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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism