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.

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt