so hungry for stories about how offensive we are and so quick to call for us to be banned from channels or resign that it's tempting to play it safe, to surrender to the prevailing tone of judgmental solemnity."

4. James Ward vs Ricky Gervais

Fight funny with funny. Here, James Ward spins off a superb riff about "reclaiming" the word Gervais. "Even with the most generous of explanations (that he is somehow challenging our attitude to disability), he comes across like a clumsy, clueless, insensitive prick. There is a word for someone who engages in this sort of behaviour online, that word is "troll". I suggest a new word: "Gervais". He can't object, after all, it has a new meaning now."

5. Stewart Lee and political correctness

As one of the writers of Jerry Springer: The Opera, Lee has been on both sides of the offence debate. Unsurprisingly, his contributions on the subject are appropriately nuanced. Here, he defends Borat, The Office and the "comedy of shock, bad taste and outrage", while in his stand-up set, he argues in favour of "political correctness".

 

I'll add more as I think of them (there's a Louis CK routine that I'd like to hunt down). In case you're interested, my own view is closest to that expressed by David Mitchell -- you can joke about any subject; it's the target of the joke that matters. I went to see Frankie Boyle's live show when he was on Mock The Week, and enjoyed it, but after his joke on Tramadol Nights about Katie Price's son Harvey, I thought: "I don't want to give you any more of my money." And that's how we vote on comedy -- with our wallets and our remote controls.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

My Scientology Movie
Show Hide image

Is Louis Theroux’s new film, My Scientology Movie, “banned” in Ireland?

The film isn’t getting an Irish release – could the country's blasphemy and defamation laws be to blame?

The Church of Scientology is a touchy subject. So touchy, in fact, that the plot of Louis Theroux’s new documentary, My Scientology Movie, revolves around the controversial church’s refusal to appear in on camera. As the institution becomes more and more impenetrable, Theroux’s film uses dramatic readings and re-enactments (alongside more traditional methods like interviews with former Scientologists and scenes showing their attempts at access) to get to the heart of the subject.

Now, Theroux is discovering new complications as his film approaches release. As the buzz around the feature grew, Irish entertainment sites began to notice that although a UK distributor, Altitude, was attached to the project, there was no release date listed for Irish cinemas, nor an Irish distributor. This sparked concern among those familiar with Irish blasphemy and defamation laws – Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology documentary, Going Clear, did not secure an Irish theatrical release over libel claims.

The 2009 Defamation Act states that any “person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000”. Blasphemous matter is defined as anything that is “insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, and that intends to cause outrage.

There is a loophole in the law, if it can be proved that “a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value” in the work. The law also states that blaspemhy laws do not apply to an organisation or “cult” that prioritises making financial profit or manipulates followers and new recruits. Scientology isn’t officially recognised as a church in Ireland, but it’s unclear whether or not it counts as a religion under the acts definitions.

It’s important to note that the decision not to show the film in Ireland lies with the distributors – this is not a case of the Irish government banning the film from cinemas, as many have been keen to point out on Twitter. As this is at their discretion, it also means we might never know for sure why they decided not to go for an Irish release.

Altitude had this to say in a statement:

Altitude Film Distribution currently has no plans for a theatrical release of My Scientology Movie in Ireland, and has no further comment to make at this time.

Informative, GRMA guys!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.