While watching Not Again: Not the Nine O'Clock News, a documentary about the BBC comedy show which ran from 1979 to 1982, on television last night, I was struck by two thoughts. One was that religion of every kind was considered fair game then -- the Beeb showed the sketch in which a cringe-makingly "trendy" vicar declared that it could only be a matter of time before diabolists were allowed into the church, and the four series contained plenty of others, such as Rowan Atkinson's brilliant monologue "Are you a gay Christian?".
My second thought was that although several of the songs were featured, the programme didn't include one of the most fondly remembered, "There's a man in Iran", in which Pamela Stephenson declares her love for Ayatollah Khomeini.
OK, there were many musical numbers, but I couldn't help wondering whether that particular one had been omitted because it was thought to be too controversial in these times. For where are the comedic jabs at religion today? I also watched a Dave Allen DVD over Christmas, which served to remind of how his shows frequently lampooned Catholicism and Christian beliefs (see this clip). Yes, he may have been brought up as an Irish Catholic, and thus had some licence to mock his own culture, just as Mel Brooks was above criticism for his jokes about Jews. (Could anyone else have got away with "The Spanish Inquisition" in his History of the World Part I, I wonder?) But Allen's ribbing of religion, gentle as it may seem now, was risqué and offensive to some at the time. It wasn't entirely safe.
You can find passionate attacks on religion on DVD and the internet by comedians such as Billy Connolly, Bill Maher and Eddie Izzard. But while I applaud Connolly for defending the right of cartoonists to make jokes about Islam, much of this type of material is too angry to be funny. It becomes pure polemic. And although it's possible I've missed it, I don't think you'll find it in the schedules of the terrestrial broadcasters.
Neither is the humour of Connolly et al directed at particular figures. It's creationist v evolutionist stuff, which is fine (if often a little obvious), but also rather abstract. Where are the sketches about the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chief Rabbi? What they do and say has a practical effect on the world as it is now, after all. If only the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, the blind Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia whose duties nevertheless included television censorship, were still alive. Comedy writers could have had a field day with him.
The question is, has religion retreated so far from the public sphere that it's not worth making jokes about any more? That seems unlikely, especially given the constant complaints from secularists and atheists about its encroachment on what they think should be non-religious turf. Or is it that comedians don't dare touch the subject? And if not, why not?
Going back to Not the Nine O'Clock News, if the reason the BBC didn't screen the Ayatollah song last night was fear of a furious reaction, then we should all be very worried indeed. There is no "right" not to be offended, and we should not let such a "right" gain force through cowardice or default. For it is in such seemingly little ways that our freedoms are lost.