I'm sick of hearing female comics censoring themselves - jokes are weapons to be used in battle

On how I went to a all-female comedy night raising funds for women's charities - and it was awkward, but needn't have been.

Nothing kills an orgasm as effectively as the obligation to have one. It's the same with laughter. While this problem affects many women, it’s particularly an issue for female comics who perform at women’s-charity fundraisers. Speaking as an audience member, it’s a drag to experience flop sweat on somebody else’s behalf and have to fake the expected response in order to help the project along. The empathy neuroreceptors are too far from the mirth ones, perhaps, and too dependent on an algorithm of surprise and suffering: hence the many YouTube videos of cats falling off things and toddlers inadvertently whacking people in the balls. 

In the past couple of weeks I attended two standup nights benefitting women’s charities. I cringed as comics wandered uncertainly through their sets, combing their material for feminist-charity-appropriateness, unsure how to sell them except by consensus. Worse, to segue from “dating is hard” material into “seriously though, donate at the door because the number of women getting beaten up is terrible” puts the onus on the audience in too direct a way. It’s unfair. We've already spent 20 quid at the door for the cause. We’re here in the seats to laugh, not to watch comedians be virtuous and careful. Let’s start with the assumption that we’re in consensus about domestic violence and genital mutilation and go from there, not cap a bad set with a sobering reminder. Puts a new spin on the term “punchline,” I suppose.

But am I being mean? Why criticise? Why not celebrate all or any women saying anything? It's because comedy has corners, has criteria, is brutal. And because the stakes have escalated for feminist comics since the comedysphere took a turn towards the outright rapey, so we’ve got to be on our game. In the last year or so — let’s pretend for a second that Daniel Tosh’s nightclub gaffe marked the beginning of something — the lowest common denominator peanut gallery schtick sank from “are women funny?” all the way to: 

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Rape joke!

Rape joke wh-

STOP TRYING TO CENSOR ME OR I’LL KILL YOU, YOU FAT BITCH!

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

We (we being feminist comics and writers across the gender spectrum - I'm a failed comic myself, having hacked away at it for eight years in New York) have to do more than disapprove of this state of affairs, and do better than merely to address the outrage. Journalists and thinkers like Lindy West and Anita Sarkeesian have put themselves in harm’s way, and are using the weapons at their disposal to do battle. This is crucial work.

The work of a comic performer, though, is both less constrained by conventions of discourse, and more constrained by desirable outcome. Though they’re both sharp and witty, Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West don’t have to make people laugh. Abi Roberts, Sara Pascoe, and Mary Bourke do. Because it’s their job. It’s their job, though, because they have untoward and bizarre impulses they seem to barely constrain, which makes them dangerous and hilarious and the very opposite of consensus comedy. I don’t actually know whether any of the three “self-identify as feminist”, as the saying goes, but they’re getting the job done.

The most gripping and consequently funniest performers illustrate the disconnect between lame, “I’m ready for my sitcom, Mr Demiille” club comedy antics, and the raw but relatable originality that answers to your own experience. To refine this rawness just enough to let the audience know you can handle it, is the witchcraft. I’m not going to spoil a these comics’ material, which I saw them perform at the aforementioned comedy fundraisers. However:

Take Abi Roberts.

Abi Roberts: A Laugh (photo credit: Abiroberts.com)

Schtick arsenal: Employs classical training in music and theater, a sly and unapologetic knowledge of vaudevillean tricks, and a preternatural comfort with herself onstage.

Attack style: She feels unstoppable, triumphant. She bounds onstage, robust, already laughing, nimbus of blond hair aswirl, genuinely happy to be there – it’s the rest of life that’s almost unbearable - and takes down target after target, rapidfire, infectious. Expectations of the female body, the pornnlike fantasy of the cooking show, the depredations of shapewear. She’s a master of self-deprecation but doesn’t hinge on it; she doesn’t posit herself as an object of desire (which is cute at best, and usually a stupefying bore) but in having for-real, bodily sex. 

Deadly weapon: She has a very graphic bit about her iPod being on shuffle, and she kills with it.

Sara Pascoe.

Sara Pascoe: Fever to tell (image credit Edinburgh Fringe Festival Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: The shocking art of seemingly boundless personal revelation.

Attack style: Where Roberts has unapologetic gusto, Pascoe has a mien of slight ambivalence to her obsessive personal confessions. She’s skinny, wide-eyed, and slightly hesitant. But her physical subtext, all semi-shrugs and minutia, her wide eyes widening, her girlish voice barely above a whisper, heightens our intimacy. Our guard down, she regales us with some of the weirdest preoccupations this side of Maria Bamford, an American comic who likewise flirts with discomfort, making you laugh not just in ticklish discomfort, but at the audacity it takes to make self-consciousness funny.

Deadly weapon: Her scorching rumination on the forbidden desires of the hair salon.

Mary Bourke.

Don't be fooled. (Photo vredit; Edinburgh Fringe Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: Precision and lyricism, which sounds unlikely, but...

Attack style: She is nothing short of terrifying. A slender, smiling lady with eye-grazing blunt bangs, dressed in a floral-print dress and chic but sensible shoes, she looks for all the world like she might teach third grade or run an arts programme in a hospital for the aged. And her voice, a gentle, brogue-burnished alto, signals nothing untoward; she said onstage that her stage presence is “like being menaced by a fine mist.” Yet she slays you; she’s attuned not only to her own rage, but to consonant rhythm, image density and tonal escalation. She’s so absorbed in her own surefootedness that your laughter is both incidental, and effortless. She doesn’t ask you, she makes you.

Deadly weapon: Her attack on mummy blog culture, the refrain of which is “Am I Being Unreasonable?” This, obviously, is no consensus-building gambit; there’s little sisterly comradeship in skewering motherhood. Bourke sets up as backdrop a message board populated at midnight by complaining, privileged mummies. She pushes this caricature to its Swiftian logical conclusion, then soars into a bizarre St. Crispin’s Day battlefield oath of startling hyperviolence, leaving me and the rest of the audience gasping for breath.  

The female comics who most interest me are indecorous, and have a touch of the monstrous about them. And the ones I find hard to maintain attention to are the ones who seem in subliminal, unexamined crisis about whether or not they're good enough, pretty enough, or have the right to be there. If you have that anxiety — we all do — bring it out, mess with it, tread on it. Rape jokes arise and flourish from a desperate, anguished, castration fantasy/terror. They attempt to shift that terror onto women, which is not only loathsome, but boring. 

It’s in going deeper and darker, taking fierce joy in the uncouth, not capitulating to the terror nor to the bona fides of virtuous doctrine, that we have the last laugh.

Sarah Silverman on stage at a fundraised for AmeriCares after Hurricane Katrina - but do comedy and charity mix? Photograph: Getty Images.
David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

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