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.

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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